Talk to any number of blogging newcomers about WordPress SEO, and two schools of thought inevitably emerge.
There are those who dismiss SEO (Search Engine Optimization) as being about little more than picking a few keywords (often with little to no research) and scattering them with abandon throughout their content.
Then there are those who look at the whole gamut of SEO tools, techniques, strategies, and solutions at their disposal and see the whole thing as being so completely overwhelming that it’s impossible to figure out.
The truth is that neither of these is the right way to look at it.
Yes, keywords do play a part in SEO, but they’re far from the be-all-and-end-all and certainly shouldn’t be used in a way that’s detrimental to your visitor’s reading experience.
And yes, there is a lot you could potentially do to up your SEO game, but it’s far from the complicated nightmare it may appear to be to some novice bloggers.
To prove it, I drew on my experience in using effective Search Engine Optimization strategies to grow a multi-million dollar content website portfolio and used that experience to put together this comprehensive step-by-step beginner’s guide to WordPress SEO.
What is WordPress SEO?
Before we dive into how to optimize your blog for success properly, let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page to understand precisely what WordPress is.
In a nutshell, this is all about using specific tools, techniques, and strategies to improve your WordPress’ website’s visibility in organic search results such as those generated by Google and other search engines like Bing and Yahoo!.
The more effective your Search Engine Optimization efforts are, the higher your blog posts and pages are going to rank in those search results, and the higher they rank, the better equipped you are to drive traffic to your blog.
When it comes to doing this safely, effectively, and efficiently, there are two key things we need to consider:
White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO
What do hats have to do with Search Engine Optimization?
Quite a lot.
“Black Hat SEO” refers to quick-and-dirty tactics like keyword stuffing and using “invisible” text that search engines can read but users can’t, tactics that are ultimately designed to manipulate search engine algorithms and rank pages higher with little-to-no consideration for usability.
The truth is that these black hat techniques can produce results, albeit very short-term ones. Even if you used one of these techniques to catapult to the first place SERP (Search Engine Results Page) position, as soon as Google finds out that you’re doing it (and they will find out), that page is going to be de-ranked.
In a worst-case scenario, your entire website can be blacklisted, rendering all your efforts useless.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, “white hat SEO” refers to those techniques and strategies which take a user-first approach.
Focus on delivering the best possible user experience, and Google rewards you for your efforts with higher ranking positions and no risk of being de-ranked.
Naturally, then, this guide will focus on those effective white hat WordPress SEO techniques.
Technical SEO vs. Content SEO
Go outside right now and ask 10 people to name the first word that comes to mind when you say “SEO.”
I’m willing to bet that 9 out of 10 of them said “keywords.”
This is hardly surprising. As we’ve already discussed, SEO has a reputation for being all about building content around your keywords.
Sure, there is some of that involved, but it’s not the only thing you need to consider.
If we’re focusing our SEO efforts on users rather than search engines, that means that every aspect of our blog has to be fully optimized to deliver a great user experience. This includes not just coming up with great blog post ideas but ensuring that your posts load quickly, function on all devices, and are backed by robust WordPress security.
These strategies (among others) are what we call technical SEO, while the keyword stuff you’re no doubt dying to hear about is known as content SEO.
To get the best possible results for your blog, we’re going to focus on both.
WordPress SEO: Complete Step-by-Step Beginners Guide
Let’s know the step-by-step beginner’s guide.
1. Make Your WordPress Site Secure
There are some WordPress SEO guides out there that treat site security as something of an after-thought, as a chore to be taken care of after you’ve dealt with the more enjoyable aspects of search engine optimization.
Honestly, this is the wrong way to go about it.
After all, you could have the most optimized content on a website that breaks all kinds of new records for speed and performance, but if it gets hacked, polluted with malware, or otherwise compromised, it could easily end up being blacklisted by Google.
