What is Yoast SEO?
In the WordPress space, there are a couple of contenders for general SEO plugin, but Yoast gets my vote for being the most consistently easy to understand and implement. Yoast SEO deals with on-page SEO. If you want your site to rank in Google then you should really be taking a keen interest in the fundamentals of SEO.
Google Search Results
Reaching page two in a novel means you’ve achieved something. Reaching page two on Google means you have a lot of work to do. But if you apply the intelligent strategies in this post to your SEO keywords strategies then there’s no reason you won’t move up a place or two and make it to the front page.
According to searchenginewatch.com and Protofuse.com 33% of clicks go to the first result on page one. A rather shocking 10% continue to the second page of results. That speaks for itself. Chitika’s study from 2013 shows that even the first result on page two only gets 1% of traffic.
So it’s clear that SEO is important. If your site is not optimised then your content has the immediate disadvantage of being harder to find by people using search engines (almost every web user).
Keywords and SEO strategy
Before attempting to improve SEO it’s a good idea to look at your content and determine which keywords you would like to rank on Google for. If you run a Mountain Guiding site then the words Mountain Guiding, Mountain Guide, and Guiding Services are very important but we can use tools to find out a bit more about our potential customers.
Once you have your keywords you can then implement an SEO strategy. Installing the Yoast SEO plugin on your WordPress site gives you a lot of power to improve SEO with guided recommendations. In this article, I’ll go into depth on setting up Yoast for maximum impact but you can skip to here (once the plugin is installed) to read about individual page SEO and keyword placement.
Table of Contents
1. Install Yoast
First things first, let’s install Yoast.
The procedure for installing the Yoast SEO plugin is the same as for any other WordPress plugin.
Go to Plugins > Add New
Type Yoast SEO in the ‘Search Plugins’ box near the top right of your screen
Click ‘Install Now’ inside the Yoast SEO box.
Click ‘Activate Plugin’ and a new option called SEO will appear on the admin bar.
Once the installation steps are completed we can then take a look at Yoast’s configuration steps.
If you’d prefer to skip Yoast’s configuration options and learn about how to optimise each page’s content for SEO then skip to Using Yoast SEO on Individual Pages
Otherwise, read on for a thorough explanation of Yoast’s capabilities and configuration options.
Click on the SEO icon in the WordPress admin to be taken to the Yoast Configuration administration area.
There are 8 sections here and we’ll examine each one individually.
Enter your company name or blog name in the Company Info section and upload a company logo. The logo is used in certain searches for Google Knowledge Graph (an enhancement for Google’s search engine results) and can be used by Facebook and other social media sites.
If you use webmaster tools such as Google Search Console you can add the verification codes in the Webmaster Tools tab.
On the Security tab, you can set whether other authors on your WordPress site have access to advanced options on the Yoast SEO settings for individual pages. Only enable this if you are the sole administrator of the site or you completely trust the other authors and publishers not to make changes that will benefit their own sites while detracting from your site.
The OnPage.org indexability check on the last tab is set to ‘enabled’ by default. This allows OnPage.org to check your site for issues with your site which might affect a search engine’s ability to index your content.
Titles & Metas
Titles & Meta allows you to completely change how the titles of your pages and posts are displayed, as well as the meta descriptions within them. You can do this through templates which are configured for individual elements of your site in the following tabs.
This section allows you to allow rewriting of the titles of your posts. What does this mean? Well, if you notice some issues with the titles of your posts and how they appear in the search engines then it’s worth looking at the force rewrite titles option.
The title separator is simply a symbol that separates the displayed name of the site and the post/page title.
Advanced: A couple of things to consider.
Checking this option can increase the load on the server as it has to rewrite the titles on every page so proceed with caution.
Genesis themes (like the one used for this website) shouldn’t need this option at all.
Many people find that the rewritten titles are unsatisfactory and even problematic so test, test and test again.
This section is used for creating a template for how the Title on the homepage is displayed. If you’d like the site name and description in a different order, with certain separating symbols or spaces then you can make those changes here. Creating a template involves the use of variables which is beyond the scope of this article but you can read more about it here.
If you don’t have the options available it’s probably because your theme takes care of that elsewhere.
Post Types are how WordPress refers to different content templates. In this section we can edit how the titles of posts, pages and media such as images, are displayed. You can create your own meta description templates here but it’s better to create a meta description on every single post for maximum SEO impact. Meta descriptions are used to give the user an idea of what the page is about and can be used in search results.
Pages refer to your sites pages such as Contact, About Us. The procedure for creating titles and Meta description templates is the same for the Posts, described above.
