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WordPress SEO: A beginner’s guide, Part 1

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Do you ever feel like your blog is invisible? If you’re not getting the kind of traffic you want, you probably need to optimize your WordPress site for search engines. The best WordPress site in the world won’t be successful if nobody can find it. Using a WordPress SEO plugin is one easy way to improve your WordPress site’s SEO, but there are a few things you can do first with your WordPress settings and set-up that will improve SEO before you need to go shopping around for plugins. Let’s take a look at them.

Select an optimized theme

Your choice of theme lays the foundation for all your WordPress SEO efforts. An optimized WordPress site with clean code and intelligent architecture begins with a quality, optimized theme. You can’t go wrong choosing a theme that’s built on the Genesis framework by Studiopress, which has been endorsed by experts in both the WordPress and SEO communities. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg uses Genesis; Matt Cutts, the Google SEO guru, also recommends the framework. You can buy themes built onto the Genesis framework or you can buy the basic framework, and design your own custom theme on top of it.

SEO-friendly WordPress settings

We’ll start by giving a quick rundown of the various settings in WordPress that can be tweaked to improve your site SEO.

Page title format

Each page on your website can specify a title. This title will be visible in browser tabs, and in search engine results:

Browser tab showing page title   Search engine results showing page title

Under the hood, the title of a page is specified with an HTML tag, intuitively named the title tag. It looks something like this

 <title>Wordpress SEO: A beginner's guide</title>

If you’re not diving into the HTML, and just administering your site via the WordPress admin panel, then you don’t need to worry too much about HTML tag itself—you can manage this through the WordPress admin and the HTML details will be taken care of for you. There are, however, some things you should keep in mind if you want your site to rank well.

By default, WordPress will automatically assign a title to any pages and posts that you write. The title will take the format:

Page Title | Site Name

We’ll see how we can tweak this format with the use of plugins in a follow-up article.

For now though, the best advice is to use a descriptive title, of about 55 characters in length. SEO specialists Moz state:

Google typically displays the first 50-60 characters of a title tag, or as many characters as will fit into a 512-pixel display. If you keep your titles under 55 characters, you can expect at least 95% of your titles to display properly.

You should also include relevant or targetted keywords in the title. Including relevant keywords in the title is a very strong signal to Google and the other search engines that your article is about those keywords, and so it should help with its ranking.


Permalinks are basically just web addresses (the technical term is URL) for your content. They start with
http:// or https://. You can see the permalink in the address bar of your browser, e.g. for this article, the permalink is:

Permalink URL in address bar

The default structure for WordPress permalinks is pretty ugly, and looks something like this:

Apart from looking ugly, this structure doesn’t offer much useful information to help search engines rank you well. Search engines will tend to rank your page higher if it contains relevant keywords. Luckily, you can customize WordPress to create user-friendly, SEO-optimized URLS for your blog. Go to Settings > Permalinks, and choose one of the options there. The “Post Name” option is a good choice to keep your site’s URL structure simple. By choosing “Post Name“, this means that the permalink for a page on your site will be based on the title. So if your title contains relevant keywords, then your permalinks will too, and so it’s a double win in terms of search engine ranking.

wp permalinks set-up

Some people like to include the date in their URLs too, for example by choosing the “Month and name” option. So long as the post name is included in the URL, then including dates too shouldn’t harm the SEO.


Search engines consider the number of links that point back to your site when they determine your ranking. Linking to other people’s websites is an effective way to develop these links, but this tactic only works if people know you linked to them. The pingback, and its slightly older sibling, the trackback are developed as inter-blog linking techniques.

Without going into the technical differences between pingbacks and trackbacks, they both work in a similar fashion. If you link to another post on a different website, and you have pingbacks enabled, then WordPress will try to notify the site that you have linked to about your link. Some WordPress themes will then display this pingback as a comment, but many themes do not. But even if your theme does not display pingbacks publicly, it is still useful to know who linked to you. Some have argued that it’s better not to display these pingbacks publicly, as Google and the other search engines may classify reciprocal pingbacks as link-building, and you could be penalised for it.

