Your Startup Guide to SEO: A WordPress SEO Tutorial
WordPress tutorials aren’t just for the DIY user or WordPress beginner who need an introduction to the CMS. In fact, you can find a wide array of WordPress-related topics covered in online tutorials.
One of the subjects you might want more help with as you build your first WordPress site is search engine optimization (SEO). It’s not a difficult subject to grasp, but it does take time to construct a solid SEO strategy for a WordPress site. This is why having a WordPress SEO tutorial like this one can be a big help as you start your new site and seek to optimize future sites for search as well.
In the following WordPress SEO tutorial, I’m going to focus on practical implementation of different optimization techniques across your site.
WordPress SEO Tutorial for Beginners and Beyond
If you haven’t done so already, please review WPMU DEV’s WordPress Tutorial for Beginners. This guide will teach you how to set up your very first WordPress site from start to finish. Once you have your site in place, you can then optimize it for search. This WordPress SEO tutorial will teach you how to do this in the most comprehensive way possible.
Let’s discuss what SEO is and then we’ll get started with the tutorial.
What Is SEO?
In the simplest of terms, SEO is the process by which you make a website search engine-friendly. And what does that mean exactly? Well, the better a WordPress site caters to search engine (read: Google) demands, the greater a chance your WordPress site will appear on the first page of Google search results.
But that’s an oversimplification. Search engine algorithms (the rules by which they rank websites over others) are devised in a way that give precedence to websites that provide a better and more relevant experience for users.
Take this example, for instance. Let’s say someone were online hunting around for information about “What is WordPress Multisite”:
Google then returns the following results on the first search engine result page (SERP):
Notice how the term “WordPress Multisite” shows up in every single one of these results, but it’s not just about that phrase. Each of these entries answers the original question thoroughly. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to optimizing a site for search and having your site be deemed “relevant”. Google takes other factors into consideration, like the security of the site, the quality of the content, and even the reputation of the sites that link to back to it.
Needless to say, WordPress SEO requires a lot of work to ensure that your site is the most relevant and valuable result that appears in search.
Now, if you’re wondering whether you could just tackle this bit by bit and put a full-blown SEO strategy in place as time goes on, let me put it to you this way:
This is what the top of that search result page actually looks like:
The results I showed you before were the organic results that don’t show up until you scroll down past the page fold. As you can imagine, these paid and feature results that occupy prime real estate in search can distract from the websites below that worked hard to build a decent amount of link value.
Nevertheless, Smart Insights has found that the first organic search result garners significantly more clicks than any other organic search result on these pages.
So, if you’re going to take time to optimize your WordPress site for search, you better do it as best as you can because it can be a real battle to not only get your site to rank, but to get it to the top of search results.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on practical matters here. In other words: what do you need to do to optimize your WordPress site to give it the best fighting chance in search?
Step 1: Research
As you can see in the data presented above, it’s absolutely critical that your site get as close to the top of the first SERP as possible. In order to do this, you need to have a firm understanding of the following:
- What is your WordPress site about?
- Who is the target audience?
- What are the main terms and ideas around which your site needs to focus?
In the past, it may have been okay for websites to be stuffed with as many keywords as possible–even if they resulted in nonsensical patches of text. Google wasn’t quite hip to the various ways in which “black hat” SEO tactics could trick search algorithms to giving a site a big boost in rank. However, Google is much smarter and wiser now, and so you need to play fair.
In order to do that, this means your WordPress site needs to have a narrow focus. Really, this is no different than any business model. You come up with one brilliant idea, shape your services or products around that niche, and then promote it accordingly. You have to do the same with your site.
Once you’ve identified this niche for yourself, you can start using WordPress SEO tools to help you piece together the rest. Many of these tools will actually come into play later as you work on analyzing the progress your site has made in search, but, for now, focus on what you can do to find the best keywords for your site.
Start first by looking at competition that fits into a similar niche and has a lookalike audience.
- How are their websites structured?
- Around which focus keywords is their content written?
- How well do their sites rank in search for those keywords?
Next, research keyword viability for your WordPress site. It’s not enough to just say, “Well, ‘stink-free socks’ works great for Competitor A, so I’m going to use that.” You have to think about how much competition there is for a term like “stink-free socks” and how long it will take to build up enough authority and trust with users and search engines before you start ranking for that term.
That’s why these kinds of competitor and keyword analysis SEO tools really come in handy in the early stages of SEO work. They’ll take a lot of the guesswork out of choosing which search terms are right for your site. Rely on what the data tells you, choose a few keywords that will work well for you, and move on to implementation.
Step 2: Update WordPress Settings
You may have already completed this step in the WordPress Tutorial for Beginners, but it’s still worth revisiting to make sure everything is set up correctly.
When you’re inside WordPress, go to the Settings tab and click on Reading.
