SEO For WordPress Sites

Ben Kemp By Ben Kemp
Expert Author
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WordPress search engine optimisation (WP SEO) options are many and varied. Picking the right options makes a huge difference to SERPs (search engine results pages) outcomes. There’s also a complication with many new design themes being distributed with SEO functionality already embedded.

So, what’s important in WordPress SEO? As a preface to the following paragraphs, I’ve been a WordPress fan since version 1.5 or so, and have years of experience in installation of WordPress, themes and plugins. In particular, WordPress SEO is my speciality, along with website development for clients the world over.

The default installation of WordPress does not lend itself well to good search engine rankings, as many of the essentials are not included in the core code. That’s only a minor problem, as a plethora of good SEO plugin extensions exist. The biggest problem is sorting through the misinformation, conflicting opinions and various offerings to arrive at a solid WP SEO platform.

Best of Breed or the Multi-Tool Approach to WP SEO

Here’s how I see it? There are some design themes and plugins that offer a multiplicity of tools and features, but this can sometimes make them a “jack of all trades and master of none” candidate. For the unsophisticated user, with no driving imperative to attain consistent Top 10 rankings, it may matter little?

My preference is to use a selection of the best plugins, rather than a multi-tool option, because I want total manual control of as many contributing elements as is possible. To achieve my client’s objectives in a competitive niche, I usually need to extract every possible bit of traction out of every single page?

Built-In WP SEO Tools

WordPress does have some core functionality that could be classed as SEO-specific, or at least related? Amongst those are;

Search Engine Friendly URLs – Permalinks

WordPress Permalinks (SEF URLs) allows the post and page file names to be output in a variety of ways depending on your needs. Most website owners people don’t understand the available options. From my perspective the only two that matters are Post Name (new since WP3.x) and Custom.

I tend to use Custom, and add in the Post Category to the URL, as per the illustation above. This generates some extra keyword traction in the URL, never a bad thing – especially if your Domain Name is keyword-deficient.

NB: If you have an existing site that is well indexed and enjoys good rankings, you need to be very careful about playing with Permalinks. Take note of the existing structure, and test any change you make to see if the old file names are correctly rerouted to the new file names?

For example, you were using the “Default” setting format and you make a switch to Post Name. You check that when you try and access the old URL for a given page, it redirects to the NEW page name. If not, you may need to add a 301 Permanent Redirection (for every page indexed by Google et al) into the .htaccess file – which is where the Permalinks mod_rewrite code is placed.

If you don’t handle this correctly, you will jeopardise your existing search engine rankings. Here’s a link to further reading on website redesign best practice.

Navigation & SEO

Often overlooked, the navigation structure is incredibly important to;

  • overall site indexing
  • ease of use of the website
  • emphasizing importance of primary pages
  • providing keyword Anchor Text that tells SE’s what the linked-to page is about
  • transferring Page Rank internally via cross-linking

A good menu navigation system has some key components; it is independent of page names & headings, includes hyperlink titles, and where possible makes all pages accessible within 1 click of the Home page, and from any internal page. Effective cross-linking means visitors should not have to step backwards a level to get to another page or sub-menu levels. Obviously, an extremely large website with multiple application components (wordpress cms + forum + directory etc) can make that goal too difficult to achieve.

The WordPress 3.x “Menu” structures are a thing of beauty and a joy to behold, and few other CMS can match the sophistication or simplicity of implementing them. Unfortunately, not all design themes support the WordPress menu system, and to me, thats a good enough reason for a website redesign! The WP3.x menus can provide significant additional WP SEO traction when employed correctly by;

  • Editing menu item names to include keywords relevant to the page
  • Adding keyword-rich descriptive hyperlink text to each item

Where a drop-down menu item has many child pages, consider building a specific sub-category menu in order to display a “sibling” page menu in the sidebar. That helps viewers quickly step from page to page within a defined subsection.

Page Headings

The ability to have a Page Heading that fits the available space without necessarily dictating the Page URL, the Page Title and the Page Menu item is what sets WordPress head and shoulders above competing CMS platforms.

You may now use a verbose Heading that would have previously ruined your Menu layout, and then edit the Menu item manually so it still fits within the top level or dropdown menu constraints.

Page Slug / URL

The inbuilt Page Slug option has always existed, but few people use it to full advantage.

By default, it is generated by the Page Heading / Name, but you can and sometimes should amend it to include the specific keyword search phrase that is being targeted on the page.

Design Theme

Does your design theme support WP3.x menus? If not, its about past its use-by date in my opinion, because there’s so much more milage to be extracted from the excellent navigation structure embedded in WP3.x.

Does your design theme includes SEO bells and whistles, but lacks either;

  • a structured update system for the theme that preserves your settings
  • the ability to turn off the SEO elements so you can use a preferred / dedicated SEO plugin

Of all the WordPress design themes I regularly use, those published under the Genesis platform are truly excellent in this respect. The core theme code is updated independently of the child themes, and there is an update subscription service that can be set to notify you by email the moment a new version is available.

Having a design theme that also makes provision for inserting your Google Analytis code into the correct (wp_footer) location is also a bonus?


