This article will show you how to use your WordPress control panel (wp-admin) to improve the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) of your site.
We’ll also show you the best SEO tools and plugins, as well as noting which ones are free.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
WordPress is an SEO-friendly platform, but this doesn’t mean that all sites hosted on WordPress will have good SEO.
Truly good SEO ensures your site climbs the rankings, and stays that way.
To achieve this, work through the following SEO checklist to begin building the best possible rankings for your website.
How to improve your SEO on WordPress: the ultimate guide
Whilst SEO on WordPress is not automatic, there are many excellent, built-in features on your control panel which are a great place to lay the foundations of your SEO.
Without following SEO checklist below, it’s unlikely you’ll significantly improve your organic ranking, even with the best plugins.
Building these SEO must-haves into the foundations of your website will lead to success in the long run:
1. Site visibility
A common way to ensure your site doesn’t get picked up by search engines before it’s ready to go live is to switch the site to no-index. This effectively makes it invisible to Google and any other search engines.
As a priority, make sure your site is visible to Google and any other search engines. Log into your WordPress account, then click Settings > Reading, and scroll down to Search Engine Visibility. Ensure the box labelled ‘Discourage search engines from indexing this site’ is not checked, and save your settings.
2. Use custom permalinks
A permalink is a permanent link where a certain page or piece of content, such as a blog post, is located.
For example, it includes the permanent URL of your website, such as www.20i.com, as well as the text that follows, called the slug: www.20i.com/wordpress-hosting.
To optimise your permalinks in the block editor, click the Edit button next to any page or post’s current link. At first, it may look like a string of numbers, or it will copy over your post title. The specific part that you can edit here is called the slug.
Make sure to use your primary keyword(s) in the slug, and keep the link at a reasonable length, so that it doesn’t get shortened in the search results.
When you start your sites, you can set your default permalink appearance in Settings > Permalinks, and choose whether they’re ordered under a folder by date, for example:
💡 Tip: If you change the URL of any existing posts, make sure to put a Redirect in place. This will ensure users (and search engines) can find the content at its new location, and any existing rankings or backlinks are kept.
3. Choose an SEO-friendly URL (e.g. //www.domain or //domain)
Whilst there is a slight technical difference between using www before your domain, or keeping it without, in terms of your SEO, it’s best to pick one and stick to it.
When choosing your domain name, keep in mind it is one of the first things your potential customers will see.
Whether you include the www at the start of your domain is up to you, but stay away from domains that include long strings of numbers or non-standard characters.
Examples of good URLs for SEO are:
Examples of bad URLS for SEO are:
Whilst stuffing keywords into your domain name was perhaps a solid SEO strategy back in 1998, it is certainly not best practice nowadays.
Avoid adding keywords and hyphens where they don’t belong, such as these examples:
Instead, keep your domain simple, easy to read and understand. You can include your keyword(s), but just don’t overdo it – it won’t help! Add relevant keywords in your categories and individual slug (see below), which is better practice for SEO.
Yoast SEO also adds a canonical tag to the correct version of your URL, as well as your pages, as standard.
💡 If you’re looking for cheap domain name, you’d couldn’t get better value than at 20i: check out our domains.
4. Organise your site into categories
Each category and the following slug (see permalinks above) needs to reflect what the page is about and organise your site logically. Creating readable, concise and descriptive categories will suit Google as well as your potential customers.
For a particular group of pages, such as your blog, it is better to add these sections of your website into categories, for example:
Then, optimise the slug for each individual post or page:
For eCommerce sites on WordPress, you could use categories and sub-categories to group large numbers of products. For example:
It’s better to be precise, and use subcategories to sort out your site in a way that feels organised. This will improve user experience and ensure Google can identify the specific – therefore valuable – keywords to rank each page for.
5. Manually approve comments and paginate for speed
Having a lot of comments is great – users are engaging with your posts, finding them useful and it encourages shares.
