How to SEO your WordPress Website Part 1: Tweaks and Plugins

How to SEO your WordPress Website Part 1: Tweaks and Plugins

There are many ways to SEO your WordPress website. There are hundreds of techniques and plugins to raise your search engine rankings. The aim, however, is to strike the right balance when writing for your two audiences:

  1. drawing of the googlebotBots, robots, crawlers, spiders, whatever you want to call them – these are what determine where your site appears in the search rankings;
  2. People – we want to make people happy. If people are happy then they link to us and if people link to us we can get higher rankings and then more people can find us who will link to us which will raise our rankings and more people can find us and on and on.

While WordPress comes pretty well SEOed out of the box the balance is still not the easiest one to achieve – with so many people using WordPress you can’t just throw together a website, stick some content on it and expect yourself to rank high. There are millions of people out there just as desperate as you to get on to the first page of Google. And remember, if you don’t rank, you don’t exist.

If you’ve got an hour you could spend some time watching Joost de Valk from Yoast, who’s immensely qualified to teach you all about WordPress SEO.

WordPress SEO Presentation at A4UExpo London from Joost de Valk on Vimeo.

My plan was to put together one post. But like all great plans it fell apart. Too much information! So, before we look at content, we’ll start at the beginning.

How to Tweak your WordPress Installation to make those spiders happy

1. Choose your domain

You’d probably be surprised by just how many people use both the www and the non-www version of their website. This tends not to be an active choice but something that they’re just unaware of doing. There are actually two ways of viewing a website – one is with www and one is without www.

Why does this cause a problem? Because search engines will index both versions meaning that you have duplicate content. And spiders really, really hate to munch on the same piece of data twice. While many search engines now have the ability to combine the results and pass them on to one domain, this doesn’t always happen. All of the SEO benefits that you’ve worked so hard to achieve will be split between two addresses, thus diluting your rankings. Plus, you should decide whether you want a www or non-www site to be ranked. Don’t let a spider decide for you!

By logging in to your WordPress administration and going to General Settings you can determine which address your site should use. Like so:

screenshot of setting WordPress domain

You can read more about www/non-www problems, including how to fix the problem by editing the .htaccess file to create a 301 redirect, here.

2. Solve your canonicalization problems

Yes, I know, why did Google have to use the word “canonicalization” for anything? It’s so looooooong and unwieldy.

Alright then word geeks, here’s something for you.
Canonicalization comes from the Latin word canōn from the Greek work kanōn which means measuring rod, or standard.
Here’s a definition:
Canon: a fundamental principle or general rule: the canons of good behaviour.
If you want to read all of the definitions you can see them here

Anyway, back from the English lesson: there are four versions of any web address:

  • www.mywebsite.com
  • mywebsite.com/
  • www.mywebsite.com/index.html
  • mywebsite.com/home.asp

Like I said above, what the Googlebot does is picks the URL that it thinks is best. We don’t want that. Even if you’ve specified that you want to use either www or non-www, there are still two options left for Google to choose from.

In 2009 Google announced a new link element that would clean up duplicate urls. Good news for us! Here’s what it looks like:

screenshot of canonical url link elementThis tells search engines that the preferred link is example.com rather than www.example.com. You can read more about the changes on Matt Cutts’ blog .

Or you can watch him talk about it here:

To implement this you can install the Canonical URLs for WordPress Plugin by Yoast.

3. Avoid duplicate content

Even when you’ve solved your canonicalization problems you will still have issues with duplicate content. This is because a spider will crawl your archive pages, search results pages and pretty much everything you’ve got. The WordPress codex does have a page about optimizing your robots.txt file.

Or you can install another Plugin from Yoast called the WordPress Robots Meta Plugin.

Hmmm… I’m starting to sound like an ad campaign for Yoast – but seriously, Joost de Valk does have the best info about WordPress SEO out there. I promise I’m not a fangirl! (not much, anyhow).

Here’s a video from Yoast showing you how to set up the robots meta plugin:

How to use the Robots Meta Plugin from Joost de Valk on Vimeo.

4. Pretty up your Permalinks – the big debate!

A permalink is the link to an individual post or page on your website or blog. When you first install WordPress your permalinks will be set to something along the lines of:

screenshot of default wordpress permalinks settingMy initial plan was to tell you to simply change your permalinks to this:

screenshot of wordpress pretty permalinks

This means your permalinks will be the post or page name as opposed to some random letters and numbers.

This is what I do with my own homepage, but that’s a pretty small site so this structure should never cause me any problems. However, Sarah pointed out to me that if you have a large number of WordPress posts or pages this can cause your site to slow down. She sites this from the WordPress codex:

For performance reasons, it is not a good idea to start your permalink structure with the category, tag, author, or postname fields. The reason is that these are text fields, and using them at the beginning of your permalink structure it takes more time for WordPress to distinguish your Post URLs from Page URLs (which always use the text “page slug” as the URL), and to compensate, WordPress stores a lot of extra information in its database (so much that sites with lots of Pages have experienced difficulties). So, it is best to start your permalink structure with a numeric field, such as the year or post ID.

Did you know that? I didn’t know that! But then I have never actually sat down and read the WordPress codex from cover to cover (or page to page….). I mean, has anyone actually done that?

It turns out that WordPress has to do a whole lot of work having to differentiate between posts and pages when loading your site. If you’re like me and you have a tiny site it’s unlikely you’ll notice the difference, but for massive sites you could be looking at your site slowing down considerably. And as we will see in a moment, speed really does matter.