The ability to manually control the Titles, Descriptions and Keywords meta-tags is very important in the overall scheme of things. The best-known WP SEO tool is the All In One SEO Pack. There are a number of derivatives, copies and emulations that do more or less than the original AIO SEO Pack, but I’m a loyal user? I’ve tried and still use a couple of others (Platinum SEO & Headspace) because i’ve no compelling reason to change them. However, the default install on all my sites is still the All In One SEO Pack?

All In One SEO Pack’s default installation needs some settings checked, especially;

  • Enable – if you don’t enable it, it won’t do anything!
  • Canonical URLs checked
  • Rewrite Titles checked
  • Autogenerate Descriptions checked

On a first install on an existing WP CMS or Blog, that immediately gives Google some additional relevant content to work with, while you find the time to go through pages and posts to manually write compelling text content for these elements.

Page Titles

By default, the page title is generated by the page heading plus the Site Name if you do nothing? The AIS SEO default setting is Post Title Format: %post_title% | %blog_title%

However, its sub-optimal because the Page Heading is normally a little cryptic and contrained by space or aesthetics. Use the SEO Pack’s “Page Title Format” to its full potential as its one of the single most important SEO elements in any website.

I often REMOVE the | %blog_title% from the AIO SEO settings, and manually write all Titles for primary pages and posts.

The Title is usually constrained to 70 characters. Whilst you can add more, Google will only show 65 characters including spaces! Therefore, its important that the stuff you actually want people to see is at the beginning! That means making sure any generic “tagline” is short, and at the END of the Title.

Page Description Meta-Tag

The page description meta-tag is usually generated from the first paragraph of text on the page. Google will also “ad lib” a description if you put nothing in the box? Neither outcome is optimal, given that what you want is an accurate description of the page content that impels a reader to click your link in the SERPs?

The Title is usually constrained to 200 characters. Whilst you can add more, Google only shows 150 characters including spaces, so again its essential that the stuff you actually want people to see is at the beginning! Inserting your targeted, exact-match, high-volume keyword search phrase at the beginning of the Description is the correct approach.

Keyword Meta-Tag

Keywords meta-tag content can be manually entered, or generated from categories and or tags assigned to the page or post. Misinformation on the Keywords meta-tag suggests its use is a complete waste of time? Thats not correct! Whilsts its importance has certainly been diminished over time, at least some major search engines do still read it, and it is therefore worth using correctly.

I usually insert 1- to 12 relevant variations of my targeted, exact-match, high-volume keyword search phrase in this meta-tag, separated by commas.

Google XML Sitemaps

The major search engines agree on very little, but an historic consensus saw all SE’s decide on support for the “sitemap.xml” format to aid in website indexing. By default, those major search engines all look in the robots.txt file for the link to your website’s sitemap. An oldie but a goodie, the stand-alone Google XML Sitemap plugin is my preferred option.


Many websites don’t have one of these crucial files, which instruct search engines where they should or should not go within your website. They are also the expected location for the path to your sitemap.xml in this line of text the bots and spiders look for;

Sitemap: http://www/

Not having one generates 404 page not found errors, and basically shows all and sundry that its an unsophisticated and disorganised website?

HTML Sitemaps

Providing an HTML sitemap is useful tool for a larger site, as its one way of giving people and search engines an overview of the site and a 2nd level access pathway. Some design themes generate a sitemap-style custom 404 Page Not Found error page. My HTML Sitemap plugin of choice is the WP Realtime Sitemap

Social Media

Early last year marked a significant milestone in Google’s goal of rewarding the best content. One of the elements is “User Experience” and within that category is acknowledgement of a site’s modernity. A key indicator of that is inclusion of Social Media content, or lack thereof. There’s two ways to do that;

  • FB Like and Google Plus +1 buttons that allow visitors to give you a vote of approval.
  • Inclusion of links to your sociual medai profiles; FaceBook page, Linkin, Twitter and YouTube accounts etc.

The three plugings I use most often are; FB Like, Google Plus Ones and Social Profiles Widget

WP SEO Summary

The preceeding is a brief introduction into what works with WordPress SEO and why it does so. Thats only part of the story, of course? No matter what tools you have installed, if you lack a sound grasp of the Principles of Applied Search Engine Optimisation, and experience in the practice thereof, progress will be modest without;

  • effective keyword search phrase research
  • allocating approriate keywords phrases page by page
  • targeting keywords effectively within all possible elements

The Equally Crucial Off-Site SEO:

Approximately half of the weighting in Search Engine Rankings is actually Off-Site SEO! Search engines assess external verification of your sites content by analysing the quantity and quality of inbound links to your website. The keywords in Anchor Text (link titles), in conjunction with On-Site SEO efforts, ultimatelydetermine if and/or how well your site ranks for a specfic keyword search phrase in the SERPs.


About Ben Kemp
Ben Kemp is the author of "The SEO Guy's Blog" : SEO comments, hints on successful web site design for effective search engine optimisation. Plus, life as a Road Warrior... living in The Land of Smiles! How it feels to be an alien, living in Thailand, immersed in a new culture and language.

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