However, comment sections often receive spam, poor quality external links and a slow page load time. This can all hurt your SEO, so best practice is to start by turning off the automatic approval that comes as standard with WordPress.
Go to: Settings > Discussion and tick the Comment must be manually approved checkbox.
In the same place, you can also split comments into pages to improve the page’s load speed. To paginate comments in WordPress, go to Settings > Discussion and tick the ‘Break comments into pages’ checkbox.
Akismet adds some more features that help you to manage spam comments. It draws from a global database, so can remove many of the worst spam comments or poor quality links before they reach your site. You can save time by implementing settings across multiple posts and comment sections at once.
It also ensures that comments with poor quality or misleading links are flagged, which helps to preserve your overall domain authority. It’s currently free for personal blogs, with a paid version required for business and commercial sites.
6. Choose a responsive and lightweight theme
Certain changes can improve your site’s speed drastically. Google reward sites that load quickly, so it’s essential to choose a theme that, at minimum, responds well and runs quickly across a range of devices, including mobile.
When you’ve narrowed down your search for themes, run each demo site URL through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. Compare the scores and ensure that the one you choose works well across many platforms, or at least would be readily fixable during your development process.
Next, see how the theme performs on Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.
These checks will help you to minimise the uphill battle needed to improve a poorly-developed theme. Choosing one that’s responsive and lightweight from the start will likely save you a headache. As well as high development fees, later down the line…
If you already have a site, consider testing it through a user’s eyes with a slow connection speed. Google recommends this method (see figure 9) to do so. If it performs well, brilliant! If not, consider working through the issues from PageSpeed Insights on your site, or redesigning as needed.
Read this for more on Google’s mobile pagespeed tools.
7. Add an SSL certificate
An SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate is essentially a security qualification for websites. It’s a small data file that allows a secure connection from a web server to a browser, and first became a ranking factor in 2014.
SSL certificates should be included for free with your hosting provider. If not, you should consider switching to one that provides a free SSL certificate as standard.
💡 20i give you a free SSL certificate with all web hosting.
When you’ve got an SSL certificate, and are enjoying the nice padlock next to your domain name, make sure you are set up with Google Search Console.
Registering your site in Google Search Console is a good idea for many reasons, but in terms of site security, it can be instrumental. Search Console will send notifications if it detects problems with a site’s security, meaning you can solve any issues as quickly as possible. It also can identify other SEO problems, such as schema not being implemented correctly.
💡 Tip: HTTPS encryption is a part of the new Core Web Vitals update, so it’s a good idea to get your site’s SSL sorted before this.
8. Add internal links naturally into your copy
A good internal linking structure is one of the best ways to ensure users and Google alike can navigate through your site. The link also acts like a vote. It’s a way to indicate to Google that a page is important.
You should avoid linking to other pages using the target keyword of the original page. For example, a target keyword for this article might be ‘WordPress SEO’. It would confuse search engines to link to another page using that keyword.
Adding internal links to your page or blog post is done by adding a hyperlink as you would with an external link.
When should you add internal links? One way to check this is to use a tool like Google Search Console that will list your pages in order of the number of links. If an important page doesn’t have lots of links to it, it’s worth considering if there any places on your site where you can add links to it.
Don’t overdo it though! Always consider “If I was reading this, might I actually follow this link to get further info?” That’s what we mean by adding links ‘naturally’.
If you already have an established site, start by adding links to relevant pages from your best-performing pages. This will often be the homepage, a few main category or subcategory pages, and some blog posts that may already be bringing in some organic traffic.
Add a hyperlink within the text of each page where you can, or re-write the text on each page slightly. You should vary the anchor text for the link, and it should describe what’s on the destination page concisely.
If your site is new, simply add internal links to the text whenever you add new content and build your site.
9. Use breadcrumb links to guide users through your site
Similar to a certain fairytale story, breadcrumbs lead users along a desired path. On a WordPress site, having a series of links to important areas will help users and search engines alike to navigate around your WordPress site.