Media refers to images, audio, and other types of multimedia that you might have on your site. Follow the procedure for the Posts and Pages sections.
The options available in this section are:
Meta Robots: index/noIndex – Allow or prevent the page from being indexed by search Engines. In most cases default of index will be the normal setting.
Date in Snippet Preview – Allow of prevent the date to appear with the search results. This is important for older posts as users might ignore posts that display a date from a couple of years ago even if the post is entirely relevant and fresh. Leave this on the default of Hide to improve SEO.
Yoast SEO meta box – This can be left on the default enabled as we want to edit the SEO descriptions on each post and page.
Here’s where we need to change a few things to have a well-optimized SEO setup.
Categories are lists of posts. In a way, they work similarly to tags, those words you often see in the tag cloud on a website. The fact that categories pages are essentially blank containers for other pages means that they do not need to be indexed. In fact, if Google indexes the page it can have a negative effect on ranking.
For both categories and tags select the following options:
Meta Robots – This should be set to no index
Yoast SEO Meta box – Show
This experiment by the searchenginejournal.com shows that Noindexing taxonomies can have a positive effect on organic traffic.
There is some debate over whether to Noindex archives but if you are running a single-author blog then you should have ‘Author Archives’ disabled. I leave everything ‘disabled’ in this tab.
The recommendation for the index settings of subpages is noindex
This prevents duplicate content and irrelevant content getting indexed by Google. The content will still be crawled but they won’t be indexed.
The Yoast team are firm proponents of the notion that Meta keywords Tags mean nothing for SEO these days. I recommend following their advice.
Set the ‘Add noodp meta robots tag sitewide’ to enabled to force certain search engines to use the customised descriptions of your pages and not what directories such Yahoo and DMOZ tell them.
Here you can add your account URLS for the following social media sites,
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Myspace, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google+.
This isn’t an essential part of your SEO strategy but it’s worth spending a few minutes to fill out the details here. Adding the Open Graph settings to Facebook and Pinterest will make it easier to share content on those sites. Facebook will be able to pick up the right thumbnail and information when you share your page.
The Accounts page is straightforward, just enter the usernames or URLs of your accounts.
On the Facebook tab set the ‘Add Open Graph meta data’ to Enabled (if you have a Facebook account, of course). Enabling Facebook Insights is not part of the scope of this article but I will explain how to set this up in a future article.
The other social media options are self-explanatory.
This is quite an important section and one that many people skip over. If your site is new this is one of the best ways of helping the search engine crawlers to index your site quickly.
Make sure that XML sitemap functionality is enabled.
The Author / user sitemap on the User sitemap tabis disabled by default and this will be fine for most purposes.
On the Post Types tab you can create a granular approach to how the sitemaps are created. For most sites the images and other media do not have to be part of a sitemap and the default of disabled (Not in sitemap) is worth considering. If your images are merely functional (a good thing) and illustrate points then you could consider excluding them from a sitemap. If your site is image-heavy, as in a photography site, and you want to promote these images then include them in the sitemap. Google will eventually find them anyway but this step can make things simpler for the Googlebot. Posts and Pages should definitely be set to ‘In sitemap’.
If you want to exclude any Posts then you can do so in the fourth tab. You will need the Post ID. You can find this by opening a post for editing in the WP admin. The post ID will appear something like https://www.blogmotive.com/blog/wp-admin/post.php?post=213&action=edit in your address bar. The 213 number is the ID.
In the Taxonomies tab you can specify whether an XML sitemap is created for categories and tags. If you’d like a sitemap created of each category and each tag in your site then leave both options enabled. I’ve disabled sitemaps for tags as I feel it’s unnecessary to index all tags on my site. I also specified ‘no index’ for tags previously, so this keeps in line with this thinking.
The reason for streamlining how your site is indexed and mapped is to avoid duplicate content. When indexing your site Google can use different paths to find the same content and this can cause a penalty to be applied. Removing unnecessary paths to your content, such as tags & categories in some cases can help your ranking. A word of caution: this is a tricky area to get into. If in doubt, stick with the defaults and keep tags to a minimum.
Yoast doesn’t automatically inform Google about your XML sitemap so you will need to add this in Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools). Read these instructions on setting up Google Search Console.
The Advanced section is not as complicated as it sounds and there are some useful options buried in here.
I’d recommend using breadcrumbs if you have a big site. Check in your theme’s documentation to see if you can use breadcrumbs. The theme may already provide this feature but if not then you can use Yoast’s breadcrumbs to show a path to each page of content. The thinking here is that breadcrumbs are helpful to the user but also to Google’s crawlers in the case of very large (100s of pages) sites. Personally, I think breadcrumbs are useful and if you have the know-how to implement them then it’s worth doing. Google appear to be in favour of breadcrumbs so it’s always worth keeping on that side of the fence.
