9 Obvious Things You Probably Don’t Know About WordPress SEO

If there is one thing you should include in your WordPress website’s strategy, it’s search engine optimization. Because when you do it right, you’ll be rewarded. Hugely rewarded. With tons of high quality visitors.

I’ve been working with websites for more than 12 years and can safely say that for those websites that do SEO right, it outperforms most other sources of traffic by several orders of magnitude.

Here’s an example from a website I manage:

Organic search traffic results
Organic search traffic results

It’s a pity that most WordPress SEO articles just recycle your run of the mill, on-page SEO optimization techniques. These will only get you so far. To rank on the top pages of search engines you’ll need to do much more than that.

Let’s just start this article by saying that optimization for search engines has become a bit of an oxymoron. If you want to optimize for search engines, the reality is that you don’t need to think of search engines. On the contrary, you need to think of optimization of content for your visitors.

The sure fire way of ranking in search engines is to create content which is your target audience love.

Nobody really knows all ranking factors (word is there are more than 200 ranking signals). Speculation has always been rife about what the ranking signals are and what their strength is. Recently, though, Google through various spoke persons have confirmed that there are three main ranking signals:

  • Content – the actual content of a page, article or full website
  • Links – the amount and quality of links to your domain and specific pages and posts of your website
  • RankBrain – we’ll elaborate a little about this during the article

So what are the things you need to think about if you want to hit the three main ranking signals?

1. Write Content for Users, Not Search Engines

Back in the day, there used to be many recommendations to write content that tried to “trick” search engines. Many of these suggestions might have made sense for search engines back in the day when ranking algorithms were quite simplistic. These old techniques, however, would have created a bad user experience.

One of these was the use of keywords at a particular density.

You would have seen keyword stuffing – pages filled with visible or invisible text full of keywords the page wanted to rank for. Some people placed keywords in contexts that were not appropriate. Sometimes a sentence did not make sense just so the page included a particular keyword. You even had an industry built around content, which was created with no real value to a user but which had a specific keyword density.

This created a bunch of gibberish content. It also created a negative user experience for users looking for something specific. Since Google’s main aim to satisfy a user’s search intent, this negative experience was something that had to be dealt with. Google came down on this type of content like a ton of bricks.

In today’s SEO for WordPress (or for any website for that matter), you should focus on writing content aimed at your users.

Forget keyword density or other recommendations, which might have created a negative user experience, and write content which strongly appeals to your target users.

Whilst writing or creating content, you should forget about ranking for search engines and focus completely on creating a positive experience for your target visitor.

How do we know that Google wants you to focus 100% on the user? It’s one of the very first things on their mission statement: #1: Focus on the user and all else will follow.

2. Write the Best Content on the Internet

So what should be our goals when we write site content?

  • We want to write content that appeals to users not search engines
  • We want to compete with other websites that are already ranking for our chosen keywords

To achieve these goals, you’ll need to create content that goes above and beyond the expectations of your users.

It also needs to be better than anything created by the websites you are competing against.

For your given topic, you should focus on creating the best content on the internet. Only by having the best content on the internet for any given topic can you expect to rank in the top positions of search engines.

Why do we need to have the best content on the internet?

Users want to be wowed and amazed by your content.

They want to learn new things and leave your site satisfied, knowing that they’ve learned something new.

They want to be enabled to do something with the content you have given them.

By creating such amazing content you will earn the trust of your visitors. This, of course, is going to be necessary if you want to eventually convert these visitors into paying customers or clients.

Writing the best content on the internet is not a trivial task. You’ve got to invest time, research, experience and expertise, then pour all of that into an article. Which leads us to the need to…

3. Write Long-Form, In-Depth Content

To write the best content on the internet, chances are you need to cover a topic from every angle. To cover every angle and write the best content on the internet (most times) you’ll need to write long-form content. Not only is this optimal for search engines, but correlation studies show that longer form content ranks higher in search engines.

But how can we confirm this? In two ways at least:

1. SerpIQ did a study that shows top ranked content was typically longer than 2,000 words.

On average, the pages in the 10th spot have 400 less words on the page than first position pages. Image: serpIQ.
On average, the pages in the 10th spot have 400 less words on the page than first position pages. Image: serpIQ.

