WordPress has a lot of quirks and settings you can tweak and change in order to boost your SEO. Some of them are simple changes, some might involve some tricky tweaks, and some are best done before you’ve posted a single piece of content. This guide focuses on installing a brand new WordPress site, and the tweaks you can make to start with a strong foundation.
WordPress is a great platform, but the true power comes from plugins. You need powerful plugins that don’t clash with each other, don’t slow down your site, and provide you extra functionality in a powerful way. Here are the plugins I’m considering essential for your new installation.
- Yoast SEO for WordPress. This is where the majority of the tweaks and settings I’m going to tell you about can be set. Other SEO plugins can work as replacements, but honestly, there’s very little reason not to just use Yoast. If your site is going to focus around a media-heavy blog, a local business, a news site, or a WooCommerce site, you can use the additional Yoast plugins as well.
- Really Simple SSL. Using encryption on your site has become a Google ranking factor, and being secure from the get-go helps you avoid the issues that come from a migration. Since the majority of the problems with adding SSL come from changing URLs and hurting traffic, installing it at the very beginning is important.
- Akismet. Spam hurts sites. It makes it difficult to build a community, because spam comments make people feel like you’re not paying attention to your site. Akismet is one of the better anti-spam solutions and is very easy to set up.
- Sucuri. Security is important, and Sucuri is one of the best plugins to use on WordPress. It’s always good to have a preventative measure in place before you fall victim to an attack.
- YARRP. The Yet Another Related Posts Plugin is one of the best options for setting up related posts boxes in a variety of formats, from text links to thumbnails to sidebars. If you buy the pro version, you can also set up your own ad network with it, much like Outbrain.
Additionally, we’ve published a good list of all-around great options to pick through. You can find it over here. You shouldn’t install all of them, but look through to find those that may be relevant to your site.
Now, let’s get on with the optimizations you want to make.
Change the Permalink Structure
Permalinks are the URLs generated for each individual page and post on your website. By default, the way WordPress is set up, they use postID permalinks. These are not very useful, because they’re pretty obtuse. Take these two fake URLs, for example.
Which of those would you prefer to click on? One of them could be anything, from an affiliate link redirect to a product page to a blog post. The other is pretty clearly a blog post, and you can even tell something about what the blog post is about.
These are called human readable URLs, and changing the way WordPress handles URLs is part of the permalink structure. This is an SEO factor for two reasons. First, Google likes permalinks with human readable URLs, and so do users. In particular, users prefer URLs that don’t have question marks, number strings, or strange parameters that look suspicious. Even if they’re perfectly benign, the average user doesn’t really know how all of this works, so they’re skeptical.
The second reason is because changing it later can be messy and difficult to do without losing search ranking. The way Google works, pages are identified by their URL. Changing the URL essentially resets the SEO of the page, except it can potentially be worse; if the content is still available on the old URL, the new one can be considered copied content, which can penalize you. Canonicalization helps take care of this issue, but it’s still a huge hassle you shouldn’t have to deal with.
In Yoast, there are several options for permalinks. I like the “day and name” option, which puts the URL in a www.example.com/year/month/day/title/ format. As a user, I like to see a visible date to know how old a post is. However, it can be a bit cluttered, and I understand why most brands choose the other best option, “post name.” Post name permalinks are simple www.example.com/blog-title-here/ URLs. If you want to include the category of the post in the URL before the post title, you will need to make a custom structure with /%category%/%postname%/ at the end.
The “www” prefix in a URL is technically not necessary for a website, did you know that? Many sites simple have the plain domain, so the URL looks like http://example.com rather than http://www.example.com. The choice for most bloggers is purely stylistic.
Honestly, it’s probably better to keep the www in place, for a few reasons. First of all, the www is required for certain domain name records, which becomes relevant for using cloud hosting services like Heroku. Secondly, leaving it off can cause some issues with cookies and how static content is served.
For exceedingly large businesses, there might also be issues with internal non-internet sites using similar domains. You might have conflicts between a web and an intranet page if you leave off the www. Generally, it’s just a good idea to add it on, even if it’s not necessarily required, just to prevent future issues.