To implement breadcrumbs you will either need to edit the PHP code in your theme or install a plugin.
Once you’ve implemented breadcrumbs it’s a simple matter of setting the ‘enable breadcrumbs’ option in the Advanced section of Yoast. You can then choose your preferences.
Don’t confuse this section with the permalinks section of your WordPress settings. The permalinks section in Settings allows you to create URLs such as http://domainname.com/this-is-a-blog-post instead of http://domainname.com/2016/10/5/this-is-a-blog-post and other such manipulations. It’s more SEO friendly way of presenting your pages. The Permalinks tab of the Yoast Advanced section allows you to remove the category base from the URL which is useful for keeping a clean URL structure. The default is ‘Keep’.
WordPress gives all attachments their own pages. If you’d prefer to have Google index your original page and not the attachment URL then select ‘Redirect’ on the ‘Redirect attachment URL’s to parent post URL’ option.
Removing stop words (to, and, etc) from URLs is an SEO-friendly directive. Keep this.
Make sure the ‘Remove the ?replytocom variables’ option is set to ‘Keep’. Most sites will not want these comment reply URLs indexed.
In the ‘Clean up the <head>’ section there are four options. These are minor changes that you can skip but they provide a quick fix for small house-keeping of your site. RSD or Really Simple Discovery is a set of rules that enable communication between WordPress and a blogging client. What’s a blogging client you ask? Well, as almost all of us are writing our blog posts through our browsers blogging clients have become almost obsolete. Se this option to ‘Hide’ to remove unnecessary code from the header part of your blog page code. WLW stands for Windows Live Writer. Yes, you can safely select ‘Hide’ here if you don’t know what that is. Shortlinks for posts are unnecessary in the header. Set to ‘Hide’ Another unnecessary header entry is the RSS link. Set to ‘Hide’
The RSS tab is simple enough and is used more for adding information to your RSS feeds. Don’t remove this as it will allow scrapers to effectively steal the benefit of your post reach.
This section gives you options for backing up your Yoast settings and importing settings from another blog. Very useful once you have finalised all settings. You can then use these settings on other blogs, saving you lots of time.
You can edit the robots.txt file and the .htaccess file directly from the browser now. This is a useful time-saving device as FTP or SSH access is usually required to perform these tasks. In the case of errors, however, I wouldn’t change these settings without having access to the files via FTP or SSH anyway.
The .htaccess file is a set of directives to the web server which can be quite tricky to get right. Yoast will change the settings automatically as you configure it but if you’re proficient in editing this file you can do so here.
The robots.txt file is used to block web crawlers from reaching certain directories on your website.
I don’t recommend ever bulk editing titles and descriptions.
You may see the message ‘recalculate SEO scores’ appear in the Yoast dashboard from time to time. You can perform the recalculation at any time from this section. Yoast provide little information on this option and by all accounts it appears to be more of a nice-to-have rather than an important option.
To link your WordPress site to Google Search Console it’s a simple matter of getting your authorisation code and then verifying it. If you’re signed into your Google account (the one that controls your Google Search Console access) you will be redirected a page containing a code. Copy the code, paste it into the code box beside the button Authenticate and then click the button. Then select your profile (in the event that you have more than one site) and click Save Profile.
Three new tabs will then appear inside the Search Console section, Desktop, Smartphone, and Feature phone.
These sections are useful for checking errors in the crawl results for your site. The same information is available in Google Analytics and Google Search Console but you don’t have to leave WordPress to view them using these tabs.
404 errors are common in sites that are growing. 404 errors refer to pages that no longer exist or have been renamed. Google’s crawler has found links and references to these pages and can’t find them. This hurts the SEO score so it’s always worth checking these errors regularly and fixing them.
Only redirect pages that once existed. If there are any 404 errors for random pages there’s no reason to redirect them. Leave them as 404 pages.
The extensions section is for adding premium services to the Yoast SEO plugin. If your site is heavy on video then it’s worth getting the Video SEO extension.
For a local business then Local SEO might help your rankings better than the standard Yoast plugin which doesn’t focus on this aspect of SEO.
Now let’s take a look at how to improve SEO for individual pages and posts on your WordPress site.
Using Yoast SEO with individual Posts
Now that’s we’ve configured Yoast properly we can focus on the SEO settings of individual posts. This is called on-page SEO.