The above graph shows a very clear correlation between longer form content and higher ranking positions. All of the top 10 positions have an average content length of more than 2,000 words long, whilst the top siz positions have content which is over 2,300 words long.

2. Long form content benefits are also referenced by Google WebMaster Central blog where Pandu Nayak, a technical staff member says:

“Users often turn to Google to answer a quick question, but research suggests that up to 10% of users’ daily information needs involve learning about a broad topic. That’s why today we’re introducing new search results to help users find in-depth articles.”

But besides creating the best content on the internet, why should we post long-form content that covers a topic extensively?

You’ll find that the best content on the internet is going to get more good backlinks on average. Given that we know that one of the top ranking signals is backlinks, you definitely should focus on making sure your content is the absolute greatest.

Again, how do we know this?

Moz has also carried a study about long form content and found that long content which covers a topic broadly is more likely to get backlinks.

Have a look at that epic long content word count.

Let’s take this blog as an example. Not just this post, which we believe will give you fresh new insight into WordPress SEO.

Let’s talk about the WPMU DEV blog in general.

If you’ve been around WordPress for a while and have googled something related to WordPress you’ve surely come across our blog many times. You’ve also probably hit a piece of long-form content. We are real living proof right here that long-form content works.

Our Ultimate Guide to WordPress Multisite ranks second on Google search behind WordPress.org's Codex entry for Multisite.
Our Ultimate Guide to WordPress Multisite ranks second on Google search behind WordPress.org’s Codex entry for Multisite.

We are ranked in second place just behind WordPress.org for the highly trafficked keywords “wordpress multisite” for our article The Ultimate Guide to WordPress Multisite. It’s an epically long-form post.

But writing long-form content isn’t enough if Google can’t “understand” what your content is about, so…

4. Use Target Keywords and Keyphrases

A bit further up in this article, we said that you should not write content for search engines by using such outdated techniques as keyword stuffing.

Let’s backtrack for a moment.

Google needs to understand your content before it can rank it. And the way it understands what your content is about is through keywords and key phrases. So you’ll have to drop these in:

  • Use your target keywords in the tag <title> tag
  • Surround your keywords in your <h1> and <h2> tags
  • Use the target keywords in your first 100 words and your last 100 words of the article
  • The first image of your article should have an ALT tag or image name, which includes your keywords

Now, recent algorithmic developments at Google no longer require you to use exact keywords. If you’re discussing WordPress SEO and want to rank for those keywords, you don’t have to use those EXACT keywords. Synonyms and key phrases around the topic you want to rank for can and should also be included in your content. “WordPress search engine optimization” comes to mind as an example or “optimize WordPress for search engines.” These are all related terms and phrases you can use without keyword stuffing or putting in a sentence that feels out of place.

If you give me a moment, there is a clear example of how Google is able to understand related terms. Back in the day, there used to be a cool feature (now discontinued) in Google Labs called Google sets. If you gave the tool a number of related keywords, it would present you with more keywords about the same topic.

Although Google Sets per se is no longer publicly available, this is something which has been embedded into the Google indexing and ranking engines.

For a more technical explanation of connected words you may want to read this article from the Google Open Source blog.

Forget keyword density per se, just make sure that you use relevant keywords and keyphrases in your content, at a rate which is natural.

Writing your long form topical content is great. It’s useless though if your searching users do not click through to it, so what should we do about that?

5. Write a Killer Headline Focused on Driving Curiosity and Clicks

A killer headline that includes keywords is one of the WordPress on-page SEO factors.

But this is not the only purpose it serves. Remember that I said we wanted to focus on our user not search engines?

Searching users looking at search results scan the headlines they see. They will typically click either on one of the first three links display or on the one which intrigues them the most.

Focus on creating a killer headline that is bound to attract clicks. If your article is not ranking in the top positions, it is probably losing significant amounts of traffic. But a great headline will enable you to take a shortcut and bypass the articles that are ranking above you.

There are plenty of tools you can use to generate killer headlines.

There are conflicting reports on whether Google uses click rates (aka CTR) on search engine results to determine which position they should show first. Some say that if an article in lower positions is getting more clicks than an article in higher positions, that content result will start to climb higher in the ranks. Other say that this is a complete myth.

I say: create a killer headline that will pique interest and get people to actually read your awesome content.

Only when you get people to read your content will you actually get results out of that content.

