I used to dream of a day when all of our client’s websites were built on WordPress. No more 6-month approval times for changing URL structures. No more 5-figure bills from web development agencies to customise our client’s bespoke CMS to enable SEO changes. Generally, less no’s and more yeses.
Today, roughly 60% of my clients use WordPress, which is a nice improvement on the 5-10% that it was back in 2009-2010. Of course, the type of client influences this number, but with 76,214,709 websites now powered by WordPress (as of writing), it’s probably not too dissimilar for most of us.
With the majority of the sites I work on being built on WP, like many of us, I’ve had to do a lot of experimentation around the best plugins, themes, and general tips for making WordPress great for SEO. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good starting point for someone new to WordPress SEO. For those of you who’ve been optimising WordPress sites for donkey’s years, just skim the headings. There may be one or two suggestions that are new or that have slipped through the cracks on a site you work on.
So let’s start of with prevention, rather than cure.
#1 Use an exceptional theme to begin with
This will be unhelpful advice to most looking to improve their existing site’s SEO performance, but for new sites and clients who are in a rebuild, go for the best theme you can get your hands. This will eliminate most of the annoying and time-consuming problems, and put your site in a good position for years to come.
For less than $50, you can get a beautiful theme with bulletproof code, thoroughly tested cross-browser compatibility, ultra-responsive design (good on larger and small devices i.e. smart TVs and smart phones), and .po / .mo files for easy translation into multiple languages. Here’s a huge list of beautiful WordPress themes to get started with.
#2 Image Compression: WP Smush.it
I’m a big fan of image-heavy long-form content. Most of the posts I write these days are in excess of 2,000 words and have lots of images. To keep page load speed down with image-heavy content I recommend the Smush It image compression plugin, which does what it says on the tin; compresses images automatically as you upload them to the media library.
Smush It works both retrospectively and going forward. Install it, run it on all of your existing images, and then leave it to smush all of the images you upload in the future.
#3 Database Optimisation: WP Optmize
One of the downfalls of WordPress from a speed perspective is that all of your drafts are saved in the database forever, which means your database can get pretty clunky after a year or two of frequent blogging. I cleaned up a database for one of my sites the other day which had over 1,500 database entries for post drafts. Not good.
WP Optimize is handy as it means that only your past 7 or 8 drafts will be saved to your database. You can also set it to automatically spruce up your database at intervals by deleting any drafts that are more than a certain number of days old. Again, this just helps keep your website running at lightening speed.
#4 WordPress SEO by Yoast
No list on SEO for WordPress would be complete without a hat tip to Joost De Valk’s WordPress SEO plugin. Voted as one of the best plugins by the co-founders of WordPress, it’s not half bad. This plugin will tick off most major SEO issues that WordPress doesn’t do straight out of the box, such as producing an XML sitemap, auto-generating titles & meta descriptions based on excerpts and rules, integrating social & authorship metadata, and making the URL structures neat and tidy.
#5 SEO Smart Links
SEO Smart Links is a handy plugin for improving your internal linking from within body content. For example, you can set a rule to say whenever ‘Bas Van Den Beld’ is mentioned on StateofDigital.com, link to this page.
I recently installed this on a website that had 3,000 blog posts in a relatively competitive niche but hadn’t done a fantastic job of internal linking to the key pages they wanted to rank. After ~10 days of setting up some internal linking rules, the site increased from the bottom of page 2 to the middle of page 1 for its main keyword.
About 5 months ago, a site that I spent a solid week building got hacked. It wasn’t backed up. I was pretty gutted. All the hard work done to make the SEO immaculate was lost, and I had to start from scratch.
Lesson learned: use a plugin like BackupWordPress to automatically backup your site to DropBox. I’m so paranoid about this now that I also use IFTTT to sync Google Drive and Dropbox, so that I always have at least two cloud backups of my websites!
#7 YARPP (Yet Another Related Posts Plugin)
An oldie, but a classic. YARPP adds a list of related posts to the bottom of every post, encouraging users to read other posts. Great for reader engagement, improving behavioural metrics, and internal linking.
YARPP being used on the EmuBands Distribution website
#8 SEO Friendly Images
I’m getting better, but I used to be awful at remembering to add alternative tags and image titles. This plugin was a lifesaver as it automatically creates ALT tags for any images you’ve forgotten to add them for, using the page title as the description.
#9 Gravity Forms for UGC pages & contact forms
Gravity Forms is a great plugin with a tonne of different uses, including quick an easy form generation. It’s slightly more SEO friendly than the alternatives, and can also be used for UGC page creation (Richard Baxter has written a great guide on how to do that with Gravity here).
Another great thing about Gravity Forms is that they’re integrated with Zapier, which while not necessarily impacting SEO, means you can get really smart about connecting anything entered into Gravity to your CRM system, proposal software, cloud documents, or much more.
#10 WP Super Cache (or WP Total Cache)
Both of these cacheing plugins are great and will noticeably improve your WordPress site’s page load speed. I’m a fan of WP Super Cache, but a lot of people swear by WP Total Cache – I don’t think there’s too much in it, to be honest.
#11 SNAP – Social Network Auto Poster
I like SNAP because it fills in the blindspots of IFTTT and Zapier for promoting your content on social networks. Back in the day, when you created a post on WordPress you’d spend the next half an hour logging into all kinds of weird and wonderful social networks to promote the piece of content. Now, thanks to automation tools, you can just hit publish and let the Internet do its thing.
Currently, IFTTT enables you to send content to Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (via Buffer), LinkedIn, and many others. However, you can’t auto-post to Reddit, Pinterest, StumbleUpon, or any of those, which is where SNAP comes in.
WPSocial goes one step beyond Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin in terms of filling out social network meta data. It’s great for setting rich snippet microdata settings and controlling which page types you want to display authorship and social mark-up on.
I’ll leave it there for now, as I think these tips probably represent the 20% that will have 80% of the difference. That said, I’m sure there are a tonne of other great plugins, tips, and insights out there – so if you know any that should be added to the list, feel free to share them in the comments.