Increase Traffic With Better WordPress Post Excerpts

Increase Traffic With Better WordPress Post Excerpts

Do you add a hand-crafted excerpt for every post on your WordPress site? Are the excerpts even used by your WordPress theme?

No? Then you’re missing out because your post excerpt is the clincher for a reader clicking through to your post from your home page, a Facebook share or a Google search result.

In this Weekend Project, we’ll look at how to take control of your WordPress excerpts, how they are displayed, where they are displayed and how they are formatted.

Composite Weekend Project for excerpts image
Post excerpts are vital – don’t hide them or leave them to automatic generation

Have you ever wondered why the posts on this blog are structured the way they are? There’s a clearly defined introduction followed by the feature image. What you see at the top of this article matches what you’ll see on the home page, the archive pages and the search pages.

That’s because this site has been designed to use the more tag to determine the content for those pages. Just quietly, I don’t like this approach for reasons I’ll go into shortly, but let’s just keep that between you and me, yes?

Post excerpts are still critical to the site, though, and every post gets one. Why? Well here’s the Google search result of my recent paragraph commenting article:

Google search result showing post excerpt being used as the snippet
Still a bit too long – need to work on my excerpts!

And here’s the Facebook share:

Screengrab of a Facebook share
Do you really want a WordPress generated excerpt here?

You won’t find that content anywhere in the article but you will find it in the OpenGraph content meta tag which is populated from the excerpt.

That’s a very small amount of space in which to entice potential readers to click through and neither the introduction to the article nor an automated process are up to the task.

Automatic Extracts and More Tags Are Not Excerpts

Excerpts are hand-crafted summaries of your posts, a couple short sentences that you create to hook potential readers.

Automatic extracts are a purely arbitrary selection of the first so many words of your content (WordPress’ default is 55). The more tag is better in that it will take the content up to where the tag is inserted, so it will, at least, be grammatically correct.

But those first few words or sentences are designed to be the introduction to your post and may not make a great summary.

Titles Are The Worm, Excerpts Are The Hook

Post excerpts are as important as post titles in enticing potential readers to click through to your post.

The title is the worm, wriggling away, grabbing the attention. But it’s the post excerpt that is the hook. On your own website pages, on Facebook pages and in a Google search result, the post excerpt backs up the title and is what ultimately will determine whether the reader takes action and clicks through.

Are you really going to leave that in the hands of the first 55 words of your content?

Time To Take Control Of Your Excerpts

The first item on your To-Do list is to write a specific excerpt for every post you write from now on. No excuses!

The second action item is to generate excerpts for your existing posts. The best way to do this is to manually go through them and create an excerpt but depending on the number of posts that may not be feasible. We’ll look at a plugin to help you, in a moment.

The third consideration is if your current theme doesn’t use the extract when listing posts, do you want it to? I would suggest that if the hook is good enough for Google and Facebook, then you should be using it on your site.

And lastly, do you want more flexible options in your extract formatting: do you want to use bold, italic, underline or add a link.

Generating Extracts On Existing Posts

Okay, so I’ve already said that automatic generation of extracts is a bad thing, so why am I going to talk about a plugin that automatically generates extracts?

If you have a lot of posts that need fixing up then you might not have the time to do it manually but you absolutely have to do something.

The Automated Editing plugin will produce a better excerpt than the built-in process but what I like about it is that it will generate extracts based on sentences (you can set the number).

This is still hugely reliant on the content and is a little bit like using the more tag but at least the result will make sense. The extracts are stored in the post’s extract field too, so are permanent.

The plugin is easy to use. Simply install it (search for Automated Editing in the Plugins admin page), configure the simple list of settings accessible from its own Settings page and create those extracts. I would recommend going with two sentences.

Screenshot of the Automatic Editing plugin settings page
It may be automatic but at least it’s sensible automatic. Pick 1 or 2 sentences for best results.

You might also want to let the Automated Editing plugin insert the more tag in your content, especially if your theme uses the more tag for post listings and you don’t want to force the use of excerpts.

Forcing the Use of Excerpts on Home, Archive and Search Listings

One my biggest excerpts-related annoyances is themes that ignore the hand-crafted excerpt and use the post content when building the list of posts for the home, archive and search listings pages.

The current default theme, TwentyFourteen, is guilty of this and will only stop when it encounters a more tag or the end of the content.

The theme for this blog is similar, ignoring the hand-crafted excerpt and instead either using the content before the more tag or an arbitrary number of words, whichever is the shorter.

If you want to force the use of your hand-crafted excerpts then you could go through and edit the templates to switch any calls to the_content to the_excerpt – creating a child theme first, of course – or you can save yourself a lot of trouble by using the Auto Extracts Everywhere plugin.

This plugin does its magic using filters and so there’s no need to create or update those templates.

Install the plugin (search for “auto excerpts” in the Plugins page) and check the plugin settings page. You don’t have to change anything and if your posts already have excerpts (the advantage of using the Automatic Editing plugin) then the character count is irrelevant as it won’t be used.

In fact, don’t use this plugin if you don’t already have excerpts because generating an excerpt based on the number of characters is just asking for trouble.

Now when you view your site, you’ll see excerpts in the listings pages instead of the entire post content or content up to the more tag. And, of course, it doesn’t matter if you change the theme the plugin will continue to ensure that excerpts are provided.

Before and after screenshots of post listing using full content and post listing using excerpts
Displaying excerpts instead of the full content dramatically reduces scrolling fatigue

Improving The Look Of Your Excerpts

By default, the Excerpts metabox on the post editing screen is plain text, so no formatting, including paragraphs and line breaks, is honored. Given that your excerpts may end up on your home page you might want to have a little more control over how they look.

Installing the Rich Text Excerpts plugin replaces the plain Excerpts textarea with a WYSIWYG editor.

Screenshot of WYSIWYG editor for excerpts
Add formatting capabilities to your excerpts BUT BE CAREFUL!

It comes with its own Settings page but you’ll probably find you want to leave the settings as they are.

WARNING! You might be tempted to go completely overboard with excerpts when using the rich text editor. Don’t. Remember, these excerpts will likely end up in Google and the social media platforms so be judicious with your use of formatting.

If you are using the Auto Excerpts Everywhere plugin then you’ll find that your formatting is still being ignored. This is due to a slight flaw in the way that the Auto Excerpts Everywhere plugin works but it is easily corrected.

Open auto-excerpt-everywhere.php in your favorite text editor and change all instances of:

{code}

add_filter(‘the_content’,’auto_excerpt’);

{/code}

to

{code}

add_filter(‘the_content’,’auto_excerpt’,1);

{/code}

This ensures that the excerpt replaces the content immediately and keeps its formatting.

Excerpts Are Vital, Don’t Leave It To WordPress

Excerpts are really a vital component of your content and get used in places that are not immediately obvious. Having purpose-built summaries of a post will beat an automatic or more tag generated excerpt every time.

So, why not spend a little of this weekend working on your post excerpts? Google, Facebook and your own site will thank you for it.