Under your WordPress general settings, you should choose either www. or no-www for your domain URL. Once set, the unselected version will automatically redirect to the selected version, with the user’s browser appending or removing the www as necessary. One thing to note: you should go into your Google Webmaster Tools and set the same setting there to match. You will find this setting under settings – Preferred Domain.
Now, when you install Yoast, you’ll have a section for meta data for your blog posts when you create them. Optimizing your meta title and description is important, but it’s not something you do when you set up your blog; it’s more of an ongoing item you cover each time you create a post.
However, you may notice that many sites have a certain template to their titles. For example, it might be “Awesome Blog Title > CoolBlog.com” with the > and everything after it included on every page. It’s tedious to do this manually, and it leaves you open to including a typo on one. Instead, you can create a template to do it for you.
In Yoast, you can set title templates in the Titles & Meta section of the settings. Under title template, you want to format it with the title of the post, a separator, and the name of your site. This is a generally good template, though you can customize it yourself. For this example, you would type “%%title%% %%sep%% %%sitename%%” in the box. Sep is the separator, and the other two are obvious. There are a handful of other terms you can use, all explained on that settings page.
A sitemap is essentially a code listing of every page on your site. At the barest of bare bones levels, all it contains is the title of a post and the URL of that post. More advanced sitemaps will include some information about it, like when it was published and when it was last modified.
The main power of a sitemap is not for humans at all. Most people will never see your sitemap. That’s why it’s generally made in XML, a markup language that doesn’t require human readability. It’s raw code, and while you can pull information from it, it’s not formatted for casual browsing.
Sitemaps are powerful because they’re one core document Google can look at to see your site at a glance. They can compare it to their index and spot discrepancies. If a post was published and Google had not yet found and indexed it, they can find it through the sitemap and they can index it right away. If a post has a change date more recent than the last time it was indexed, Google can go index it again and adapt their results to match the changes.
You can get a dedicated sitemap plugin if you want, but Yoast actually does it for you. The XML Sitemaps setting is in the general settings menu, and all you need to do is turn it on. Click the button to retrieve it and send the URL to Google via your webmaster tools. Go to the Site Configuration menu, click add sitemap, and add in the source of the sitemap. From there, Google will be able to see it. Note that you should only actually add your sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools once your site is live and you’re ready to start posting. If you upload it but your site is still noindexed or hidden in developer mode, you can cause issues.
Breadcrumbs are a user experience, navigation, and SEO benefit. If you have a blog post about SEO, and it’s in a category labeled SEO, you might have a line at the top of the post that looks like Blog Name > SEO > Post Title. Each of those three would be a link. The post title links to the post, the SEO link leads to the category page, and the blog name leads to your blog homepage.
This is beneficial because it allows users to see where they are, to navigate more quickly around your site, and to explore similar content easily if they desire. Again in Yoast, you will want to go to the SEO – Internal Links settings menu to enable breadcrumbs and configure them the way you want.
Set up YARRP in a way that fits your site template and can be used to promote the rest of your content. Nothing will quite compare to the value of good internal linking, but a related posts plugin will help users discover more of your content.
Now, it’s worth noting that a related posts plugin isn’t going to be very valuable when your site is starting out. You don’t have enough content to fill all of the boxes, so you might end up with duplication. Either set up a third party ad network version through a system like Outbrain or Taboola, or hold off on implementing the boxes until you have enough content to support them.
Alright, so an editorial calendar doesn’t exactly help you with SEO, at least not right out of the gate. A calendar helps you plan out what content you’re publishing and when. It shows you visually what days in your content schedule already have posts slated for them, and what days still need content. The biggest SEO benefit is actually to your audience; consistency means people are a lot more likely to pay attention to and keep coming back to your site.
I also haven’t recommended an editorial calendar plugin, but that’s because there are a few different ways you can implement one. Depending on the size of your organization, how seriously you’re taking your content, and how much you want to plan in advance, you might want any of a number of different features.
I recommend setting up a process you follow each week. Create content, proofread that content, and schedule it for publication in a free slot in your content calendar. Once the content itself is scheduled – not published – optimize the meta data for that content. Getting used to creating specialized meta titles, descriptions, and other fields for your content is an important part of optimization. Getting lazy about your meta data can come back to hurt you later, in the form of lost potential. Given that you’re starting a new site, potential is all you have; it’s up to you to make the most of it.