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WordPress SEO: A beginner’s guide, Part 2 – WordPress SEO plugins

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In our last article about WordPress SEO, we looked at the things you can do to improve your search engine visibility and rankings in a default WordPress install, without any plugins.

We noted however, that there were limits to what can be acheived without resorting to plugins or technical expertise. In this follow-up article, we’re going to take a look at how you can further improve your WordPress SEO with the use of plugins.

With its wide range of features, WordPress SEO by Yoast is generally considered one of the best, if not the best of the SEO plugins for WordPress. Other very popular choices are the All in One SEO pack, and the Ultimate SEO plugin for WordPress. Since these are the most popular plugins, we’ll refer to them in the remainder of this article.

Title tag

Last time we talked about how you can set the title in your posts, and that it was a good idea to include relevant keywords in the title. This time we’ll go into a little bit more detail and show how we can fine-tune how the title will look.

The format of your page title is a key setting for your website at a global level, but also for individual posts. Visitors aren’t the only ones who use titles to determine what your content is about: search engines do the same thing. Many themes use a default title format that displays the site’s name first and the title of the post second.

This means it looks something like this: | My Example Post

This however is not optimal. Search engines place more weight on the earliest words in a title, so you want to have your relevant keywords showing up near the beginning of the title. People also have a tendency to pay more attention to the first words of a title when they scan search results, so you’re more likely to get clicks if the post’s title shows up first.

So, switch the format around and make sure that your post’s title shows up first, followed by the name of the blog, like this:

My Example Post |

You might even want to completely remove the blog name.

All three of the plugins we mentioned earlier support manipulation of the title tag.

How to change title tag in Yoast

You can do this at the global level, or at the individual post level. To access the global settings, go to SEO > Titles & Metas. Here you will find settings for meta tags as well as title tags. There are a number of tabs.

The General tab allows you to specify the separator character between parts of the title, and the Home tab lets you specify how the title and meta tags of the home page look, and the Post Types tab lets you specify how the titles should be constructed for any different types of posts you have, such as posts vs pages.

Specify how the title should be built using placeholder variables such as %%title%% %%page%% %%sep%% %%sitename%%.

You can also change the title tag for individual posts by scrolling down to the WordPress SEO by Yoast section below the main content editor. The SEO Title input box will be pre-populated with an auto-generated title, based on the general settings, but you can simply override this by entering your new desired title into this input box.


How to change title tag in All in One SEO plugin

The global set up options for the title tag is shown below. It can be accessed vie the menu All in One SEO > General Settings, and scrolling down to the Title Settings section.

You can use the placeholder variables %%page_title%%, %%post_title%%, and %%blog_title%% to be substituted with the actual names of the current page, post, and name of your website respectively.


And as with Yoast, you can change the title for individual posts and pages too. Just scroll down to the All in One SEO PackTitle input box; you can change this to whatever you want.


How to change title tag in Ultimate SEO plugin

For the global title settings, go to SEO > Title Tag Rewriter. On this page you’ll see a number of tabs, that allow you to configure how the title should look.


In the Default Formats you can configure the format of various page types, and it uses placeholder variables as with the other plugins. The placeholders in this plugin are {blog}, {post}, {page} for site title, post title, and page titles respectively. You can also configure the titles of category and tag pages from here.

For the per-page or post settings, go to the edit page for that post, and scroll down to the SEO Settings section. In here you will see input boxes for title tag, and meta description. Modifying here will override any global settings you have.

Meta keywords and meta description

The meta description text is often shown in search results underneath the title of a webpage if it contains the keyword that was searched for. This makes it important to have good, clear, relevant, and snappy text, so that web searchers will be inclined to follow the link to your website.

The underlying HTML for meta description looks like this:

<meta name="description" content="This is the description text. It should be approx 155 characters in length">

According to SEO specialists Moz, the optimal length for the description text is approximately 155 characters.

Meta keywords are pretty much ignored by search engines these days due to gaming in the early days, and this makes them more or less useless for SEO purposes. However, if you still wish to set them, you can.

How to set meta description and keywords in Yoast SEO

Go to SEO > Titles & Metas, and then choose one of the Home or Post Types tabs, to configure globally for the home page, or for each different post type. As with the title tags, you can specify patterns for your description and keyword meta tags by using placeholder variables e.g. %%excerpt%%.

If you want to enable meta keywords, you must do so in the General tab. Here you can find an Enable meta keywords checkbox. The descriptive text beside this checkbox says it all:

I don’t know why you’d want to use meta keywords, but if you want to, check this box.

For individual posts, you can also modify the meta description and keywords. Just scroll down the page to the SEO section, and fill in the desired values into the input boxes.

How to set meta description and keywords in All in One SEO pack

For global settings go to All in One SEO > General Settings and scroll down until you can see the Description Format option. You can use placeholder variables such as %description% and %blog_title% to set the global format.


The meta description can also be set for individual posts in the All in One SEO section beneath the main content editor.

How to set meta description and keywords in Ultimate SEO plugin

For global settings you go to SEO > Meta Descriptions, or SEO > Meta Keywords. If either of these options are missing you can enable them in SEO > Modules. Be sure to click save after enabling a module, or it will not be enabled.


The global settings here are much like those of Yoast, allowing you to use placeholder variables such as {excerpt} and {description} to set patterns for your meta descriptions.

For individual post settings, you can enter custom keywords and description. Scroll down to the SEO Settings section, and the description text box is located under Search Engine Listing tab. The keywords input box is under the Miscellaneous tab.