Click-through rate as a ranking signal may be in dispute. Be careful of writing a deceptive headline that only serves as clickbait.

There is another ranking signal that most SEO experts agree upon…

6. Write a Killer Intro That Keeps Users Reading Your Content

It has long been speculated that Google monitors bounce rate to determine whether your content is satisfying the user’s search intent.

If your visitor bounces back to the search results because they didn’t like your content, Google will soon enough demote your article.

Let’s just refresh a key mantra of Google.

It is the search engine’s mission to always provide a user with the perfect search results for any given query. Now if you were Google and you noticed that users are spending very little time on the first result but are spending more time on the second result, wouldn’t you reason that the second result seems to be better able to fulfill the user’s search need?

These are real “sensors” that Google’s algorithm uses to determine the content that best satisfies a user’s query. And that’s a very valid reason why the content you write or publish on your site needs to be at the top of the game.

Getting your user to read the introduction and continue reading is a great first step, yet there are more things you need to do.

7. Include Content to Keep Your Users Engaged With Your Article

You should never forget that Google uses sensors such as engagement rate with an article, clicks on the article, bounce rate (how long a user spends on a specific article) to gauge the quality of an article.

You should thus structure your article in such a way that users are kept engaged with that content. You should also include auxiliary content to keep your users engaged.

These types of elements should be included in your content to increase the chances of your users sticking around to read your content. This infographic from Hubspot shows you how to write content that keeps users engaged and increase the chances of your users actually reading your content.

Here are a few of my own suggestions

  • Write short sentences and paragraphs (it makes for easier reading)
  • Use bullet points where necessary
  • Use plenty of headings and sub-headings
  • Use plenty of images that complement the content you have written. Lots of heavy text makes for difficult reading
  • Include relevant videos that complement your content. Both the click and the viewing of the video will be a strong engagement signal
  • Include at least two to three relevant links that complement your content. A relatively old but still relevant Google update called Hummingbird gives more relevance to your content if it references content similar to the topic you are writing about
  • Encourage your users to comment on your content. This is a strong engagement signal and a clear sign that your sign has triggered a response
  • Include downloadable content if possible to increase the possibility of clicks (engagement)

Writing killer content is only half the job of ranking content. As we’ve discussed in the intro to the article, there is another critical ranking factor.

Incidentally, you might also want to check out our SmartCrawl plugin to help automate your SEO. You can even customize how your page titles and descriptions display on search engines.

8. Spend Lots of Time on Outreach

If you’re writing content, pressing the “Publish” button and then crossing your fingers and hoping it gets ranked is not enough. I’ve got news for you: You’re doing it all wrong.

The odds of your content ranking well without any inbound links to that content is quite remote.

Once you’ve written your content, you need to get links to it. To do that you need to spend as much time doing email outreach and networking as you’ve spent writing it. Heck, you probably need to spend three times as much time doing outreach as writing your content.

Given that links are such a strong signal, you really don’t need to worry much about doing WordPress on-page SEO because this is relatively easy to do. Links, on the other hand, are much harder to come by.

This is why I’ve spent most of this article talking about creating the best content on the internet, because if you’ve haven’t done the above to write killer content you’re going to have a very hard time getting links to your site.

Simply put, for your articles to get links, they need to be a cut above the rest. That’s why all of the things I’ve mentioned so far are so critical.

Getting backlinks is a very broad topic I won’t discuss in this article, but there’s one final thing you should keep in mind…

9. Understand the Concepts of RankBrain to be Able to Rank for Specific Queries

Throughout this article, I’ve constantly emphasized how Google uses signals to better rank content.

One of the ways that Google understands complex queries is through machine learning. RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm that Google has implemented to understand the meaning behind certain complex queries.

What is a complex query?

There are several types of complex queries, so let’s take a very simple example to keep things simple. Let’s take the word “coach”:

  • It may refer to a coach (or manager) of a sports team
  • It may refer to a vehicle to transport a lot of people, also known as a bus
  • It may refer to a brand of women’s handbags

Really and truly, using the word coach in a query may mean different things to different people at different times in different geographic locations, maybe even in different seasons.

What RankBrain and machine learning do in general is use past examples of behavior to learn to predict which search result is the exact required result for a specific user’s search intent.

The way this is done in general is to feed thousands of examples into the algorithm and then shows them what seems to be the correct result for that given query. The correct result, of course, is determined when the user is satisfied with a search result and stop searching for it.