In the option that says “For each article in a feed, show”, select the Summary option. What this does is shorten how your blog posts appear on the main blog page.
Take a look at the Moz blog, for instance:
This is perfect. Each blog post comes with a short summary of the post’s content. This is good for SEO for three reasons:
- It keeps the main blog looking clean and well-organized which is good for the user experience.
- If the full text of the blog post appears both here as well as on the individual blog page, your site would have what’s known as “duplicate content” and that’s a big no-no in SEO.
- By providing users with only a short, teasing snippet, you’re requiring them to click once more to get to the content. As the number of clicks on your site increase and as time-on-page goes up as people stay to read blog posts, SEO improves.
One more thing to note in the Reading settings is the checkbox at the bottom. Unless your site is in development, is private, or you have another reason for not wanting it to rank, do not check this box.
Under Discussion settings, there are two checkboxes you need to pay particular attention to.
The first is “Allow link notifications from other blogs”. Trackbacks and pingbacks have the potential to introduce spam onto an otherwise harmless WordPress site. Spam and any other malicious attack from the outside of your site can do serious harm to your site’s reputation and, consequently, hurt your search results. So, if you’re nervous about this kind of spam getting through, uncheck this box.
The second checkbox you need to look at is “Allow people to post comments on new articles”. Any time you open your site to comments from others, you run the risk of a bad link making its way onto your site and harming your visitors in the process.
That said, leaving your blog open to comments from your audience can also be a really great thing, too. You can develop a real sense of community and also demonstrate to visitors that you’re interested in hearing what they have to say (that is, if you’re willing to take the time to respond).
Marketers have experimented with the idea of disabling comments in WordPress in the past, and there have been mixed results. Some insist that comments were unnecessary and their sites were better off without them while others actually decided that the risk was worthy of the reward when leaving comments in place.
My suggestion for you? Leave them enabled for now. Watch what happens as your site grows and, if you find that there are no direct SEO benefits, uncheck this box.
The last Settings page to configure is the Permalinks page.
As you can see, WordPress gives you a number of options for how to display your blog post’s URL structure. The “Plain” default structure and “Numeric” should always be avoided. While they may be the shortest of the link structures, they’re the least user-friendly. Users remember links based on their name, not the random assignment of numbers.
As for the other options, you can choose which one you like best. So long as the post name appears in there somewhere, it’ll improve your SEO. I’ll get into the specifics of this a bit more below.
Step 3: Use a Trustworthy WordPress Theme
This one might seem like a stretch, but I assure you it’s not. Here’s why using a trustworthy WordPress theme actually matters for SEO:
A WordPress site must always be responsive in design. Always. If you’re using an older theme or one that hasn’t been designed to match modern standards, you could compromise the on-site experience for mobile users (which Google is about to place a heavy emphasis on in their indexing process).
A poorly-written WordPress theme could lead to a broken experience on the site–widgets not working, slow-loading pages, low-resolution imagery. Anything that makes your visitors stop and say, “Hmmm… I don’t think I want to be here anymore”, is going to drive up your bounce rates and down the time they spend on your site. These are two key factors Google uses to determine the quality of content on a site, so this matters a great deal.
There’s also the security piece to think about, too. WordPress themes that aren’t coded well, that aren’t updated frequently by the developer, or that have other vulnerabilities leaving them open to hackers could lead to an infection on your site. WordPress sites that have been deemed unsafe not only stand to face a penalty from Google, but could be blacklisted from search altogether.
So, make sure you’re using a trustworthy WordPress theme.
Step 4: Add an SSL Certificate
Google has incrementally been updating the rules of Chrome over the past few years. Their ultimate goal–to encourage as many web developers and webmasters to move their sites over to HTTPS as possible–has reached peak status. As of July 2018, any user who visits a website using the Chrome browser will either be notified that the site is safe (the ones on HTTPS) or unsafe (the ones still on HTTP).
As you can imagine, having your site marked as “not safe” by Google could be a major blow to a business if traffic drops as a result. And, as traffic drops, so too does your site’s rank in search as Google deems your site to be less concerned with user security and providing an experience that is less than optimal.
To avoid this SEO penalty, be sure your WordPress site has an SSL certificate installed. This is what will change your web address from http to https and create the extra layer of encryption Google–and your users–want to see.
Step 5: Write High-Quality Content
As this guide explains, you should write content for your users, not to appease the search engines. This goes back to the idea that keyword stuffing and other shady SEO trickery should be avoided at all costs.
If you really want to win over Google, then you have to make your visitors happy. And, how do you do that? By writing content that delivers real value.
Go back to that original research and use that as a starting point. Your site essentially needs to serve as some sort of “pain relief” for your visitors. Do you provide a service that makes their lives easier? Do you sell products they absolutely need? Do you publish stories with actionable tips? Whatever your goal, keep that as your focus so that you can deliver a consistent and valuable message with each page of your site.