Meta robots directive

The robots meta tag is a directive that will be inserted into the HTML at top of your page so that search engines can see it, but humans can’t, that will override any directive in the robots.txt file mentioned earlier. The underlying HTML will look something like:

<meta name="robots" content="index, nofollow">

The following is a list of the most common values for the robots meta tag and an explanation of what it is used for:

  • index, noindex Indicates if this page should be indexed and included in search results pages
  • follow, nofollow These values indicate to search engine robots if links on this page should be followed and crawled or not.
  • none This is a shorthand for noindex, nofollow, in other words, do nothing with this page: don’t index it or follow any of the links on the page.
  • noodp This prevents search engines from using the description in the DMOZ/ODP directory
  • noydir Prevents Yahoo from using the description in the Yahoo directory. Predictably, this directive is only recognized by Yahoo.
  • noimageindex Indicates to search engines that images on this page should not be indexed
  • noarchive Indicates to search engines that cached versions of this page should not be shown
  • nosnippet Indicates that snippets of this page should not be shown in search results pages, and that it should not be cached

For most of your posts, you will probably just want to leave this with the default settings of index, follow since you will want your content to be found on the web.

How to change robots meta tag in Yoast

In Yoast the robots meta tag can be changed in the same places as the title tags. For the global settings go to SEO > Titles & Metas. Here you will see a Meta robots checkbox. In general you won’t need to change from the defaults.

You can also change the robots meta tag for individual posts. Just scroll down to the SEO section below the Post content, and go to the Advanced tab. Here you can change all the settings mentioned above.

How to change robots meta tag in All in One SEO plugin

For global settings, just go to All in One SEO > General Settings

For individual posts, simply scroll down to the All in One SEO section below the post, and there are a variety of checkboxes that you can use.

How to change robots meta tag in Ultimate SEO plugin

For global settings, go to SEO > Meta Robots Tags and you’ll find a number of tabs that you can use to set the site and post-wide settings. Perhaps one of the most interesting tabs here is the Default Values tab as it uses plain English to describe its many options, rather than the more technical language of the other plugins.


For individual posts, scroll to the SEO Settings section beneath the main post, and then go to the Miscellaneous tab. Unlike the other plugins, there are only two configurable checkboxes here, noindex and nofollow, but these are the two you are most likely to ever need anyway.


Canonical URLs

Canonical URLs are a mechanism that allows you to inform search engines that a page or URL other than the current one should be considered the authoritative or original source to be indexed for the content in the current page. Under the hood it looks something like this:

<link rel="canonical" href="" />

You might want to use this if you’re reproducing content from another source, and want to make sure that that source gets the SEO credit for it.

How to set Canonical URL in Yoast

On the Edit Post page, scroll down to the Yoast panel, and look for the Advanced tab. Under this tab, you should see the Canonical URL text input box. Then just copy or type the desired canonical URL into this input box.


How to set Canonical URL in All in One SEO

Go to All in One SEO Pack section beneath the post, and enter the desired canonical URL into the Custom Canonical URL input box.


How to set Canonical URL in Ultimate SEO

This feature is not available for individual posts and pages in The Ultimate SEO plugin, but global settings can be found at SEO > Miscellaneous underneath the Canonicalizer section.


Sitemaps are XML files in a specific format that contain a list of page URLs for a search engine to crawl and index. While strictly not needed, it’s generally a good idea to use a sitemap with your site—search engines may well find all the content on your site anyway, but with a sitemap, you can suggest the priority and frequency that each page should be crawled. For important and frequently changing pages, you would set a high priority and high frequency. For less important and seldom changing pages, you’d set a low priority and low frequency. An excerpt of a sitemap is given below.


Set up sitemap with Yoast

Go to SEO > XML Sitemaps and check the XML Sitemap checkbox. That’s it! There are further options that allow you to exclude different post types if you want, but in most cases you won’t need these.

Set up sitemap with All in One SEO plugin

This is not available with the free version of the plugin, but is supported with the Pro version.

Set up sitemap with Ultimate SEO plugin

Not available for this plugin.

Focus keywords

In the Yoast plugin it’s worth talking about target or focus keywords. The idea here is that these are the keywords that your post will be about, and so these keywords should appear a certain number of times in the headings and main text of your post so that it will score well in search engines for these keywords. Once you have set your target keywords, Yoast will then perform an analysis of your post. You can then refer to the results to ensure that your target keywords appear an optimal number of times.


Under the Content Analysis tab, Yoast will perform a number of tests on your content, to ensure that it is optimized for search engines. It does things like checking for presence of sub-headings (e.g. <h2> tags), and that keywords are included in sub-headings. It even analyzes the content for its readability (based on the Flesch Reading Ease test).


These are really useful features that are not available in the other two plugins.

Final thoughts

There are plenty of options for you in terms of improving your WordPress SEO with the help of plugins. One thing is certain: you should definitely install one of the plugins. Which one to install is up to you.

Note that if you’re evaluating different plugins, be sure to back up any important data first, or you might risk losing any titles or keywords that you have set up with one of the plugins. And you should also disable one before you enable another, as they may not work correctly with each other.

Overall, there’s not a huge difference between the three SEO plugins discussed in this article—all of them cover the basics, so the choice will come down to either a must-have feature that only one of the plugins provides, or to your personal preference.

If you missed it, you can read our WordPress SEO, A beginner’s guide, Part 1 here!


Main image: Marcin Wichary