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There’s no doubt that WordPress is an excellent platform for both businesses and individuals. With its endless flexibility, huge community, extensive plugin market and its well established position as the market leader in content management systems, it can scale and grow with you – regardless of whether you run a B2B/B2C website, a lead generation portal or a blog. However, when it comes to WordPress SEO, there are some elements of the platform that don’t come set up out of the box. Without taking the time to configure this, you might find that your organic performance in Google search suffers as a result.

We’ve put together the below WordPress SEO checklist. Because it’s specific to WordPress, these items cover the sort of technical and configuration-related issues that may arise from hosting a site on the platform, but not the more generic SEO basics such as keyword research, title tags and heading tags. If you’d like more information on that, we’ve written about it in this SEO fundamentals post.  

Here’s what we’re going to cover:

  • Choosing the right WordPress theme
  • Plugins
  • SEO settings – Site visibility, Permalink structure
  • Configuring categories, tags, archives, author pages
  • XML sitemaps
  • Media settings
  • Pagespeed and site speed
  • Spam comments

Bonus tips

  • Google Search console
  • Fixing page formatting
  • Yoast page optimisation

Let’s get started!

Choosing the right WordPress theme

The ‘theme’ of your site is the basic HTML and CSS files that the site will use, and determines to some extent your site’s functionality. When choosing a theme, although much of your choice will be down to personal preference, needs and budget, there are 2 crucial elements that a good theme should have for SEO: it should be mobile-responsive, and it should be lightweight. What do we mean by these? Let’s explore in more detail:

Mobile-responsive WordPress themes are essential

These days, any website that isn’t mobile-friendly is going to get left in the dust. Aside from the intense frustration that modern users will exhibit when faced with a website that won’t work on their mobile device, websites not displaying correctly on mobile screens is a red flag for search engines (who will downgrade the site accordingly). Although most WordPress themes are now mobile-friendly by default (meaning that they will automatically rescale your content so that it displays correctly if the user is using a mobile, tablet etc.), some are not, so it’s important to check (we’ll cover how shortly).

Lightweight themes – don’t ruin your pagespeed!

With the average theme size (in terms of bytes) growing over time, it’s more important than ever to make sure you use a ‘lightweight’ theme. By that, we mean one that’s not bloated with unnecessary features and code that you don’t need. Although there are steps you can take to improve your site’s speed in other areas such as imagery and plugins, which we’ll cover later, if your theme isn’t up to scratch there isn’t an easy solution. Your only option may be switching to a different theme which could cost more to remedy at a later date.

How do I check that the theme that I’m interested in measures up?

Most theme providers will clearly state if their theme is mobile-responsive, as it’s a popular selling point for consumers. If they don’t, and in order to check the size of the theme, you’d be best advised to check out the demo theme that your chosen provider should give you. Most of them will run it on an example site, for example the below (made up!) address:

https://themedemo.greatwordpressthemes.com

If you visit the theme provider’s demo page, you can use the Google mobile-friendly test tool to see if it will show well on mobiles. You can use pagespeed tools (Google pagespeed insights, Webpagetest.org, GTmetrix and so on) which should give you a good idea of whether the theme is ‘bloated’. Just look for a high page weight in terms of megabytes, especially anything over 4-5 megabytes worth of HTML, JavaScript and CSS combined.

Don’t forget to clear out the junk

Most themes come with a selection of ‘template’ pages which can make your site look somewhat untidy and unfinished if they are seen by your users. For the most part, they are indexable and included in your site’s sitemap file by default, even if they aren’t included in your navigation menu. You’ll be able to recognise them, as they won’t be pages that you recognise having created, and when visited will usually just show some Shutterstock or similar quality images along with Lorem Ipsum boilerplate text. This can also extend to template files for logos, icon sets and similar, so it might be best to check you have these backed up in case you need them.

To get around the above problem, simply locate and delete the offending pages in the all posts/all pages sections on the WordPress interface.

Plugins

Plugins offer one of the easiest ways to customise your site so that it does what you and your users want. Indeed in many cases it’s necessary to use them for several functions – particularly if you don’t have the benefit of an experienced WordPress developer. However, as we’ll get to in the pagespeed section later, it’s definitely worth checking to make sure that you need each one that you install. As a generic ‘shopping list’ for SEO plugins (although many of them are free!) we’d recommend looking into installing at least one plugin from the following categories, regardless of the type of site you have:

  • A good quality general SEO plugin
  • 301 redirects (if the main SEO plugin can’t do this)
  • Caching/pagespeed plugin (more on this later)
  • A plugin to add Schema (structured data) to your site
  • An HREFlang plugin, if your site is an international one

We usually recommend Yoast SEO as a good all-in one solution for optimising WordPress for SEO. Other options include Rankmath SEO, and the All in one SEO pack. Options for the other categories include:

  1. Simple 301 redirects
  2. W3 Total cache
  3. All in one schema
  4. HREFlang tags lite

The above should give you the flexibility and functionality you need from an SEO perspective, without adding unnecessary complexity.

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If you want to talk to our specialist team about how we can help you with your digital marketing, talk to our team today.

