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WordPress SEO: An Actionable Guide for Beginners

SEO for WordPress image

WordPress powers over a third of the entire internet. This makes it the content management system of choice for millions all over the world. This includes – as you might’ve guessed – the AddThis blog.

WordPress Market Share / Usage Statistics from W3 Techs

For all the great things about WordPress, out-of-the-box SEO definitely isn’t one of its strong points. Fortunately, its popularity has opened up the possibility to grow a plugin repository of over 50,000 tools.

Before moving on to the rest of this guide, conduct an SEO audit of your site to create a baseline.

Once you’ve benchmarked your website, you’ll be ready to go through the rest of this guide.

Let’s Get the Basics Down

Get Your URLs Right

Choose the optimal permalink structure for SEO and user experience.

A commonly overlooked, yet detrimental mistake is not making use of an SEO-friendly permalink structure on your WordPress website. It’s now widely accepted to use the https://example.com/sample-post structure. It’s the most user and search engine friendly structure.

Luckily, if you’re using WordPress as your content management system, it’s extremely easy to switch permalink structure. All you need to do is head to Settings > Permalinks and choose the Post name permalink structure.

The WordPress Permalink Settings Area

WWW vs. Non-WWW

Generally, there’s some confusion surrounding the benefits and disadvantages of using the WWW vs. the non-WWW version of your website. But, here aren’t actually any advantages of choosing either one over the other.

The only thing that matters when it comes to WWW canonicalization is consistency. If you use both the www.example.com and example.com, search engines will begin to treat both versions of your websites separately. I personally prefer the non-WWW version of websites. It’s shorter and more memorable. But, what you end up choosing doesn’t really matter, because you just need to properly set up the redirects.

If your preferred version is non-WWW, then all WWW traffic will be redirected to the non-WWW version of the website. If you chose the WWW version, the same would apply, but in reverse.

This important for the same reason it would be careless to host your blog on a subdomain of your main website (like https://blog.example.com). You want all of your SEO efforts to go into optimizing your root domain (https://example.com). Make sure your blog is in a subdirectory – not a subdomain – and properly canonicalized.

Get an SSL Certificate

An SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) Certificate creates an encrypted link between a website and a visitor’s browser. They ensure all data passed between the two remains private and secure. SSL encryption prevents hackers from stealing private information such as credit card numbers, names, and addresses.

It’s 2019 and the debate of whether or not it’s worth it to migrate your site to HTTPS is over. It really isn’t a choice anymore because nobody (including Google) can take a site without an SSL certificate seriously.


Make Sure Your Website is Fast

To kick this off, you’ll need to know where you’re going wrong. Thanks to the following tools, finding errors on your site is easy:

I take Google Pagespeed Insights extremely seriously. This is why all of my websites score 100/100 for desktop devices and 98/100 for mobile devices on average. If you care about performance and SEO, then why settle on just making your website fast? With minimal effort, you can also score 100/100 on the tools Google created themselves.

There’s no need to make a choice.

Optimize Your Images

Images comprise nearly 60% of the average website’s total weight, according to the HTTP Archive. Assess your website images to quickly and easily make significant performance improvements.

This is particularly helpful if your website relies heavily on images.

Choose a Web Host

Downtime, spotty, or slow performance all result in terrible user experience.

So when looking for WordPress hosting, it’s important to keep in mind performance, speed, reliability, and support. You want a host you can rely on, which isn’t easy to find. The perfect web host for you will end up depending entirely on your needs, requirements and your budget.

If price isn’t much of a concern, Kinsta is an extremely reliable hosting provider.

But it goes without saying that Kinsta isn’t the perfect web host for everyone. Alternatively, you can manage your own server. You can do this with one of the major cloud providers, like Digital Ocean or the Google Cloud Platform.

Helpful Plugins

Use a caching plugin like WP Rocket to speed up your website and reduce the load on your origin server.

In general, the plugins you choose to use on your website are an important part of optimizing your website.