Breadcrumbs are also great for users who do not know what they are looking for. Breadcrumbs take them through to the next step in their journey and play an important part in the conversion process.
Marking up your site’s breadcrumb trail with schema is another great way to take search engines and potential customers through your site efficiently. A logical site structure enables Google to crawl your site well. The easier that Google can navigate through your pages, the more likely it will show it to more users. They may make use of your breadcrumbs in search engine results too.
10. Add “Rel= Nofollow” to external links
External links are links that go to another website that is not yours. Naturally referencing a useful article or a particularly great product is good practice, but having too many external links can be a red flag to Google. A page could be seen a ‘spammy’ or part of a ‘link scheme’.
Consider adding a ‘nofollow’ attribute to any external links. This will mean that Google will be less likely to follow the link or use it in relation to ranking decisions. If you have the Yoast plugin, you can choose to set links as nofollow or sponsored on an individual basis.
Some plugins, such as Rel Nofollow (yes, we just ‘nofollowed’ that link: meta!) can automatically nofollow links on multiple sections of your website. It nofollows external links on all blog posts, which is often where most sites will need it. You’ll need to add a small block of code if you want to nofollow links on other pages or categories.
You could also set any external links to open in a new tab, which can help improve your bounce rate, page views and time on the page.
💡Tip: Links to other pages on your own site (internal links) should always be left as ‘follow’.
11. Add excerpts to your blog posts
Writing a post excerpt, which is a small summary of your text, is a great way to interest users and ensure your blog’s main page is bursting with excellent content. It also helps to prevent duplication, as it’s another unique signifier of what each post is about.
One way to save some time on this is to write a great meta description. This can be used as your excerpt, as both pieces of text achieve the same purpose and an excerpt would not be read as duplicate content. This will save you time, as you can optimise your meta descriptions and excerpts in one go!
You could also use a plugin like Advanced Excerpt to manage your excerpts, including adding additional markup. This is particularly useful for larger WordPress sites, where you can automate the process for past posts, and continue adding as you move forwards.
12. Write alt text for images
Alt text is used to explain what an image shows to users who cannot see the image. Search engines also use alt text to decide what exactly your picture is about, and it can bring in some added traffic to your site through Google Images.
Alt text should describe what is in the image in enough detail so that it adds to the user’s experience, but still should be kept concise.
The primary objective of an alt tag is to be descriptive. If you can use a keyword or two within the description naturally, that’s great, but too many and your alt tags can quickly become a red flag to Google. No keyword stuffing!
Some WordPress plugins will flag up poorly composed or non-existent alt text as you go. You can simply follow the instructions as you edit to optimise your images perfectly. The above image is simply described at ‘Alt text example’.
13. Noindex certain pages with thin content
One of the most common problems for WordPress websites that are trying to improve their rankings are pages with thin content. These are pages that have a small amount of text or images on them.
Many pages can (and should) be fixed through refreshing and adding to the text on the page. If you can’t add more to them, then perhaps consider removing them?
However, some pages might be best suited to not be picked up by Google in the first place, as they’re not intended to be seen in the organic results pages.
Pages on your WordPress site to Noindex for SEO:
- Shopping cart pages (proceed to checkout, payment processing and confirmation pages)
- Dimension, size or weight pages which may be considered spam and are very specific to your site
- Internal pages that seem to be showing up on your Analytics or search results
- Author pages or paginated category pages may flag as a duplicate content warning
- Thank you or confirmation pages
You should take care when adding noindex tags, as you don’t want to remove a well-performing page from the search results.
You can add them using the tools we cover below, but you can also ‘noindex’ certain pages by adding the page to your robots.txt file:
User-agent: * Disallow: /the-slug-of-the-page-you-want-to-noindex/
Only add a noindex tag to pages that wouldn’t benefit from organic SEO.
14. Solve duplicate content problems
Duplicate content can prevent otherwise high-quality pages from getting to their deserved, high place on Google.