SEO settings – Site visibility, Permalink structure

Before we get started on more advanced optimisations, we just need to do some quick checks on some basic WordPress SEO settings to make sure it’s set up correctly. Let’s go through them:

Site Visibility

WordPress has an option called ‘search engine visibility’ that, when set to ‘discourage search engines from indexing this site’ will do exactly that. Needless to say, we need to make sure this is turned off, which is something that can be easily forgotten in new site builds for example.

We just need to navigate to the ‘reading’ section under settings, where we can see the checkbox:

If this is ticked, just change it over so your site can be seen in search, if it isn’t already.

Permalink structure

SEO-friendly URLs should accurately and succinctly describe the page, with one or two keywords added for a small SEO boost. Although mostly for the benefit of the user, URLs also need to be well-formatted to give search engines a better idea of what your site is about, and also its structure. If we take two example URLs:

example/com/?p=421 (WordPress default)

example.com/roof-tiling-guide

Which of those looks more appealing and understandable to both users and search engines?

To make sure we use sensible, well-formatted and keyword-rich URLs for our site, we just need to navigate to the ‘permalinks’ tab under ‘settings’ in the dashboard:

Of the options presented, we generally prefer post name (it may need editing to be shorter if the post name itself is very long or doesn’t translate well to a URL format). The other options here are day/name and month/name, which are also acceptable, although may make the URL too long to be easily read.

Configuring Categories, Tags, Archives, and Author pages

When WordPress sites utilise a blog section, it’s common to have categories, tags, date and author-based archives show up in the site’s list of active pages. These pages are, for the most part, not very helpful for search engines, as they tend to duplicate content across the site (as search engines mostly prefer to index high-quality original content).

If you have a small number of tag pages on your site or, for example, your categories are important landing pages in their own right, this shouldn’t be a problem. If, however, you use hundreds or thousands of tags on your blog posts and these all end up in Google’s index, this may not provide the best experience for the search engines (or for your potential visitors who come across them in search).

In terms of author pages, if you run a single author blog, the author archive will be exactly the same as your homepage, this can be seen as duplicate content as well. Date archives are usually less of an issue if content is published relatively infrequently, but if large volumes are put out on a regular basis then problems can potentially arise in a similar manner to having too many tags.

To deal with the offending pages, we can go to the ‘search appearance’ section of Yoast SEO and then on to ‘taxonomies’ and ‘archives’ where we have the following options:

In most cases, we would recommend the following:

Show categories in search results: yes

Show tags in search results: no

Author archives: enabled if a multi-author blog, otherwise disabled

Date archives: User preference (might be more suitable on some sites than others)

XML sitemaps

With Google having an ever-increasing number of indexing problems as the web fills up with more and more content, it’s never been more important to make sure that you notify Google of the pages on your site that you want them to index, rather than hoping or assuming that they’ll do it themselves. This is even more important for larger sites with more complex and deep navigation structures where it may take the search engines a lot longer to find all of your content themselves.

XML sitemaps are a great way to do this. An XML sitemap is just a list of all the pages on your site in a format the search engines find easy to read. This speeds up the process of search engines being able to find your site’s content, as they are otherwise reliant on finding them manually through visiting the links on your website.

The Yoast XML sitemap

The Yoast SEO plugin will automatically create a ‘sitemap index’ file for your website, which is always located here:

domain.com/sitemap_index.xml

By default, this will contain separate sitemaps for posts, pages and categories, as well as any custom post or page types that you set up. If you don’t want certain page types included here, you can exclude them by going to search appearance>content types in Yoast and changing show in search results to ‘no’, as we did for the taxonomies above.

Remember that it’s best practice to submit your sitemap through Google Search Console, especially if you haven’t referenced it in your robots.txt file.

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If you want to talk to our specialist team about how we can help you with your digital marketing, talk to our team today.

Media Settings

When you upload a media file to WordPress, it creates an attachment URL for it. These attachment pages only contain the media item, and maybe a title if you entered one. Several years ago, there was a major bug relating to WordPress which essentially meant that image URLs were being treated as individual pages, not just as a part of the site’s image library. This created massive duplicate content issues, with some websites even getting de-indexed as a result. Luckily, this is very easy to prevent! Simply go to the media section of Yoast SEO and set it to always redirect image URLs to the attachment itself, as below:

Pagespeed and site speed

As we mentioned previously, heavyweight themes can be a major problem when it comes to pagespeed. Hopefully though, you’ve got yourself a lightweight theme that won’t slow your pages down. There are 3 other major areas where speed should be addressed for your site, with one of them in particular being a common WordPress issue. These are:

  • Plugins
  • Images
  • Caching

Plugins

As great as plugins are, there is such a thing as too many. When large amounts of functionality can be achieved using easily-installed plugins rather than developers, this can lead to plugins being installed for every possible requirement, even in situations when for example basic HTML and CSS knowledge would do the trick. This, in turn, leads to large amounts of code being loaded on to your pages, often unnecessarily, which can substantially affect performance.

