WordPress describes itself as a natural fit for SEO best practices. Back in 2009, Google’s own Matt Cutts even gave a talk on why WordPress and search engines work so well together:
That said, even if you’re using WordPress, you will still have work to do to align your site to SEO best practices. And while it might be tempting to implement the SEO recommendations you read online, you should also know that there are some WordPress-specific issues to watch out for.
For those new to WordPress (or without much experience), these SEO issues might be ignored, overlooked or just not totally understood. To explain the importance of each, I offer three real-life stories that will hopefully help you get your SEO ducks in a row.
1. Blocking search engines
Why would anyone want to intentionally block search engines? Many WordPress users build their sites on live hosting. If they’re not careful, the search engines will start indexing the site before the developer is ready (and more importantly, before they’ve finished adding content).
Thankfully, WordPress lets us block search engines from indexing the site by changing the Search Engine Visibility option under General > Reading Settings.
I was making changes to my live site and wanted to temporarily block the search engines. The site was under construction, so I did not want anyone to view my incomplete site. I finished the work, opened my site up for public viewing, and went on with my life.
But I forgot one thing.
A week later, I was checking my search engine results and, lo and behold, every single result was the same. I can’t remember the exact verbiage but it was something like “this site could not be indexed.”
It was horrifying. As soon as I realized what I had done, I unchecked the Search Engine Visibility box. Fortunately, I was back in business in a short amount of time.
This is a no-brainer: in the excitement of getting your new (or revised) website up and running, it’s incredibly easy to forget the Search Engine Visibility setting. Even though it doesn’t guarantee that your site will be blocked, from experience, I can say that the block works extremely well.
If you ever toggle it to block the search engines, even in the beginning of your site’s construction, make an SEO best practices to-do list for when you go live and, at the top of it, include unchecking the Search Engine Visibility option.
2. Changing permalinks
Your site’s permalinks are the URLs for site content. By default, it looks something like this: http://yourdomain.com/?p=223
To make your URLs search-engine-friendly and easier to find and index, set it to post name, so it looks like this: http://yourdomain.com/benefits-of-good-seo
Permalinks can also be altered under the post or page title in the Editor window.
After putting in your title, you can manually edit the permalink to make it search engine friendly.
A word of caution: Danger lurks if you decide to change it after publishing.
One of my clients was perusing some posts on what she thought were best practices for SEO. She had been blogging for a couple of years and had well over 120 posts published, but suddenly she was reading that her permalinks could be much better.
Now I don’t know if the articles were inaccurate or if she just misunderstood them, but it ended in disaster for two reasons:
- She changed her global permalink setting to include the category, as she had read in one of the articles.
- She went into some of her single posts, changing the URL to fit in more of the specific keywords that she had learned to define.
Sadly, after all that work, she got an email from a colleague who had shared one of her blog posts, asking her why the link was now getting a 404 error.
That was when she realized that all of her inbound links were now broken.
To make matters worse, without a recent backup, there was no way of returning the URLs to their original permalink.
The lesson here is threefold.
First, determine your permalink structure early on, then configure the permalink settings before you begin publishing posts. As for manually editing permalinks on individual posts and pages, you should tweak them before you publish, not after.
Second, install and use a WordPress backup plugin so you can undo any major changes that break your site.
Third, if you really need to update the permalink on single posts and pages, install a redirect plugin so you can redirect the old URLs to the new ones.
3. Using themes with built-in SEO settings
Some WordPress themes have their own idea of what SEO best practices should be, and have built them in as features. You will often find them under the theme settings.
It appears to be a good option at first, but think about it — what happens when you change themes?
Another client of mine once spent a lot of time working on his website optimization. He did a thorough job. By the time he contacted me, he had changed his theme, and started working on it. His frustration grew, however, when all of his SEO work was gone.
The problem was that he completed all of his original website optimization through the WordPress theme settings and that theme was now gone.
He frantically installed a site backup, but there was no way to export the theme’s settings. Since the new theme did not have the same settings built in, he chose to go with an SEO plugin.
He had the option to go through all of his content and set it up again, or return to his old theme — which he begrudgingly ended up doing.
The best practice here is to let a plugin, like Yoast SEO, handle the search engine optimization. When you change themes, the plugin settings stay in place.
Another solution, if you are lucky enough to be using a theme it supports, is to use the SEO Data Transporter plugin that allows you to move your SEO data from one theme or plugin to another.
Of course, before you begin, check to make sure that the plugin supports your theme. (My client wasn’t so lucky.)
Don’t blindly follow what you think are SEO best practices
Adhering to SEO best practices with WordPress can be as simple as being prepared and knowing what will happen when you make a change. When in doubt, take the cautious approach.
Have you flubbed your WordPress site’s SEO? Please share in the comments so we can all learn from your experience!