Here are some plugins I actually use on most of the websites I run:

Here’s a quick look at some features that are available in the free version:

  • Deep Schema markup integration for over 14 types of content
  • Latent Semantic Indexing Keyword Tool Built-in
  • Track your keyword rankings, click-through ratio, and other important metrics right from your WordPress dashboard
  • Easily initiate a 12-Step SEO Audit. This helps identify issues on your website that may be preventing your site from ranking in search
  • Built-in 404 Monitor & Redirections Support
  • Easily create and submit sitemaps to the Google Search Console

Breadcrumbs are useful in helping Google’s bots better understand a website’s hierarchy. It also makes it easier for users to understand where they currently are on a website. Google recently replaced site URLs in search results. Now, it uses site names and breadcrumb paths instead for mobile search snippets. Rank Math automatically adds the structured data (markup) for breadcrumbs to your website.

A caching plugin is an easy and effective way to speed up your website.

WP Rocket in particular makes it extremely easy to implement 80% of all speed optimization best practices including:

  • Page Caching
  • Cache Preloading
  • Sitemap Preloading
  • GZIP Compression
  • Browser Caching
  • Database Optimization
  • Google Fonts Optimization
  • Remove Query Strings from Static Resources
  • Lazyload
  • Minification / Concatenation
  • Defer JS Loading
  • CloudFlare Compatibility
  • DNS Prefetching
  • Ecommerce Friendly

The plugin is easy to configure and makes the entire process of speeding up your WordPress website a lot easier.

Perfmatters is a lightweight WordPress performance plugin that works alongside your caching plugin. It helps you configure some additional settings to optimize your website for optimal performance.

Perfmatters is the perfect plugin to use in combination with your favorite caching plugin. Easily disable WordPress functions and elements you may not need. This can include Google Fonts, embeds and emojis. This helps speed up your website even further.

ShortPixel is an image optimization plugin that optimizes the images on your WordPress websites without slowing your website down. This is a great way to reduce your website’s bandwidth usage.

Modula is a WordPress gallery plugin with a strong focus on performance. It even comes with a built-in content delivery network and image optimization.

Optimize for Google’s Mobile-First Index

Recently, Google announced “mobile-first indexing.” This means Google will now use the mobile version of your and website for indexing and ranking.

It’s now equally important for your website to load fast and deliver a user experience optimized for mobile users. The two factors that affect a user’s experience most on mobile devices are speed and website responsiveness.

Getting responsive design perfect isn’t easy. But thanks to WordPress’ popularity, there are a number of great themes I can easily recommend. Here are a few reputable theme companies I recommend purchasing from:

Bonus WordPress SEO Tips

Get Google to Index your Website Immediately

It’s not a mystery that it takes a while for Google to index new posts and pages after you publish them. Google’s new indexing API makes it easy to ensure your website’s pages are re-indexed every time you publish or update content.

Leverage Social Media to Drive Engagement

Social media may seem unrelated to search engine optimization, but is it? Social media is almost definitely not a ranking factor that Google takes into account, as Google’s Matt Cutts elaborates in the video below:

As he mentions in the video, what appears to be causation – the level of social media engagement affects search engine rankings – is actually a perfect example of correlation. In general, the content that tends to rank well is also shared on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

This serves as even more evidence that content really is king and shows the importance of properly leveraging social media. Perhaps not just to rank higher in search but to serve the bigger picture. The entire purpose of ranking well in Google is to generate targeted traffic from search, and just because you’re focusing on that by no means suggests you shouldn’t also leverage the power of social media to drive traffic.

Social media marketing helps build awareness for your business and brand, which inherently increases the chances that someone will click on your content rather than someone else’s in Google’s search results.

Use tools like AddThis get more likes, follows, and shares on social networks. You can easily implement follow and share buttons and start building your email list with a suite of tools designed for the modern marketer.

If you’re using WordPress, installing an AddThis plugin is just as easy as installing any other WordPress plugin.

Beyond Technical SEO

Technical SEO is more important than ever and forms the foundation of any successful strategy. But this leads to the next question: once I have my technical SEO in order, how can I take this further? How do I actually start driving traffic to my site.

The purpose of search engine optimization is to drive traffic to your website. A big part of that is undoubtedly optimizing your website to offer a pleasant user experience (both in the eyes of actual users and, of course, search engines).