That’s why, before you do anything else, it’s a good idea to optimize your site’s security, taking a preemptive and proactive approach to preventing your site from being compromised.
The good news is that this isn’t all that difficult to do. You don’t need to be a cyber security expert, nor do you need to spend thousands of dollars hiring one.
You simply need to install a plugin that does all the hard work for you after you configure a few simple settings,
I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to the best WordPress security plugins to help you find the best one for your site.
If you don’t have time for that right now, I’ll tell you that my top recommendation is Sucuri, a free security tool that makes it easy to protect your site from all manner of security threats.
Set that up right from the start, and you enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that there’s a minimum chance of your additional SEO efforts being ruined by a security breach.
2. Install an SSL Certificate
Sticking with the theme of security, your site is going to need an extra layer of security known as SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), which encrypts the connection between your website’s hosting server and your user’s internet browser.
Many of the best WordPress hosting companies offer free or discount SSL certificates.
These are always worth installing, as Google does use HTTPS (a signal that an SSL certificate is active) as a ranking factor when determining search results.
If you’re not sure how this works, I produced a guide on how to install an SSL certificate which you may find helpful.
3. Install Performance Optimization Plugins
Again, some bloggers don’t consider technical SEO elements like page speed and performance optimization until the very end, but that makes no sense.
Google and other search engines reward you for building sites that deliver the best possible user experience. That includes having posts and pages that load quickly and smoothly on any device, so why wouldn’t you want to address that right from the word go?
Besides, when you set up your performance optimization at the beginning of your SEO journey, you can be sure that everything you do from here on in is better aligned to deliver the fastest, smoothest experience.
To do this, I recommend using a plugin called WP Rocket which creates a cached version of your site’s content to load faster in your user’s web browser.
WP Rocket also helps with performance optimization by minifying your CSS and JS files, optimizing your image files, and more.
If you don’t like that plugin, top WP Rocket alternatives include:
4. Check Your WordPress Site Settings
With those essential WordPress plugins installed, your next task should be to go to the settings menu on your main WordPress dashboard, as many of the options featured here can make a difference to your WordPress SEO.
First, go to Settings – Reading and ensure that the search engine visibility box is unchecked.
If this box (labeled “Discourage search engines from indexing this site”) is checked, uncheck it immediately as a checked box means Google is unlikely to even bother looking at your site, making it pretty impossible to rank.
You should also go to Settings – Permalinks to configure how your post and page URLs look.
By default, these are set to a plain URL that simply identifies each post or page by a number, meaning you end up with URLs that look like this:
That’s fine, but it doesn’t exactly tell users or search engines much about the content to be found under that URL, so it’s worthwhile changing them.
I prefer to change my permalinks to post name so that posts look something like this:
Though you may prefer to create a custom structure of your own.
5. Check Your Site Health
Before we move away from the technical aspects of WordPress SEO and start focussing on your content, it’s worth checking that your site is in the best possible health.
If you’re working through this guide after recently learning how to install WordPress for the first time then there’s every chance your new installation is going to be in optimum condition.
Still, it’s worth checking anyway, and if you’ve had your site running for some time, it’s even more important.
Find the “Site Health Status” box on your WordPress dashboard to check your site’s health.
This will tell you the status of your site and whether there are any improvements that need to be made.
You can then click through the Site Health Screen, which shows you what those improvements are.
You can then use this screen to address any issues that need to be addressed before moving on.
I highly recommend you do this as a site that is in poor health is only going to limit your ability to deliver those optimum user experiences and may result in ranking penalties from Google that negatively impact your SEO.
6. Start Your Content SEO With Keyword Research
So, by now, you’ve got a site that is healthy, secure, and optimized for exceptional performance.
All you need to do now is to start adding excellent SEO content to attract readers, boost your organic traffic, and improve search results.
How do you do that?
First, you’re going to need to do some keyword research to determine the kind of topics your visitors want to read about and the kind of content you’ll need to produce to meet that demand.