These search queries, results, and behavioral user sensors are fed into the algorithm such that it eventually learns what correct search results should be presented to a user.

And this is why you should always focus on creating the perfect piece of content for the content topic you are writing about.

Google has developed its algorithms to such an extent that it will always return the best result out there. Its massive store of past data can be used to determine correct search results, and predict the correct result going forward.

Good SEO Takes Time and Patience

Clearly, optimization for search engines is not a trivial task. It takes time, persistence and lots of effort. Plugins will help you, but they won’t be able to do any miracles because most of them focus on on-page SEO. Making a real difference to your website SEO is going to take much more than that.

But if you create a full strategy around your SEO efforts you will definitely be rewarded in the long-term.

David Attard
Do you have an SEO strategy? Do you use our SmartCrawl plugin? Tell us about how you're improved SEO on your site in the comments below.

30 Responses

  • The Incredible Code Injector

    Yes! Great article.

    I get so many people constantly asking me “Do you do SEO”, “can you help me get my key words into my pages so I’m found in Google?”

    Nope! Write GOOD content for people who are already looking for info on the topic ( and Ad Words will tell you what that is !!! ) promote it, and over time your rankings will improve.

    • Hey Dominic,

      that’s exactly it. You’ll need to write the content people need and are looking for if you want to make it to the top of search engines rankings. (AdWords is a great way of discovering what people are search for). Writing content though is only about 50% of the game, getting people to link to it legitimately is also a huge part SEO.


  • New Recruit

    As always a great article.

    I constantly come up against clients who expect there website to be ranked number 1 in Google with little to no effort.

    Explaining to them about the importance of content and good quality content at that, has made a dramatic improvement to some clients who were willing to invest time and effort into their own website.

    I love this blog for building up my own knowledge of WordPress. WPMU Dev is slowly but surely making me seem knowledgable. :-p

    • Hey 83creative,

      we do of course come up against clients who don’t understand that great results don’t come easy.

      Of course, if you have case studies of your own which have been proven to work, it should not be so difficult for you!

      That’s what we’re here for – to share the knowledge, and hopefully make your life that little bit better :-)


  • Site Builder, Child of Zeus

    I came to the internet 22 years ago straight from a direct marketing background where content was always king! It’s common sense… if someone is searching for information on a topic and you deliver ‘the goods’, they’ll stick around, maybe bookmark your site, or better still, subscribe to your newsletter.

    David, your article is, of course, the perfect example :) I am always keen to drive more traffic to my sites so am always drawn to SEO articles. But I usually get about as far as the second paragraph before exiting simply because the article is more of the same old, same old. I read every word of your post, clicked through to the Hubspot infographic AND THEN RETURNED TO YOUR POST, and finally, sent a link to your post to my team members AND an associate.

    Content is king! Long live the king!

    • Hey David,

      I come from a bit of a different background, though I’m getting into a blend of web design, product management and marketing and yes, for sure, more people must realise that content is king.

      That was the aim of this article, not to recycle old stuff, we’ve referred to the stuff endlessly. I wanted people to know there is much more beyond onpage SEO today.

      Glad that the article really hit the spot!

  • Design Lord, Child of Thor

    Good Read! Thank you!

    One question I have is, what do you do if you don’t have or want a blog? This post seems more pointed at bloggers who can write 300 to 2300+ word posts and leaves out the business owner who doesn’t want or have time for a blog. They have a could have a great website, with the necessary info for someone to want their services, and that’s it. A basic site (say for an accountant, plumber, or pet groomer) with a home page, about page, services and so on, might only have a couple hundred words per page, at most. What do the non-blogger folks do to gain SEO credibility? Said business owner could be the best in the biz, but won’t rank because they don’t have 300 to 2300 word blog posts?

    Thank you!

    • Site Builder, Child of Zeus

      Hey Nick!

      That is the whole point. If an accountant or dentist or farm produce business wants to stand out in searches they cannot juts put up a site and expect to rank. Content is where it’s all at. If people are just searching for a local accountant or dentist or hay supplier, they’ll search by location and – if there’s not a lot of competition, your business may come up on the first page. But the accountant with some tax articles, the dentist with an explanation of techniques and the farm produce supplier with the comparison between seed types is going to trump them every time. You simply cannot ignore content as it verifies expertise and credibility and establishes authority and that’s what the search engines are looking for.