To make sure your linking efforts aren’t going unnoticed, go to Settings > Discussion and be sure you’ve checked the box that says “Attempt to notify any blogs linked to from the article“.

wp pingback settings

For more information, see the WordPress documentation on pingbacks and trackbacks.


Every website has a simple file that provides permissions and instructions for search engines to access its content for indexing. WordPress has a setting too, located under Settings > Reading. Here you’ll find a checkbox labelled Search Engine Visibility, which will discourage search engines from crawling and indexing your content. If a site isn’t ready to go live, or if it’s a test or staging site, it’s a good idea to prohibit search engines from indexing it; however, sometimes website owners forget to change this setting once they’ve gone live. Don’t make this mistake with your own WordPress site, and make sure to check this box! If you’re going to go to the trouble of setting up a website you probably want some folk to see it, otherwise sure what was the point?!

Wordpress robots.txt setting

Note that the robots.txt file is almost like an honour system—search engines are not forced to obey the directives in this file. However most of the major search engines such as Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, AltaVista are all well behaved and will respect the instructions.

Individual Post SEO Settings

In addition to the global settings described above, there are several SEO improvements you can make at the individual page or post level. Some page-level changes to meta tags require the use of a WordPress SEO plugin: we’ll take a look at these plugins in our next post. For now, we’ll look at a few tweaks that can be made without the help of a plugin.


Linking between content on your site can help visitors navigate through your content more easily, and it can also help search engines understand your site. Those internal links and their visible (anchor) text can be a rich source of keywords and can add some valuable link juice to other pages on your site. It’s generally recommended to try to use text that is descriptive of the link target. For example, for a link about kittens you should use read more about kittens here, rather than the very common, but not-so-descriptive click here link text. The image below shows where you should put the page address and the anchor text of your link:

Insert kittens link with description text


Images offer a great opportunity for SEO improvements, but many people make the mistake of overlooking them. If you’re using images to go with your content, you can take advantage of them to provide more valuable information to search engines and even get a boost in traffic through image searches.

To get the most SEO benefit from your images, you should rename them with relevant keywords before you even upload them to WordPress. So an image of a kitten could have a filename kitten.jpg for example.

In addition to choosing your image filenames with care, take the time to provide good alt text that includes keywords for each image. Alt texts (often referred to incorrectly as alt tags) are used as an alternative to displaying the image, if the image can’t be displayed for some reason. The alt-text is also used for accessibility: for example, visually impaired visitors may use a screen-reader and will depend on the alt-text to provide them with a description of what the image is. You can add the alt tags in the ‘Alt Text’ box on the right of each image in your Media Library. You can also provide a title text for your image, although the alt text is the more important of the two, and there has not been much evidence to show any SEO benefit to including the title text. However it does not hurt to include it.

Kitten alt text and title settings



When writing a post for your site, you should try, where possible, to nest headings correctly. HTML provides a number of heading tags: <h1> through to <h6>. You should generally follow this order when writing sections and subsection in your post. You should not have a bigger heading within a smaller, for example you should not have code like

<h2>This is the main heading<h2>
<h1>This is a sub heading<h1>

The correct ordering is

<h1>This is the main heading<h1>
<h2>This is a sub heading<h2>

And back to keywords again—you should try to include relevant keywords in your heading tags. This is again to give a stronger signal to the search engines that the post is about those keywords.

Generally these headings are styled in order of decreasing size by your site theme, although not always—be sure to check!


If you follow these tips, your blog will probably be optimized better than about 90% of its competitors in your niche. As you can see, there’s no magic involved: good WordPress SEO is mainly about giving search engines the information they need to classify and rank your content. Take a little time to try out these tips and you should benefit.

So you’ve had a nice introduction to the world of SEO. We’ve just covered the basics here in a vanilla WordPress install. But there are limits to what we can achieve without turning to third-party WordPress modules. And so that’s exactly what we’ll do for part 2 in this series. Stay tuned!

Main image: MoneyBlogNewz