Keyword research is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of effective WordPress SEO, which is why I put together this detailed keyword research beginner’s guide to talk you through the whole process.
I highly recommend you spend some time going through that guide, but for now, let me talk you through the basic process of conducting your own research.
A. Brainstorm topics
To begin, determine what your blog niche will be, then brainstorm a list of broad subject ideas and topics that you might want to write about within that niche.
If you go with Apple technology as your main niche, you might come up with topics such as Apple product reviews, how-tos, tutorials, or the latest Apple news and announcements.
B. Think About What Your Readers May Search For
Now that you’ve got these subjects in place, it’s time to think about what search terms people might use to find content like yours.
Let’s say that you want to focus on Apple How-Tos and tutorials for now.
Ask yourself: “what kind of tutorials might people want?”
You might come up with examples such as how to fix a broken iPhone, how to increase Apple iPhone battery life, or how to install an app.
C. Check Google Analytics for Search Terms
If you’ve already been posting to your blog and getting some level of traffic, an easy way to determine exactly what search terms people are using to find your blog is to look under the Search Console – Queries tab of your Google Analytics dashboard.
This helps to eliminate the guesswork and gives you a list of actual things people are looking for that you can provide through your content.
D. Chose a Keyword Research Tool
I recommend the free Keyword Magic Tool from SEMRush for doing keyword research, though you’ll find other top choices in my guide to the best keyword research tools to buy in 2022.
E. Analyse Monthly Search Volumes
After creating an account, you can use this tool to get useful insights into which keywords are worth targeting.
Pick just one of the search terms you came up with in steps 3 and 4 and enter them into the search box.
This will bring up a wealth of data about that term, but the first thing you want to consider is the Monthly Search Volume (MSV) which tells you how many times people search for that specific term in a given month.
If enough people are searching for that term, that’s a good indication that it’s worth covering.
F. Consider Ranking Difficulty
A keyword may have millions of people searching for it, but if there are already countless blog posts providing high-quality content on that subject, it may be difficult (though not impossible) for you to rank for it.
This is why it’s worth paying attention to the ranking difficulty of any particular keyword and thinking carefully about how much time and effort you’re going to put into ranking for that word.
As a general rule, I’d advise going for a mixture of easy-to-rank-for and difficult-to-rank-for keywords.
G. Think About User Intent
Products like SEMRush’s Keyword Magic Tool will also tell you the user intent of each search word.
In simple terms, user intent means simply that:
What was the user intending to achieve when they looked up that search word?
Did they want to read up on a product or service they were thinking of buying?
Perhaps they wanted to learn a new skill (like how to do WordPress SEO), or maybe they simply wanted to do some background reading on a topic of interest.
Whatever the case may be, knowing exactly why users are searching for a particular keyword or term will help you determine the type of content you create.
For example, if they’re investigating products to buy, then writing a review of that product will be more beneficial to your readers than writing a tutorial on how to use that product.
7. Install a WordPress SEO Plugin
With all of your research done, it’s time to put it to work in creating great content, but first, you’re going to need to install a WordPress SEO plugin to ensure that this content is as fully optimized as possible.
While there are many quality options out there, Yoast SEO remains the most popular SEO tool for WordPress around.
While a premium version costs $99 per year, most WordPress bloggers will find the free version to be more than sufficient.
You can add this to your blog the same way you’d install any WordPress plugin and use it to optimize your content as you go.
8. Set Your Focus Keyword
Once the Yoast SEO plugin is installed, you’ll find that it presents you with a series of options under every blog post.
The first of these options that you want to fill is the “focus keyword.”
This is the main keyword that you want to rank for with your post. Adding it into Yoast tells the plugin what you’re trying to achieve and enables it to help you optimize your content for that keyword.
9. Optimize Your Title
The title of your post or page is literally the first thing people will see and, therefore, should tell them exactly what your post is about.
