Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is one of those subjects in which you can get lost in all sorts of rabbit holes of technical detail, if that’s what you want.
But for most, that level of detail is too much. So this article covers the checklist and process I use to develop search-engine-friendly posts on WordPress.
The good news is that 80% of what you need to do to improve your search engine rank can be achieved by adhering to some easily understood principles, and adding 2 bits of easily understood information to your web pages.
As this article is quite long here are links to the various sections I’ve covered:
I recommend using one of the SEO plugins, but remember that all they do is provide the fields you need to fill in (I’ve covered these below) and insert the correct META tags into your page code.
They do not do the SEO for you!
That’s what I’ve covered in this article, so let’s jump in.
The first principle of SEO
The first principle of SEO is to remember who you are writing for. And it’s not the search engines.
You’re writing for people, and everything you do in your article should be focused on that.
If it’s good for people it will be good for the search engines, and here’s why that’s so:
Just like people, the search engines need to understand what information you have on your website, so they can index it and return it for relevant searches.
If you make it easy for people to find what they need it will also be easy for the search engines.
Furthermore, the search engines know how good your page is by the length of time people spend on it. This tells them whether they (your readers) found your article useful and interesting, or not.
And that has an impact on how well your article does in the search results.
More on how that works later. In the meantime, just remember to write for people, not the search engines.
Two types of SEO
There are two aspects to SEO:
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
Most of this article is focused on the On-page SEO, because that’s the one over which you have the most direct control.
I’ll touch on Off-page SEO towards the end.
On-Page SEO: best practices for WordPress posts
On-page SEO is based on writing content that people find useful, entertaining, current or important.
If you just focus on that you will be giving your article a great dose of SEO goodness.
There are some technical SEO things to do, which I’ll cover later, but writing a good article, that is well laid out, with correct spelling and grammar, well researched and with in-depth information, is the foundation of good on-page SEO.
So here’s the approach, in order, that I take when I’m writing a WordPress article (a post or a page):
Article subject and keyword research
The first step is to decide on the subject you’re covering.
Once you know what you’re going to cover, the next step is to do some keyword research.
Why is this important?
Because in order for your article to rank well you need to know what people, who are searching for what you’re writing about, are typing into the search engines to look for it.
If you can match your content to the search terms people are using, your page stands a much greater chance of being returned.
Don’t worry if this sounds complicated – there’s an easy tool that will do this for you, to which I’ve linked further down. For now, just focus on the process.
So, you need to find a few terms that people are typing into the search engines (search terms) and then choose the one on which you want to focus your article (the primary search term).
Then, when you’re writing or editing your article, you need to blend the terms you’ve found into your headlines and article text.
The primary search term, sometimes called the focus keyword, should be a profitable keyword – one that has lots of searches but for which there are as few web pages as possible that would be returned.
This stage, then, is about deciding on the subject of your article and then using that tool, to which I linked, to find the search terms that people are typing in to find the information you’ve produced.
Plan your article
Once you’ve decided on your subject and the keywords you’re going to use, the next step is to plan your article.
Remember the first principle (writing for people): people react better to an article that is well set out, takes the reader logically through a sequence of steps and arrives at a clear conclusion.
Conversely, an article that meanders here and there and doesn’t leave the reader with a clear message, will turn people off. Likely they will click away before they reach the end.
The search engines understand how long searchers stay on the page that was returned, so people clicking away from your article part of the way through is going to send a bad signal.
Which will, of course, result in poor search engine rankings for your article.
So plan your article.
I do this by writing a list of the points I want to make in MS Word, in the order I want to cover them, with each point set out, one under the other, leaving a gap of a few lines between each.
Then I go back and fill in the gaps by writing what I want to say for each point in the gap I’ve left below it. This helps me to create a clear path through the article, leading to a logical conclusion.
Creating an article that takes your reader logically through to a clear conclusion greatly improves the chances of keeping your reader through to the end. This tells the search engines that your article is good – and worthy of a higher rank in the search results.
Writing your article
Once you have the outline of your article set up you can start the writing.