In contrast to what I’ve just said, she recommends the following:

  • Do not start your permalink structure with the category, tag, author, or postname fields.
  • Don’t listen to permalink advice from SEO experts who know nothing about WordPress. Keep your site running fast and let the content speak for itself.
  • Select a structure that starts with a numeric field, such as the year or post ID.
  • Make sure to end your structure with either %post_id% or %postname% (e.g. /%year%/%monthnum%/%day%/%postname%/) so that each permalink points to an individual post.
  • Do not put your site url in the permalinks slot. You must use one of the structure tags, or a combination of tags only.

However, my favourite WordPress SEO expert recommends that you use the /%postname%/ setting. Argh! Much confusion.

After much head scratching I would go with Sarah’s advice. She is basing it on this post by Otto on WordPress and I think he makes a convincing argument. The thing is, so long as you make sure you include /%postname%/ at the end of your permalink string it will still be perfect for  SEO purposes.

screenshot of better WordPress permalink structure

Tip: If you are going to change the permalinks on a WordPress site with a number of posts and pages already then you will need to redirect the old permalinks to the new ones. You can use the redirection plugin to do it for you.

You can improve your permalinks even more by installing the SEO Slugs Plugin. This plugin gets rid of any common words like “a” “the” “it” and will improve your SEO.

So, http://mywebsite.org/how-to-seo-your-wordpress-website

Would become: http://mywebsite.org/seo-wordpress-website

Much better for people and for bots!

5. Speed matters

Early in 2010, Google announced on its webmaster blog that it was incorporating site speed as one of its 200 signals used in search rankings. Actually, it had been doing this for a while but that was the big announcement. This means that the speed of you website is important. There are a number of ways to do this – you can optimize your WordPress template or you can install the WP Super Cache Plugin. Even better – do both.

The WP Super Cache Plugin is not the easiest to set up so here’s a video from Website Marketing Guru to help you out:

6. Keep your code clean

Another issue that’s kind’ve related to speed is code. Remember that a spider doesn’t care what your website looks like, it crawls the code. And it doesn’t crawl all of the code. It only crawls about the top third of it. Confusing code can get the spider all messed up. By keeping the functions, CSS and all the different template elements in different files, a WordPress site is already making it easy for the spider. It also makes sure that the important content comes at the top with things like the sidebar and footer coming later.

But it is always worth running your website through the W3C Markup validation tool.

I ran my website through it so that I could smugly show you a screenshot of the Validated message. But my validation failed :( Here is my shame:

screenshot of my wordpress website dailing validation

Will get that fixed before my next post.

6. Sitemap

Once you’ve got your website up and running and your code validated, you should submit your website’s sitemap to the various search engines. Your sitemap helps a spider crawl your website more easily. I admit to being guilty of only submitting my own website to Google but if you are being thorough you would submit to other search engines as well.

Here are some tips from the WordPress codex:

  • submit your sitemap no more than once a month
  • make sure you have content that can be scanned – around 10 posts/pages should be enough
  • have a site description ready to submit to the search engine
  • keep track of when you have submitted your site. It won’t do you any good to submit more than once in a month.

You can easily generate a sitemap and submit it to Google by using the Google XML Sitemap Generator plugin.

If you are using a WordPress Multisite Installation then you could try out WPMU Dev’s SiteMaps and SEO – WordPress MU Style. This will submit a sitemap to Google for all of the sites on your network.

7. Breadcrumbs

Like your sitemap, breadcrumbs are a great way to help users and spiders to navigate your website. Here are mine:

screenshot of WordPress breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are easy to implement and are great for navigation. Here’s another plugin from you-know-who to get your breadcrumbs up and running.

8. Pages and Posts

So you’ve got some blah posts which you don’t really care about, rants and ramblings, etc. Others are more important, you’ve spent ages crafting them, they’re great linkbait and you’ll be sad to see them scroll off your blog’s front page. Make your best posts into pages, that way they’ll always be there for spiders to crawl.

It is also important to keep sending crawlers back to your older posts. To do this make sure that you link back to older posts that are relevant. This gives the spider a helping hand through your site.

9. Optimize your images

There two ways you can optimize your images:

  1. File size
  2. Alt tags

You need to do both.

File size
The size of your images really does matter. In fact, it’s one of my major bugbears. If you’re one of those people who takes high res jpegs straight from their camera and puts them on their website then chances are that I hate you. Reduce your file size. You need a maximum of 72ppi for an image to be viewed on a screen. Anything more and you are taking up unnecessary space on your server and wasting people’s time. In SEO terms, this will slow down your website and, as we have already learned today, Google uses your site’s speed to rank you.

Alt tags
You really should be using alt tags. There are many people who are visually impaired and who use screen readers to browse the web. A screen reader can’t describe an image, what it does is read out the alt tags. If there’s nothing there then there is nothing to read and that person has no idea what you’ve put on your website. You don’t want to discriminate against the visually impaired, do you?

In addition, Google does crawl your alt tags and that is more information that you can use for your SEO. So you keep yourself happy and keep up your accessiblity standards at the same time.

It is true that filling in Alt tags can become a bit annoying, especially if you have hundreds to do. If you want an easy (but not perfect) way to deal with it you can use the SEO Friendly Images plugin.

screenshot of SEO friendly images WordPress Plugin settings

This will fill in the alt tags with the post title and the name of the picture. Not necessarily ideal as your alt tags should include a description of what the image is, not simply its title. But it is an improvement.

That’s it for tweaks and plugins. Next time we’ll get to get down and dirty with a bit of content. And, of course, more plugins!

Here are all the Plugins we’ve used so far:

Have I left any basic SEO tips out? Leave them in the comments below and share the SEO love.