Open up a Post that you’ve already published and scroll down past the text editor to the Yoast SEO section (if you don’t see this section make sure it’s enabled. Back at the top of the page near the right-hand side click Screen Options and make sure ‘Yoast SEO’ is ticked)
The image above shows theYoast SEO page for an example post that gets the ‘green light’ (meaning it is search engine optimised) for content. Don’t worry too much about getting all green. It’s hard to get 100% green lights without making keywords appear forced, especially if your focus keyword is a phrase of more than one word. You will want to put the Keyword in the title, H1 tag, the URL, a sub-heading, and the first paragraph. That’s a lot of places to put the phrase ‘W3 Total Cache’, for example, but with some imagination it can be done. The focus keyword is just one part of the SEO structure for a post. Let’s take a look at how we can improve all aspects of SEO for a post.
If you’ve just installed the Yoast SEO plugin or you’ve just started a post you won’t see anything in the Focus Keyword box. The Focus Keyword should contain a word or phrase that mirrors the title of the post. If the post is called ’Top 10 SEO tips’ then the focus keyword ‘SEO’ would work, but so would ’SEO tips’ or even ‘Top 10 SEO tips’. Longer focus keywords will make the post more SEO-unique but will also make it harder to use the keywords in all the right places. A keyword of ‘SEO’ alone will be easier to insert into the title, H1 tag, URL, etc.
2-5 words will do. In our example case, ‘Mountain Guiding trips in New Zealand’ is better than ‘Mountain Guiding’ if we want to get clients that are looking for guiding trips in the New Zealand alps.
The snippet preview is simply a preview of how your post will appear in Google’s search results. You can edit it directly by clicking ‘Edit snippet’.
Below the snippet editor you will find the Focus Keyword and below this, you will find the Content Analysis.
The Content Analysis section displays results of Yoast’s check on your content for SEO-friendliness. If the focus keyword is not ideal or the l the content is not of the suggested length a notification will be displayed here.
The meta description should be 130-155 characters. Try using ‘Find out how!’, ‘Check out how I did it!’, or ‘Try for free’ will invite people to click.
Make the description unique within your site and it should contain the focus keyword.
The Yoast team describes the meta description’s purpose as ‘a way to get the visitor in Google to click your link’. In the past meta descriptions were used for keyword stuffing. Google then changed the search algorithm to completely devalue the significance of the meta keywords. What this means is that the meta description doesn’t affect SEO that much (directly) but it’s very important as it’s the first thing that someone sees when looking at your search result in Google.
Make sure it’s relevant and contains a compelling headline to grab attention.
First of all, I wouldn’t suggest trying to get all green lights as this can actually work against you. Manipulating the post title, keywords, and content purely to get a green light on all indicators to the detriment of your post’s intended purpose and value is a trap you should try to avoid falling into. Make sure the post’s keywords and content actually display what your post is about. The focus keyword is what you want to rank for on search engines so it should be the main thread of the post. Think of it like this, the most important thing is the content, then the SEO should be built around that. Don’t get those steps reversed.
The focus keyword should also appear in the URL of the page. As you can see from the snippet screenshot the URL of the page is http://digitalhub.io/w3-total-cache and the Focus keyword is w3 Total Cache.
Headings are important as they give structure to your page and they also help search engines understand the content. It goes without saying then that the headings should relate to the content. People also love jumping to the relevant (for them) parts of your article, and creating headings helps them find what they came for. Without headings, a page of content looks like a lot of hard work for the hurried internet consumer.
You should only have one H1 on your page. This is taken care of my the title of the post/page. It’s the most important heading. H2s are the next most important and you can have as many of these as you like. H2s should define sections of your post. Use keywords in the H2 headings.
Yoast recommends 300 words as the minimum for a blog post. You don’t have to follow this and it’s better to ignore it rather than put filler on your page.
Don’t use the same keyword in more than one post. This won’t help any of the pages.
I try to get all green lights on the Content Analysis but occasionally I see a red light with the description ‘The focus keyword doesn’t appear in the first paragraph of the copy’. This despite the fact that the keyword is in the first paragraph. This appears to be a bug with Yoast which only recognises the keyword if it’s inside a paragraph tag in the first paragraph. In my experience, any other type of tag (heading, image, etc) will not work. To fix this put some <p> tags around the first paragraph and that little problem should go away.
Yoast SEO Sections for Posts
If you look to the left of the Yoast SEO panel you’ll see three icons. One is a traffic light, the other a cogwheel, and the third is a type of network node symbol that represents sharing. Click on the cog icon to enter the Advanced section of the page analysis. We can then customised advanced options for the individual post or page.
