We all know that showing up in searches on Google and other search engines can make or break a site. In order for you to have the best shot at success, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is vital. It can mean the difference between wading through search results pages and landing a number one position.
Still, it’s often difficult to stay on top of everything – after all, Google keeps shifting the goalposts. What’s the best practice one day is suddenly not the next. That’s why so many small and local businesses hire an expert SEO consultant to improve their B2B/B2C SEO.
However, there are ways you can set up your WordPress site right from the beginning, in order for it to perform well in the long term – and we’re here to give you the inside scoop!
We’ll talk about some of the key components that have been instrumental practically since the dawn of Google. These elements are unlikely to ever change, and we’ll give you some pointers to keep your site heading the right direction. Don’t worry if you need some planning and keyword tips – we’ve got you covered. We’ll also bring up some easy-to-use plugins that will help you get a leg up on your online competitors. In other words, this article is here to solve your WordPress SEO problems.
WordPress Hosting and Speed
Before we dig into the fundamentals of SEO, let’s talk about something basic: Website speed.
Have you ever tried loading a site on your phone only to watch it slowly, so incredibly slowly, load? This is horribly annoying and results in incredibly poor user experience. We’re pretty sure that everyone’s in agreement on that point. Not only do we agree, so does Google. Site speed is a Google ranking signal, and has been for almost a decade now. If your site has a low ranking score you really ought to do something about it.
There are certainly ways you can improve your site’s speed, like:
- Cleaning up site code
- Implementing effective caching
- Optimizing file size(s)
- Using SEO recommended themes
- Using minimalist site design
These can all influence the speed with which your site loads. If you’d like more tips on how to improve your site’s speed, check this 20 point article on site speed by Crazy Egg. However, there’s only so much you can improve through these tactics.
The best strategy to improve your site’s speed is to look into better hosting.
Your hosting service provider is the main factor in whether your site is loading at lightning speeds, or giving people 90s modem flashbacks. You should carefully evaluate what your hosting service actually provides. The question now is “how do I know if my site’s speed is up to snuff?”
Use this free speed test tool by Google. Simply enter your URL and Google will do a crawl speed test of your site, both for desktops and for mobile devices. This will give you a clearer view of your site’s speed performance. Then you can take action accordingly.
We recommend using WP Engine for your WordPress hosting needs.
Getting Started on the Right Foot
When you’re starting to set up your website, you should have a plan in place for what you want your end-product to look like. Having a clear vision will help you create a site that’s logical, makes visual sense, and is easy for your visitors to maneuver through. All of this will be beneficial to your site’s overall crawlability and SEO.
With a clear strategy and plan for your site, you’ll also be able to create your site’s content in a more beneficial way for your SEO. Rather than simply making a page and hoping that what you’ve created will work, you can do a little research first to make sure the focus of your page is on a keyword that you have the best chance at ranking for. This can greatly improve your overall SEO efforts and give you a more beneficial starting point when launching your site. Check Ahref’s list of keyword research tools for some of the major insights you’ll need.
Now that we’ve got some general advice out of the way, let’s talk about the specifics – time to dive into the details of WordPress SEO.
WordPress Settings to Double Check & Set Up
We won’t use too much time explaining the obvious, but it’s often useful to cover the basics.
You’ll want to double check that you haven’t accidentally hidden your site from search engines. WordPress gives you the built-in option of hiding your site from search engines. This can be very useful, as it gives you time to work on your site before launch. However, make sure this option isn’t still checked when you’re ready for Google to crawl your site and start listing you in search engine result pages. You can do this by going to “Settings” → “Reading” → scroll all the way down to “Search Engine Visibility.” Leave that box unchecked to make sure your site is accessible to search engines.
The next elements from settings we want to cover here actually merge a little with another point we’re going to make in a second: URL structure.
WordPress comes with a list of different alternatives for your URL structure, and often the default is completely unhelpful for SEO. If you go to your WordPress settings again, and go to “Permalink Settings,” you can see a list of options under “Common Settings.”
The one you most certainly want to avoid is the “plain” option. It’s the least SEO compatible setting out of all of them. Most go with the “Post Name” option, and it’s generally the best one to go with for the purpose of SEO. Seeing as you really want to make sure the title of your article and pages contains your primary keyword, this option will make sure that the keyword is also included in your post/page URL too.
Set Your URL Structure Up for Success
Picking URLs for your site’s pages and posts is one of the first things you need to get right.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many people get too creative when naming their pages. There’s those that try to be a little too clever in naming their service or product pages. When it comes to selecting the words to use in your URLs the crude, but memorable, marketing adage is true: Keep it simple, stupid.
For example, let’s say that you’re selling a productivity ebook called The Rules of Productivity. You want to use your main keywords as your URL. You can use this simple URL structure to make sure your WordPress SEO is on point: “Book topic”+”product”+”Title” In this case, the URL would look something like this:
The main thing to remember when it comes to choosing what keywords you use in your URLs is to avoid being too clever. If we go with the same example as above but try to use more creative language, we might be tempted into calling it “virtual leaflets” for example.