If your site has more than one page that Google thinks are very similar, or identical, either through being an exact copy or using lots of very similar keyphrases, you may find the pages are battling each other, and neither page will do as well as it could. This is often referred to as cannibalisation.
Duplicate content might be happening on your site with identical content on multiple pages, or by having the same content as external sites. This happens frequently with eCommerce sites that may use the manufacturer’s description on a product sold by many other retailers.
Generally, solving duplicate content problems can be done on your WordPress site in one of two ways:
- Add canonical tags to the source of the content
- Edit the content to make it original (for example, add your own descriptions to product pages, differentiate blog posts)
- Consolidate content into the best-performing page and redirect the old ones to it. For example, if you’ve got five blog posts on a similar topic, consolidate and refresh these into the one with the best metrics, and redirect the others.
To check if your site is being flagged with duplicate content externally, paste it into Copyscape.
15. Heading tags (H1, H2, H3, etc)
Using headings immediately enhances the readability of an article. Making sure these headings are tagged with H1, H2 or H3 tags will also give Google a better idea of what your content is about.
Whilst headings are a good way to appeal to Google and entice the reader, their primary purpose is to make the text easier to read and understand. You should structure your page with one main heading tag (H1), and plenty of subheadings (H2 and H3) to break up your text into readable paragraphs.
As headings and subheadings are an indicator to Google about what your page is about, keywords should ideally be incorporated into your H1, H2 and H3 tags.
Heading tags were once a direct ranking factor in the early 2000s, but Google’s John Mueller has noted that less weight is put on them today. With many other aspects now considered, they are more important for communicating that a page has a logical, readable structure.
16. Anchor links in longer content
At the top of this article, and throughout the text, you may have noticed that we’ve added a series of anchor links. Also referred to as jump links, they help users to navigate quickly and easily through longer pieces of content.
Using anchor links on certain pages can greatly increase how well your article performs, as users can click and jump straight to the section of the page that they need.
This translates directly into your WordPress site’s SEO, as good performance metrics reflect that your content is useful, meaning it’s more likely to be shown to more users. Google may also display these on the search results pages, which could improve your Click Through Rate (CTR).
The best complete SEO plugins for WordPress
Now that we’ve covered what you can do directly from WordPress admin, we’ll look at the SEO plugins available.
💡Note: You only need to install one SEO-focused plugin, and it’s best to have as few plugins as possible.
Yoast can be used to optimise text, page titles, descriptions, permalinks and alt text, among many other features. It also has some built-in technical SEO features, such as automatically no-indexing your internal pages, and adding self-referencing canonical tags.
Yoast will also give you pointers on how to improve your copy, which is particularly great for those who are just starting out with SEO, or for anyone who would like a second pair of SEO eyes over their copy.
In addition to many other points, Yoast gives the following information:
- How many keywords you have used
- If you’ve put one in your first paragraph
- Whether you need more headings
- If it’s over-optimised
As with any SEO plugin, Yoast’s advice does need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, Yoast doesn’t like passive voice, which might suit an eCommerce site with active language, but wouldn’t suit a financial services company that needs to remain more impartial.
All In One SEO
The other most widely-used SEO plugin for WordPress is All In One SEO, also known as AIOSEO. Perhaps the most notable difference between AIOSEO and Yoast is the on-page copy checks that Yoast includes.
After installation, some users have struggled with AIOSEO’s more technical set-up process, whilst others have enjoyed having a deeper level of choice.
AIOSEO enables the user to have more control over features that Yoast tends to employ as a default. For example, users have the choice to:
- Activate bad bot blockers
- Noindex pages on an individual basis
- Add Robots.txt and Sitemap.xml
In conclusion, AIOSEO and Yoast have very similar features. It seems beginners may have the upper hand with Yoast, due to the step-by-step walkthrough when writing and optimising copy, as well as less need to understand technical jargon.