      Your other option is to compete on price and that’s a very slippery slope.

      David Wilks

      • Nick, it’s exactly what David said.

        You need to write at least a few articles to make yourself stand out from the crowd. And even if you aim to hit your local business, there are still ways in which you can use content to assert yourself.

        Accountant – write a few articles on how to prepare and submit your tax return.
        Dentist – suggest ways to keep dental hygene
        Pet groomer – suggest ways to keep your pet’s fur from getting all tangled up and dirty when they’re out and about.

        Just put yourself in the shoes of your target demographic and write content which will assert you as an “authority” in your business. Both your audience and search engines will love your for it.

        And if you do keep up a steady pace, even if it’s a great article once every few months, so much the better.

  • The Crimson Coder

    Hi David,

    I love your article and will use it creatively time and time again. When writing or providing information, I ask why it’s important to me or the author and focus on they why as opposed to features or benefits. What surprises me is the long form. I sense people have extremely short attention spans today and we know that the average person is hit with over 5,000 things a day trying to get their attention. It’s a busy world and a noisy, congested internet to say the least.

    Now that you’ve got me thinking (hurting my brain), I have to admit that you’re right about google, when you search for a subject many times the answer is provided right at the top by google. ie. if you query a celebrity, a short bio appears top right, probably made IMDB mad.

    That in mind, I’m going to AB test your theory based on SerpIQ and the other reports you used.

    Thx so much for making me work harder ;-)
    Keep the awesome long form thinker’s content coming.
    Best regards,

  • Hey rick,

    I’m glad the article has got you thinking. That’s the aim of the article after all, to provoke and jumpstart your thinking and how you can use our insight to benefit you.

    Re long form content – I don’t want to make a blanket, sweeping statement that long form works all the time. There are many instances where long form content is not ideal, but I won’t go into that right now.

    Now as for your thoughts re attention span. In reality, there are certain queries where giving lots and lots of great quality content and details is going to benefit your user. A good long form article is going to cover a topic from many aspects, from the beginner to the more advanced – and that’s the thing. If you are able to satisfy the need of the user – then you’re all good.

    Now I’m thinking of long form in terms of articles circa 1500-3500 words.

    I’ve recently seen reports of content up to 30,000 words long. Although users may initially bounce, many of the users eventually come back. It’s like, people just put it to the side until they can come back to the article when they have the time.

    In a nutshell – excellent content is always going to win.


  • The Crimson Coder

    Hey again David,

    You guys make this forum not just informative but fun… I have a blast and admittedly, just 6 months ago, I was intimidated with WP and making slow progress. Then I joined you guys and now I’ve mastered many areas I need and feel in total control (at least where I need to). That’s on all you guys behind this great resource and your high quality members, amazingly, are willing to help and share.

    ”It’s human and eats only valid, interesting content while chocking on synthetically created headlines, sub-headlines and content over using keywords.” – that’s a great example. I think it explains in a simplest possible way how Google crawlers work and how they read content! ”

    The above is an incredible quote that was in your email… It will become my motto. I’ve been fortunate to generate over 100 million uniques a month, twice, and the first time I sustained it for 3 years. Both times my market was NOT refined or worldly and my content matched, as it was pithy.

    My market is now a more sophisticated visitor which I much prefer. You’ve convinced me (yikes, seems like I’m too easy) and fortunately, as you suggest, I am aware how to write organically so google responds with high rankings. I did a 5 day test run recently and generated 35k uniques and top page for several keyword phrases after 3 days. Admittedly, my content was Reader’s Digest format and it will be interesting as I implement the suggestions from your article for my launch early next week. I’ll send you a link when it’s live if that’s okay… or post it here.

    I marvel in the challenge to generate huge traffic… thanks for what you do for us (members). Your work and time is very much appreciated. –rick

    • Hey Rick,

      what’s the purpose of life if we don’t have fun? ;-)

      Glad WPMU-DEV has got you sorted on many aspects. I must admit I’m also a fairly recent convert myself and I’m happy to keep learning.

      Wow – it does seem like you don’t need much advice. Lots of people work very hard to get a tiny fraction of that traffic.

      It’s also thanks to the feedback of people like yourself that we keep going Rick, so much appreciation goes to you too.


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