Again: the first SEO principle is to write for people. You should incorporate the search terms that you found in your research earlier into your article in a way that is totally natural.
Your objective is for the article to read naturally and well, but also to include the search terms you discovered in your research earlier.
Importantly: don’t over-use your keywords. Again, the article must read naturally and well.
Your primary search term should be used in the article’s title, and in the SEO title (which I’ve covered later), and the other search terms should be used in the article body.
There are different ways you can do this. I often write the article out in full without worrying about using the search terms I’ve found, and then I go back and find ways of editing them in.
However you approach it, your objective is to write for people but blend your search terms into the headlines, headings, sub-headings and article body.
Use headings and sub-headings to create a route map
Generally, people scan web pages rather then read every word in depth. So it’s good practice to give them a route map through your article, and you do this by using headings and sub-headings.
That enables readers to scan through your articles and dive into the parts that interest them.
In MS Word (and most word processing applications) you have buttons for ‘Heading 1’, ‘Heading 2’, ‘Heading 3’ and so on. These indicate headings (Heading 1) and sub-headings (Heading 2 and below) and tell readers what you’re covering in each section.
You should do exactly the same in WordPress
If you’re using the latest version of WordPress with the block editor this is how you do that:
If you’re using the classic editor then this is how you do it:
Using those drop-down menus to create headings and sub-headings in your posts causes WordPress to assign the correct semantic tags (I’ve covered those in more detail below).
This not only gives your readers a route map through your article but the semantic tags tell the search engines how your article is laid out. If it is laid out well that will improve the SEO.
I’ve seen WordPress articles where headings are created by increasing the size of the text and making it bold.
This does visually create headings and sub-headings, but it does not assign the correct semantic tags. That will lead the search engines to downgrade the SEO.
So create a route map. Use headings and sub-headings as shown in those images above to allow readers to scan and focus on their interests and tell the search engines how your article is structured.
Categories and tags
Categories and tags are WordPress’ filing system and they are a great SEO tool.
They enable you to categorise and file your articles in a way that makes it easy for readers to find information in which they are interested.
And if it’s easy for readers, it’s easy (and good!) for the search engines.
For this reason, using WordPress’ categories and tags correctly is very good for your SEO.
Here’s how to do that:
Think of WordPress as your filing cabinet, because it contains all your content.
Within your filing cabinet you have some drawers. Think of these as your categories. So you can have a drawer for Internet Marketing articles, one for WordPress articles, one for SEO articles, and so on.
Within each drawer of your filing cabinet you have some folders and you can think of these as your tags. Each folder in your drawer contains articles that relate to the topic of the drawer but are separated into more closely linked subjects.
For example, you could have a folder within the Internet Marketing drawer that contains articles on Email Marketing, and another folder that contains articles on PPC Marketing.
So, in WordPress terms, an article on PPC Marketing would go into the Internet Marketing category (drawer) and the PPC Marketing tag (folder).
You should only assign one category per article and preferably only one tag per article – although you could assign two tags if it made sense.
Also, while it may be difficult when you only have a few articles on your site, you should avoid having categories or tags that only contain 1 article.
This takes some discipline, but it pays dividends in keeping readers on your site and making it easy for the search engines to find and index all your articles.
As a separate exercise, there is enormous value to be had by reviewing and rationalising your categories and tags to make your filing system as effective as possible.
So make sure you assign one category and, if you have a site with a large number of posts, one tag to your article.
The semantic tags that I referred to earlier tell the search engines how your article is laid out.
They cover bolding, italics, underlining, numbered lists, bullet point lists and the headings and sub-headings that I covered earlier.
The tool bar at the top of your editing window (Classic Editor) has buttons for each of these layout options – make sure you use them because this enables WordPress to assign the correct semantic tags.
In the Block Editor (WordPress 5.0 and later if you’re using it) you need to select different blocks for lists and headings, but the bolding, italics and underlining buttons are contained within the paragraph block.
Again, be sure to select the appropriate blocks and use the buttons within them to enable WordPress to assign the correct semantic tags.