While that may very well be a good way to discuss it with your audience, the fact is that the actual search volume for “virtual leaflets” is basically nonexistent compared to “ebooks/e-books.” This will result in fewer visitors to your site – and no one wants that.
Page Planning and Keyword Usage
We’ve already briefly touched upon keywords and the value of planning ahead – but let’s go into a little more detail here.
Having a clear site hierarchy is very beneficial to SEO, and a major factor in how easily your site can be crawled and indexed by Google. However, if you simply let your site grow organically over time, more likely than not your site hierarchy will be quite messy. On top of this, you might accidentally end up putting your site up to compete against each itself for the same keywords.
While this mistake is innocent enough, when you create content that is too similar in topic, style, and information, you will end up doing what’s called “keyword cannibalization.” It might sound dramatic, but to an extent it is.
What you’re inevitably doing here is spending time and effort on a piece of content that is targeting a keyword you’re already ranking for with another piece of content. This will effectively be wasting your efforts as two pages will be competing for the same spot in Google’s search engine results page(s).
If you plan your content and page creation ahead of time you’ll avoid keyword cannibalization in a very effective way.
You’ll also be able to create content in a strategic way that targets pre-selected primary keywords to help your site grow and rank for keywords you will benefit from. It also helps you avoid writing content just for the sake of it. You’ll be able to focus your efforts into creating great content as opposed to just lots of content. This way you’ll be able to create much more valuable content that seriously boosts your sites SEO performance by:
- Driving engagement (social media shares and likes),
- Earning better referral traffic (traffic from other blogs and social platforms)
- Reducing bounce rates (a Google ranking signal).
This all comes as a consequence of planning ahead and thinking strategically about your keyword usage over time. In the SEO industry, we often say “content is king.” While this certainly remains true, you want a great king – not a scatterbrained one. It’s vital that your content actually serves a purpose and targets different stages of the content marketing funnel.
The SEO Plugins That Will Change Your WordPress Ranking Experience
We’ve now gone over some basic and crucial SEO best practice to get your WordPress site set up for success. Now is the time to start actively looking at the best and most useful tools that will help you maintain that level of SEO brilliance over time without exhausting yourself.
We’ll focus on a few different plugins that address different key stress points most people experience with their SEO.
We’ll look at your launch process, and how you can allow your site to start growing your audience before you even publish your first post. We’ll also look at ways to implement speed improvements and boost your loading time. In addition to this, we’ll take a look at image files and sizes, which can seriously hamper your WordPress site’s bid for a top ranking in search engines. Then we’ll round it all off with our recommendation for an overall/all-in-one SEO plugin that gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
Build Buzz and Traffic with a Coming Soon Page for WordPress
One of the things that really helps your site build suspense is having a well crafted “Coming Soon” page before launch. It can help create the buzz you want during your pre-launch outreach and promotional efforts. If you want a full blueprint on buzz-building, we highly recommend this blog post by Rand Fiskin and SparkToro. It’s by far one of the most complete pre-launch checklists we’ve seen. Applying just half of what’s covered there will help you significantly increase your subscriber list, and have a good flow of traffic from the start.
To help you capitalize on your buzz building you should use a coming soon page plugin. The “Minimal Coming Soon & Maintenance Mode” plugin is a big fan favorite. It received a solid 5/5 star overall rating from 180+ reviewers, and has 70,000+ active installations at the time of this article’s publication. One of the biggest benefits from our point of view is that it has a clear and easy-to-use SEO settings section.
This section allows you to easily manage and set up your coming soon page for ranking even though your site isn’t launched yet. Combined with the subscriber options you’ll get, you’ll find this to the be only pre-launch plugin you’ll need for your WordPress site’s SEO.
The WordPress plugin we recommend is the “Minimal Coming Soon & Maintenance Mode” plugin by WebFactory.
Super Charge Your Site’s Speed with Hummingbird
Don’t confuse the Hummingbird Plugin for WordPress with its core algorithm overhaul namesake “Hummingbird,” which Google introduced back in 2013. While the Panda and Penguin updates caused great turmoil in the SEO environment, Hummingbird took the game to another level. To sum up what happened, the hummingbird Google update drastically improved Google’s ability to successfully conduct semantic search and implement knowledge graphs. For more information, see this SEO information page by Moz.
On the other hand, the Hummingbird Page Speed Optimization plugin is a very powerful and useful tool for ensuring good caching practices and improved site speed for WordPress sites. It can be a big help when it comes to the overall SEO of your WordPress website. It’s also certainly a plugin we recommend you look into. With 50,000+ active installations, it also has a solid 5/5 rating.