Step 6: Install an SEO Plugin
In this next step, you’ll need to install an SEO plugin on your WordPress site. As with a WordPress theme, you’ll want to use one that’s well-made and regularly updated by the plugin developer. If you’d like to do some research on your own, here is a rundown of the best SEO plugins currently available. Or, you can just go with SmartCrawl.
Once you’ve found your plugin, install and activate it in WordPress.
Below, I’m going to use the SmartCrawl plugin as an example of how to set one of these up:
Title & Meta
Within this section, you’ll have the ability to define metadata. This is the information that shows up in search; in other words, the page’s name and the description.
- Create the metadata for the home page of your website.
- Create a template by which each blog post, page, and media file will automatically populate your metadata (if you forget to customize it for each page).
- Create a template for the Categories and Tags for your site.
- Create a template for the blog Archives page.
The Settings will also allow you to define the separator symbol (e.g. | , / , – ) used in your metadata templates.
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The Social settings section is helpful for when your content is shared on social media.
By enabling features like OpenGraph and implementing Schema Markup, you can ensure that your posts are optimized for users in search. And by taking the time to pay attention to how your content appears in social, you’ll, in turn, increase the likelihood that users will engage with it (i.e. share it) and drive up the value of the links on your site, which is an important ranking signal in search.
An XML sitemap is a tool that allows you to communicate directly with search engines, letting them know about the structure of your website. As your site updates with new or revised content, your SEO plugin will send the revised sitemap directly to search engines so you don’t have to do it.
With SmartCrawl, you’ll get the added bonus of a “URL Crawler” tool which monitors for things like broken links and bad redirection rules. This is something Google watches out for in its own ranking system, so it’s nice to have this SEO plugin checking for it on your end.
This is a part of the SEO plugin setup you can’t ignore. Specifically, within this SEO plugin, pay attention to the following:
- Activate all of the Plugin Modules. This includes the SEO Checkup, which I’ll talk about a little bit later.
- Activate all of the Builtin Modules. You’re going to need these to analyze each of your posts and pages in real time.
- Insert the information for each of the Search Engines. You can do this for Google here and Bing here.
You likely won’t need the Redirection or Keyword Linking tools when your site is brand new, so let’s skip over this for now. Just know that you have an easy means for setting up redirects and automatically building link structure on your site for when you want to use them.
Moz is one of those keyword and competitor analysis tools I referenced above. So, if you have an account with them, enter the details of it here so SmartCrawl can work with your tool and sync all your SEO efforts in one place.
Step 7: Infuse Content with Keywords
Once your content is written, I would suggest you go back and infuse your content with the focus keywords you identified in Step 1. There’s no need to force these keywords into your content either. If you’ve built your content around the original message and goal that came out of your research, then the keywords should flow in naturally.
There are a couple things to keep in mind here when working with focus keywords in WordPress.
For starters, try to use long-tail keywords as much as possible. A long-tail keyword is one that’s written more like a phrase we’d use in natural speech. This is going to become even more important as the number of mobile visitors increases and they turn to voice search as a means for finding websites like yours. Think about it like this:
Traditionally, a focus keyword for a page about WordPress Multisite might have been:
But that’s not really how we search anymore–on desktop or mobile. Instead, a long-tail focus keyword probably makes more sense. Personally, I like to use something like AnswerThePublic to see what types of questions and phrases are most commonly associated with the keyword I’m interested in.
I then cross-check those phrases in my keyword analyzer tool to see which one would be the best fit and also the easiest to rank for.
In terms of getting those keywords into your content, it’s not just about inserting those phrases haphazardly throughout each page. There’s a formula you should follow if you want to set up a steady rhythm throughout that reinforces the main idea. This is also important for search engines as they look at certain parts of the page in order to determine what your content is really about.
Here is what you need to do:
1. Start with your SEO plugin tool.
This tool will guide you on which metadata fields you need to fill in. Note that the focus keyword should appear in each of them:
- Meta title
- Meta description
- Focus keyword (just choose one)
As you can see in the screenshot above, the SEO plugin will analyze the quality of your metadata. In this case, the title is good (green) and the description isn’t long enough (red).
Once you’re done editing these fields, scroll above to verify that you like how it appears in search.
2. Edit the slug.
While the work you did on Permalinks earlier will automatically generate a URL based on the title of your page, you should always edit the “slug”. This will help give your URLs a cleaner appearance and ensure that you’ve included your focus keyword in here.
To do this, go to your page and click on the Edit button to the right of the permalink.
You can then rename your slug as you see fit. Try to keep it short, memorable, easy to type out, and include the focus keyword.