Having the correct semantic tags tells the search engines how your page is laid out. The better laid out your page is, the higher it is likely to appear in the search results.
META tags tell the search engines how to treat your page and give them information that they use in displaying the search results.
Typically, they tell the search engines whether they should avoid indexing your page (the default action is to index everything), whether or not to follow links in your post and whether or not to keep a copy of your article in their cache.
META tags also tell browsers how to treat your page – for example whether they should adjust the layout based on the width of the screen on which it’s being viewed (responsive design), whether the browser should keep a copy of your page in its cache and so on.
For SEO purposes the most common tags we use for normal pages are:
- The SEO title
- The META description
The fields to insert these appear below the window in which you write your article:
Unless you want the search engines to treat your page differently from the default, the only fields you need to complete are the:
- SEO Title (called the Custom title tag in the image above)
- Meta Description
The SEO title is what appears in blue for each item returned in search results, and the META description is the text that appears underneath the title.
While both should be an accurate description of what your page covers, the wording of the SEO title can be different from the wording of the page title you used when you wrote your page.
The SEO title should definitely contain your primary keyword, which should be the first few words in this field. However, be sure to make it grammatical!
The META description should describe what’s in your article but also contain a call to action.
The way to think about both fields is to consider them together as a classified advertisement. For that you can use the AIDA formula when you’re writing them:
I = Interest
D = Desire
A = Action
Use your SEO title to capture the searcher’s attention.
This is done by using your primary keyword, which is why you need to know the terms that searchers are using to find what you’re writing about (see what I covered earlier).
If a searcher sees their exact search term displayed in the title of one of the items in the search results, it will grab their attention and greatly increase the chances of them clicking through to your page.
In your META description you should write text that generates interest in the searcher, creates some desire for a solution to their problem, and ends with a call to action – e.g. ‘Details here’ or something similar.
But there are some restrictions: your SEO title is restricted to 70 characters and your META description to 150 characters.
So you need to put some thought into how you write each of them.
Here’s an example of how you could structure your SEO title and META description for a page promoting WordPress training and consultancy, where the primary keyword is ‘WordPress training’:
WordPress Training and Problem-Fixing Services
WordPress training (hosted and self-hosted)
(Interest) and WordPress site reviews to identify and fix performance and other problems
(Desire). Details here.
Without a doubt, a decent copywriter would make a better job of the wording but that should illustrate the point..!
Again, think of your SEO title and META description together as a classified advertisement because that’s what it is: you’re persuading people to click through to your page.
I promised to cover off-page SEO, which I’ll do briefly.
I prefer to think of the off-page SEO activities that you can undertake and, therefore, have control over, simply as marketing or promoting your article.
Strictly speaking, off-page SEO is really what the Internet at large thinks of your page, and this is generally defined by the number of links or shares your article has.
But, in order to get those links and shares, people have to know your article is there – hence the need to promote and market it.
There are any number of ways you can promote your article, both paid and unpaid, and one of the most effective is to use your social media platforms.
By posting links to your articles on your social media platforms you can promote it to a wide audience very quickly. If your article strikes a chord with people (meaning it’s well written, well laid out and provides good or entertaining information) it will be shared.
If you’re lucky (very lucky!) it will go viral.
The more it’s shared the more the search engines will notice it and return it higher in the search results.
The important thing to remember here is that you’re using the social media coverage of your article to improve its performance in the search results. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself.
The fact remains that while you may get thousands of views via social media, those viewers are generally not in buying mode. It’s people that are doing searches that you want on your site – because they are the ones in buying mode.
So social media activity is important as a way of promoting your article, but it will not bring immediate conversions (sales, signups or whatever your objective is for the page).
In closing. . .
Hopefully you can see from this that effective SEO for WordPress requires a holistic approach:
- Choose your subject
- Find profitable keywords
- Plan your article
- Write your article incorporating the search terms you found
- Use sematic tagging correctly (by using the buttons in the WordPress editor)
- Complete the SEO Title and META description
- Promote your article in your social media accounts
Do please leave a comment below if I need to clarify anything.