If you’re new to Yoast then you can ignore this section but know that it can be a very useful section and it’s worth having an understanding of it.
The Meta Robots Index option defines whether the post should be indexed or not. The default is ‘index’ and this will be the setting most pages will take. Changing this to noIndex instructs search engines to not show your page in search results. Reasons to ‘noindex’ a page might be to hide from search engines a promotion/offer page that’s not password protected but contains ‘exclusive’ information.
The Meta Robots Follow instructs search engines to follow or not to follow links on your page. The default is ‘follow’, so why would anyone use ‘nofollow’ for a link on their page? To explain this we need a very quick introduction to how Google indexes pages. If someone links to your site then Google will apply a small increment in the SEO value of your site. Google likes links. Pages with lots of links inbound must be authority pages. Google loves authority pages. PageRank is the famous algorithm that calculates all of this. A link with the ‘noFollow’ will not receive this SEO boost. In the past spammers manipulated the ‘Follow’ attribute and PageRank to boost their sites rankings by posting all over the internet and creating fake sites with links back to their site. The NoFollow attribute was created to help combat this. Comments from spammers (or anyone) on your WordPress site are automatically given the noFollow attribute. NoFollow helps to show Google that you either don’t trust or can’t vouch for the link you are providing. Basically, you are disowning any affiliation with or validation of the content on the site you’re linking to. So why use noFollow? Google transfers PageRank from your site to another if you use ‘Follow’ links. SEO experts refer to the value transferred as link-juice. Giving away link-juice is seen as a bad thing but Google doesn’t recommend making all external sites ‘No-follow’.
Be aware that using the noFollow attribute on your page makes all links NoFollow, including internal links (back to your own pages).
Here’s a video of Matt Cutts from Google explaining NoFollow links. It’s not clear what Google’s stance is. Matt Cutts spends a lot of time in videos talking around a subject but not fully explaining it. We can take from this that even Google is not 100% sure. Take my advice to be on the safe side.
Use ‘nofollow’ on paid links, affiliate links, and untrusted content. If you have links that you trust and are relevant you should use ‘follow’ links.
There’s some debate over the usage of nofollow links and ranking performance. In the basic sense, the nofollow tag tells a search engine not to count a link as an endorsement or vote in favour of that page. Ultimately it can harm your site if Google believes it to be a link-farms, or involved in some black hat SEO practises. You use the nofollow to show that you have no special relationship with the other site and that you are not trying to influence the ranking of that site. In this way, Google will not think you are trying to build links to another site and cheat the rankings. Backlinks are one of the most important factors in determining a site’s ranking so Google watches out for fake link building. Keep in mind, that these are recommendations and nothing is set in stone. Another issue is with internal links. If you set the page to ‘nofollow’ all links then internal links receive the same treatment. Google recommends not to do this. Yoast doesn’t seem to have a good answer to this and don’t provide the option to select ‘nofollow’ for external links and follow for internal ones.
Meta Robots Advanced is a section most people will never need to touch but here’s a description of each, direct from Google.
“noodp: prevents the alternative description from the ODP/DMOZ from being used
noimageindex: lets you specify that you do not want your page to appear as the referring page for an image that appears in Google search results.
noarchive: prevents Google from showing the Cached link for a page.
nosnippet: prevents a snippet from being shown in the search results”
– Google https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/79812?hl=en
The Canonical Url is quite an important one but is useful only if you are referring to a piece of content similar to the content on your page, and the referred page is the preferred version. In WordPress, we set the Canonical URL through the WordPress General Settings section. We can then tell Google through Google Search Console which version of our site (the www or non-www version) is the preferred one. In the case of individual pages, the Canonical URL option can refer search engines to the preferred version of a page to prevent duplicate content being indexed. This is used more on eCommerce sites than blogs, for example.
These are all Advanced settings so proceed with caution. For the majority of WordPress users the advanced section will never be used and the defaults will remain untouched.
The Sharing tab is much easier to understand than the Advanced section. In fact, the settings are self-explanatory. This section allows you to customise how your social media shares appear on each social media network. You can change the title, description, and image of the link to your post in this section. The image size recommendations are printed below the Image path box.
Armed with the knowledge above you should be able to optimise the Yoast SEO plugin for your WordPress site in less than an hour. Optimising each individual page is something you should do with every new post and consider it part of the website management tasks. Changes to the SEO of your content can have a significant impact on your site’s ranking and usability. SEO can be performed manually if you understand HTML and there are alternatives to Yoast but I’ve found Yoast SEO to be the best all-round plugin for WordPress (in any category).