3. Add the focus keyword into the content.
As I mentioned before, you don’t want to overdo it. Placing the focus keyword too frequently into the content will make it unreadable.
So, focus on including it:
- In the introduction at least twice.
- In any header tags:
- Occasionally throughout the running text, as it makes sense.
- In the conclusion at least once.
And don’t forget to make the content on each page easy to read, in general. You can do this through the overall structure and layout. This means using shorter paragraphs, bulleted lists, and visuals to keep the flow light and easy to get through.
Step 8: Optimize Your Visuals
Just as written content needs to be optimized for search, so too do your visuals. This means using the right metadata to tag them and also ensuring they load quickly while looking awesome regardless of which device your site is accessed from.
Here is how you can maintain this balancing act:
- Optimize images for SEO using this guide.
- Optimize videos for SEO using this guide .
- Install a file compression plugin like Smush Pro on your site. This will keep your uploaded media to a reasonable size so page time doesn’t lag.
- Use design software like Photoshop or Canva to create beautiful, high-resolution images that are perfectly sized for your site.
By giving your visuals some love, you’ll provide visitors with a great all-around experience as they peruse the content on your site. Also, by adding relevant metadata and keywords to your uploaded files, you’ll give Google a chance to rank your images and video in search, too.
Step 9: Create a Linking Structure for Your Site
First, let’s talk about internal link building. This is the process by which you create a system of links that connect all pages of your site with one another. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to stuff your pages with a link out to every page or post on your site–that could quickly get out of control, especially for larger enterprise and e-commerce sites.
Instead, focus on having at least one internal link present on every page of your site. This way, you’ll keep visitors constantly moving from one page to the next. The longer they stay on your site, the more content they read, and the better your SEO score will be.
There are also external links to think about, as there will come a time when you need to reference an external source in your content (like when citing data). As a general rule, you should use high-authority websites–those that are trusted by Google and rank well themselves. In so using them, you can piggyback on top of the trust they’ve established with search.
You’ll also want to create a backlink structure. This will be the most difficult of the three mentioned here, but it may end up being the most valuable if you can get an incredibly authoritative source to link back to your content. Just keep in mind that this is a somewhat advanced SEO technique–as your site needs to be as close to 100% as possible before doing it–so don’t fret if you can’t get a backlinking network up and running right away.
Step 10: Install a Performance Plugin
Users expect your website to load super fast and so too will search engines. If you’ve built anything besides a single-page, static WordPress site, then you’re going to want to install a caching plugin right away. Plugins like Hummingbird help with file minification, page caching, and general speeding up of your WordPress site no matter how much content is on the site.
Step 11: Install a Security Plugin
Don’t forget about equipping your site with WordPress security plugins either. As I mentioned earlier, Google places a pretty big emphasis on sites that use HTTPS, but that’s not where their concerns with security stop. Do your due diligence and ensure that you’ve covered your security bases with this checklist.
Step 12: Set up Google Search Console
The Google Search Console is the gateway between your Google Analytics account and your website. While Google Analytics should still be used to analyze the traffic on your site, Google Search Console provides you with more search engine-focused data.
Within this console, you can learn about how Google crawls your website, errors its detected along the way, as well as any potential issues with security or performance they’ve detected. You can also use the Google Search Console to “Fetch as Google”:
This will give you an opportunity to see your website from the point of view of Google and its users.
There is quite a lot of valuable information contained within this seemingly simple portal. Be sure to take time to acquaint yourself with it and check in regularly to maintain a good awareness of what’s happening with your site in search.
Step 13: Run an SEO Scan
Once you’ve finished implementing all of the SEO work above, be sure to schedule time to run an SEO scan on your site once a month. You can do this using WP Checkup. In addition to scanning your site for issues with SEO, it will also tell you if there’s anything wrong with performance or security–two other pieces that play a part in the optimization of your site in search.
Step 14: Test Your Keyword Ranking
While WP Checkup is a great tool for telling you when there are broken links or when a page is missing metadata, it cannot tell you what your current search rank is for the focus keywords you’ve chosen for yourself.
The goal of this task isn’t to question all of the hard work you’ve done for SEO. Instead, this is about verifying whether or not your keywords are still relevant. You never know. As time goes by, you may find that users gravitate to other variations of your keywords or new ones altogether. And there’s nothing that says you can’t revamp your content to better align with those keywords. A WordPress website is always a work in progress and SEO is no different.
Again, don’t try to do this on your own. Use an SEO tool that will check your Google keyword rankings. It’ll save you time and give you data-backed answers as to what will work better (if there is anything better).
SEO is something we all want to master, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a process that should be rushed. The 14-step WordPress SEO tutorial above will give you a comprehensive and cohesive approach to optimizing your site. While it might not be a quick solution, it’s one that will tell search engines that you’ve taken SEO seriously and have shaped a truly valuable user experience around it.