The Plugin Performance Profiler is a great tool to use to solve this particular problem. It will analyse all of the plugins your WordPress site is currently using and provide a breakdown of which plugins are impacting your loading speed the most like so:

From here, it’s best to ask whether you really do need every plugin on the site. Some may have duplicated functionality (e.g. your SEO plugin does 301 redirects, but you didn’t realise this and also installed a dedicated redirect plugin), you may have previously installed something you now don’t need, or it may be the case that sacrifices could be made (for example, you may have an analytics plugin installed that lets you see your site’s stats in real time in the WordPress dashboard, but if you already have Google Analytics set up it could be a convenience you could manage without!).

If a number of plugins are surplus to requirement and you are having pagespeed problems, simply disabling or removing them (making sure to back up any important data first) should generate noticeable improvements.

Images

This author has talked about images as relating to site speed quite a lot in the past! With that in mind, here’s a detailed article that we did on the subject previously:

Image compression tips

The short version is that images weighing in at a large file size tend to slow down page loading times a lot; it’s simply a case of adding more resources that have to be transferred from the server to the user’s browser. If you’re concerned that compressing images will make them look worse, don’t be – modern image compression software and tools, even free ones, can regularly make size savings of 20-60% on an image, with the image remaining unchanged to the naked eye.

This is an important topic to be aware of, as for most websites images will constitute a large percentage of total page size, therefore having a substantial impact on how quickly a page loads.

Caching

Caching in web terms refers to the storing of data in a user’s browser, to make subsequent page visits faster (otherwise, the page has to be completely built by the server every time someone visits it, which needless to say takes much more time!). Although this can be done by developers and support staff, an easy solution for WordPress sites is to use a caching plugin such as W3 Total Cache. This makes the process much easier, as the plugin takes care of all of the otherwise complex server operations that this entails. For most sites, the default out-of-the-box settings should suffice, although it may be worth reading up on the settings of individual components so that you can best adjust them to the needs of your site.

Spam Comments

Getting genuine comments on your blog section is great – it shows that you’re producing the right kind of content, it provides an opportunity to engage with your customers, and it can even help with SEO if there are a reasonable number of relevant comments (as this shows the content is popular). However, there is a dark side to all this – spam comments!

Spam comments on your site will:

  • Make your website look less trustworthy, both to users and to search engines
  • Damage your brand’s reputation
  • Potentially result in users visiting spam, fake or phishing sites
  • Clog up your WordPress database
  • Potentially ruin your site’s SEO by adding large volumes of irrelevant text and keywords

Fortunately, this is easy to deal with through plugins. Akismet is one of the most widely-used and popular solutions, although you may want to shop around to find a suitable plugin that meets your needs.

It’s also important to make sure that your site isn’t set to automatically allow comments with no verification (either automatically or manually) as an extra line of defence.

If you’re not looking to receive comments on your site, whether for branding reasons, time management or otherwise, simply disabling comments in the WordPress backend will solve the above issue handily!

Let's work together

If you want to talk to our specialist team about how we can help you with your digital marketing, talk to our team today.

Bonus Tips

Google Search console

Google Search Console can be a very handy tool for optimising your site’s SEO, as we’ve covered in these articles on a variety of topics:

Technical SEO basics

SEO Indexation checklist

Improving Clickthrough rate (CTR)

It’s very easy to set up in WordPress with Yoast as well, simply go to the General>Webmaster Tools section and copy in the verification code from Search Console like so:

Fixing page formatting

Most of the time, copywriters and content creators will create content for WordPress in other applications, such as Microsoft Word, so that it can be sent off for approval or otherwise edited more easily than in the main WordPress interface. One disadvantage of this that isn’t widely known is that when content is copied from other applications into WordPress, it also copies over all of the HTML  and ‘non-clean’ formatting from those applications. This can mess up your page’s formatting, make the page harder to read for users and search engines alike, and also cost you time trying to fix the problem.

Aside from the obvious suggestion of “just write the content in WordPress!” there are several (free) online Word to HTML tools, such as Textfixer, that will automatically strip out junk code, tidy up the formatting and generally make your content more presentable. All you need to do is copy and paste your content in, then go to the ‘text’ part of the WordPress editor like so:

From here it’s just a question of pasting in the cleaned HTML, and you should be good to go!

Yoast page optimisation

Although we said we wouldn’t cover SEO basics in this article, it would be remiss of us to ignore Yoast’s handy page optimisation feature. When you’re editing a standard post or page, a number of boxes will be visible at the bottom. These will let you:

  • Set a ‘focus keyword’ for the page, with a traffic-light system that will easily show you how to keyword-optimise the page
  • Show the page’s readability score, which includes elements such as subheading distribution and the Flesch reading score
  • Edit your page title and metadescription, and check they’re a good length
  • Edit the canonical and noindex tags of the article if required
  • Change the social media titles, descriptions and images if desired

Here’s a couple of previews:

Focus keyphrase:

The configuration tab:

Wrapping Up

We hope you found this article useful. If you need any help with your WordPress website, whether you’re looking to build a new site or work on an existing one, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us and we’ll do our very best to help you on your journey!

Ben Henderson

Ben Henderson

Ben Henderson is a SEO specialist at Agency51, and enjoys working on and writing about all aspects of technical SEO for a wide variety of websites and industries.

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