It’s for this reason that you’ll want to make sure that your focus keyword is featured in the title. Not just featured, but featured as close to the beginning of the title as possible as people looking through results will see those first couple of words before anything else and will likely make a decision on whether to click through based on that alone.
That’s why this guide is called ‘WordPress SEO: Complete Step-by-Step Beginners Guide’ and not ‘A Complete Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide to WordPress SEO.’
Keep in mind, too, that the way that your blog automatically arranges page titles may not be optimum by default.
There’s a big difference between ‘ForrestWebber.com | Posts | WordPress SEO‘ and ‘WordPress SEO | ForrestWebber.com.’
Thankfully, you can use the ‘site title’ option on Yoast SEO to better optimize your title.
10. Add a Meta Description
Along with the title, the meta description -literally a description of what the content is about- is the second main piece of information that search engines show to help users determine whether your content is worth checking out.
With this, you’ll want to ensure your keyword is included and that the meta description is the optimum length for search engines.
How do you know it’s the optimum length? Simple: When it isn’t, the bar underneath the Meta Description box on Yoast will be red or orange. When it is, that bar turns green.
11. Write Your Content With Strategically-Placed Keywords
I’ve said multiple times in this guide that Search Engine Optimization isn’t all about keywords, and it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
You’re still going to need to include your focus keyword at least a handful of times within your content to help Google pick up on the context and relevance of your post.
As a general rule, I try and include my focus keywords:
- 1 x in the post title
- 1 x in the opening paragraph
- 1 x in the first H2 heading
- 1 – 2 x in subheadings (depending on the length of the content).
You’ll also want to include your keyword a smattering of times throughout the body of your content depending on its length.
Yoast’s Keyword Density Checker (found under the ‘analysis results’ of your posts) will tell you whether you’ve included that keyword too much or too little.
As a final note on using keywords – only use them when it’s relevant and flows naturally within a sentence.
Remember, you’re creating content for readers, not search engines, and there’s nothing more off-putting to a reader than a sentence that reads awkwardly just so a blogger can fit their keyword in.
12. Using Heading Structures Effectively
Headings are a great way to break up your content into smaller, manageable chunks that are easier for visitors to read.
They can also help with telling search algorithms more about your content and the importance/relevance of information within your post.
WordPress turns headings into HTML tags like <h1>, <h2>, <h3> and so on.
H1 should always be your main post title. You should then avoid using an H1 anywhere else on your post, as it can confuse both readers and search algorithms.
From there, the main sections of your posts should be H2s, with H3s used for smaller subsections before returning to H2s for the next section.
13. Add Optimized Images
The old adage that a picture speaks a thousand words is certainly true when it comes to Search Engine Optimization.
Images not only help to break up text and make your content more visually appealing, but they can also add value to readers and improve search rankings.
Images should be relevant to the topic, optimized for performance (using the features included in the aforementioned WP Rocket or image optimization plugins like Smush), and include alt-tags which explain what’s going on in the image.
14. Use Relevant Categories and Tags
When your content is fully optimized, it’s almost time to post it live to the world.
Before you do, however, be sure to add relevant categories and tags which help to organize your posts by themes and subjects, making it easier for readers to pick out the content that they’re most interested in reading.
Though categories and tags are often overlooked, they can prove vital for boosting your SEO, so it’s important to take care of them to ensure that your post -and your site as a whole- is as fully optimized as can be.
Effective WordPress SEO: A Final Word of Advice
The 14 steps listed above include everything you need to know to effectively manage your on-page SEO, that is, the steps you take to improve your SEO on your own website.
However, it’s also worth noting that there is also such a thing as off-page SEO. This includes tactics such as guest posting and other methods designed to boost your site’s authority and drive traffic.
For more on how to do this, I recommend checking out my comprehensive guide on how to promote your blog, which includes a number of the most effective off-page SEO strategies to help ensure the long-term success of your blog.