But you also need to start focusing on creating quality content. If you’re able to create content that you’re proud of and confidently share with everyone in your network, then you’re already validating the need for the piece of content you’ve produced.

And, as a result, you’re more likely to see other websites link to your piece of content in a relevant article when they find it suitable to refer to what you have written. In addition to this, a lot of the people you initially share the post with won’t hesitate to share it with some of the people they know.

Link to Other Websites

Link building is a two-fold effort. Acquiring backlinks from other websites in your industry helps build your website’s authority, which is an important ranking factor that will improve your website’s chances of ranking highly in search. It also naturally drives traffic to your website because people reading the articles are likely to click on resources linked in the article where the backlink originated.

Another way to get more backlinks (which helps increase your website’s search engine rankings) is by linking to other people. Regularly supporting a website by linking to them in one of your posts is likely going to result in them linking out to one of your future posts. WordPress has built-in options that enable you to automatically notify any blogs linked in an article when it is published.

To enable this setting head to Settings > Discussion

Internal Linking

Internal linking is the practice of linking from one of your blog posts to other relevant blog posts (or pages). It boosts SEO and gives readers more actions to take or more to read. Used strategically, this can help reduce your bounce rate.

Noindex Archive, Category, and Thin pages

WordPress automatically creates a large number of archive, category, and tag pages. This might be useful to actual readers visiting your website, but has little to no search engine value. So, they shouldn’t be indexed.

There are various ways you can do this. One way is to use the Rank Math WordPress SEO plugin to noindex empty category and tag archive pages as shown below.

Once you’ve done that, head to the Miscellaneous Pages tab under the SEO Titles & Meta settings. Here, you’ll be able to disable and noindex other non-essential pages that search engines shouldn’t have to crawl through to find your blog posts.

Disabling all of them may not be necessary or suitable based on the type of website you run. Generally, limit the number of pages to preserve the link equity. But, if you have certain categories with lots of posts that do rank for the category name (and they have a large amount of search traffic), then no-indexing the page would not be a smart move.

Strategically no-follow Certain Internal Links

Search engines introduced the nofollow link attribute to fight spam from helping pages rank in search results. A great example of where this is already in use is your website’s blog comments section. Otherwise, all links that spammers post would help the linked spam pages rank.

Nofollow sculpting is simply the process of preserving and diverting link equity to pages you are trying to rank.

Use the Google Search Console

The Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) is an essential service for search engine optimization. It’s free and allows you to monitor the keywords you’re ranking for. You can keep track of broken links and other issues like mobile accessibility. The Google Search Console makes you aware of these issues so you can redirect that page somewhere relevant to keep the link value and keep the visitors who are landing on your site.

You may find that other websites have incorrectly linked to a page on your website that no longer exists (or never did) which isn’t ideal because it would result in visitors landing on 404 pages.

Increase Your Click-Through Rate

Meta descriptions and meta titles are often overlooked. Some believe that spending the extra 2-3 minutes crafting the perfect description and title isn’t going to make a big difference.

This isn’t the case. Spending time to write better meta descriptions and better titles will help encourage users to click on your content. This, in turn, increases your click-through rate, which is another metric Google uses to determine how relevant your post is and whether or not it should rank for certain search terms. This all ties in very nicely with satisfying searcher intent.

What’s Next

So, what next? Search engine optimization is complicated and competitive. Once your technical SEO and content are as good as they can be, the next thing to explore is link building. I’m not going to turn this post into a link building guide – that could be its own 5,000+ word guide – but here are some things you should look into

  1. Guest posting on other websites in your industry.
  2. Making sure that your content is epic because, if it is, people won’t hesitate to link out to it.
  3. Link out to resources and other articles when possible.
  4. Partner with companies, bloggers, and other entrepreneurs in the industry. While a healthy level of competition is good, partnering with others in the industry is another great way to get traffic. The more people you work with, the more people will be there when you have something to share. Interviewing or being interviewed by influencers is also a great way to get the right people’s attention and build your authority.

Everything mentioned in this post has the potential to boost your rankings in search engines. But don’t expect your rankings to jump overnight. SEO is a long-term game, not a one-off task. What tactics have you used to improve your WordPress SEO?


Alex Panagis is the founder and CEO of Scale Math.