Its features include:
- Caching Suite – Allows your pages to load faster with a host of browser cache tools.
- Asset Optimization – Combine, position and minify files for optimal performance
- Performance Reports – Get excellent tips on how to run your site at extreme speeds w/ simple button implementation
All in all, the Hummingbird SEO plugin is extremely useful even without upgrading to the paid Pro version, and we highly recommended it. It’ll have a great impact on the SEO of your WordPress site, and will keep working for you for the long haul.
Smush those File Sizes!
Where the Hummingbird plugin focuses on boosting the loading speed of your site overall, the Smush plugin is a hyper-specialized plugin aimed at minimizing the file size of your images without compromising on image quality.
The non-paid version of this plugin still delivers a ton of value, as it can seriously reduce the size of your files. We recommend using this plugin as the savings over time for file usage will have a great impact, not only on your site’s loading speed, but also on your hosting server needs. The less space your image files take up while maintaining a high visual quality the better.
If you find you want to push the envelope further, there’s also this free website that allows you to minimize image files up to 80% (which is pretty amazing)!
With more than 1+ million active installations “Smush Image Compression and Optimization” still maintains a brilliant 5/5 star rating. It includes features, such as;
- Compression without Compromise – removes unused data without reducing image quality
- Bulk Smush – Optimize up to 50 images with one click
- Image Resizing – Set a max width and height and large images will scale down as they are being compressed
- Directory Smush – Optimize images even if they are not located in the media library
- Automated Optimization – Auto-smush your image files on upload with super fast compression
- Gutenberg Block Integration – Allows you to see all Smush stats in image blocks
The Smush plugin also works brilliantly on all image file types, be it PNG, JPEG or GIF. This is great news for your general image use and upload convenience. The plugin does all this without slowing down your site, since they use a WordPress API to smush all the files for you.
As a consequence, we strongly recommend the Smush plugin for optimizing your image files.
Make SEO Easy with Yoast
As we’ve discussed some specialist SEO plugins for WordPress so far, now is the time for the all-in-one SEO plugin we recommend for improving and maintaining WordPress SEO excellence: Yoast.
While there are a few all-in-one, holistic, SEO plugins out there for WordPress site users, Yoast just seems to add more value. They do this by giving you excellent insight in a very user-friendly way. Among the plugin’s best features is that you can set a primary keyword when you’re creating a page or blog post. This one feature itself gives you a lot of value, it allows you to:
- Measure whether you use the primary keyword enough, or too much in real time
- Lets you know if the primary keyword has been used before
- Measures whether your content is well balanced in keyword distribution
This is extremely useful and can help you avoid SEO blunders before you hit publish. Other features include:
- Excellent XML Sitemaps automation.
- Full control over site breadcrumbs.
- Set canonical URLs to avoid duplicate content.
- Easy title and meta description templating.
- Snippet previews that show you how your post or page will look in the search results.
- Cornerstone content and internal linking features for site structure optimization.
- Integrates with Google Search Console.
- Bulk editor: Make large-scale edits to your site.
All these features are massive time savers and can significantly help you maintain your WordPress SEO over time, and even in the short run. While it does come in a paid premium version, even the free plugin is brilliant. It’s no wonder it has 5+ million active downloads and a strong 5/5 rating.
We highly recommend the Yoast SEO plugin.
Solving SEO for WordPress site owners
We’ve covered quite a lot that goes into solving just about any SEO problem you might have. If you’ve experienced a dramatic drop in traffic from some thousand to barely any at all, chances are you’ve been hit by a penalty. In this case you really should seek expert SEO assistance to find out what elements are causing you problems.
However, for most of you out there, this article should help you greatly improve your overall WordPress SEO efforts. We thought we’d provide you a quick recap as well to make sure you haven’t missed something useful:
- WP Engine is generally the best hosting provider for WordPress sites – this can improve your overall hosting and site speed. Use this free Google tool to check your site speed.
- Plan your site hierarchy and keyword-to-page setup – this will help you target opportunities that are more likely to deliver results. Here is a list of keyword research tools.
- Keep your URLs simple and to the point – you should avoid being too clever in your URLs and use more matter-of-fact words. Here is an explanation on keywords and keyword strategies.
- Set up a “Coming Soon” page to benefit from pre-launch buzz – by having a good coming soon page, you can grow your subscriber list and start ranking before you launch. Here is the Coming Soon plugin we recommend.
- Boost your site speed with Hummingbird – this will help you seriously improve your overall site speed in a supremely user-friendly way. Click here to easily access the Hummingbird plugin.
- Minimize image file size with Smush – by reducing image file sizes you’ll save both on server needs and loading time. This is the Smush plugin you’re looking for.
- Use Yoast to keep a top-level view of your SEO – this will greatly assist you in keeping a good overview of vital SEO elements while creating content for your site in an easy way. Here is the all-in-one SEO plugin we recommend for WordPress.