AIOSEO may be preferred by those who are familiar with on-page ranking and optimisation factors, and would benefit from more technical control.
There are several other, less well-known, WordPress SEO plugins. Many of these have been extremely well-reviewed:
With over 700k installations and a five-star rating from 2,454 reviews, Rank Math seems to be a top competitor of AIOSEO and Yoast. It also has the most comprehensive free offering.
Built as a fast and powerful plugin, SEOPress has over 100k installations and a five-star rating from 692 reviews.
The SEO Framework
The SEO Framework is another well-reviewed software, with over 100k installations and a five-star rating from 270 reviews.
SEO by Squirrly
Introduced as the ‘First AI Private SEO Consultant’, SEO Squirrly has over 90k downloads and a 4.5-star rating from 465 reviews.
Intended as an extremely lightweight and automated alternative, Slim SEO has over 10k installations and a 4.5-star rating from 28 reviews. It’s designed to have no configuration, so is aimed at those who want a fully automated plugin. Slim SEO themselves recommend another plugin if you need more control and more advanced features.
Other plugins to improve your SEO
Some additional features are often needed to address the more technical ranking factors, such as page speed, image optimisation or clearing up your database.
The following plugins provide specific fixes for your WordPress site’s Technical SEO:
Schema plugins – for adding extra data to your pages
Schema and Schema & Structured Data for WP & AMP allow extra information to be added about a page on your website. This can include your average rating from customer reviews, as well as events, pricing, product information and more.
Schema helps search engines understand your content and display more information in search results. For example, it may help your site rank in ‘position zero’ in the form of the ‘rich result’ with images, so can help improve your CTR and ultimately, conversions.
💡Note: some WordPress SEO plugins do have some basic (Yoast) to more advanced (Rank Math, AIOSEO) schema ability. For more precise or sector-specific schema tags, an additional schema plugin would be needed.
Redirection – re-routes users to the correct page and preserving your site’s authority
Redirection allows you to manage and organise redirections, to minimise any 404 errors. It’s a very straightforward way to add individual redirects, as well as upload multiple redirects. This is particularly essential for large sites, or if you are re-structuring established category pages.
Overall, it helps you to preserve any link authority and rankings your pages may have built up. It is great to install from the start, whether you manage tiny or very large sites, as you can quickly and easily manage your redirects.
With so many plugins installed on most WordPress sites, cleaning up unused code is a great way to improve your site’s page speed and ultimately, SEO.
Asset CleanUp helps identify which plugins could be switched off on certain pages, cleaning up the HTML code for better load times. It also flags up any other unused code, such as lines of Custom Style Sheets (CSS), which is a common flag on Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.
WP-Sweep – cleans up unnecessary files on your database
Particularly for sites that have been established for a while, WP Sweep can help to clean up files that have built up on your database. This might include revisions, auto drafts and spam comments.
It works by using the native delete function in WordPress, as opposed to putting through SQL requests, keeping your code clean. Ultimately, it aims to speed up your database and free up space that could be put to better use.
Code Snippets – add extra functionality without going into the PHP file
Adding extensions to your site’s functionality can be done with Code Snippets.
This plugin prevents you from having to add or change code directly using the site’s PHP file (which can break your site if something goes wrong!). It also keeps all your code snippets organised and automatically cleans up any code that you wish to remove or change.
It not only avoids unnecessary code on your site, but you don’t have to install lots of different plugins for changes that could be done through this one.
Whilst not the primary purpose, Code Snippets also comes with the option to fully disable the Gutenberg editor, which some users find useful.
Cache plugins for WordPress SEO
By default, every time a user loads a WordPress website, multiple queries are sent to its database. This can mean it might do more work than it needs to, slowing your load times and frustrating your customers.
Using a cache plugin means load times can be optimised, with fewer items needing to be re-loaded. This is a great way to boost site speed, which is a ranking factor.
These cache plugins have had excellent reviews:
- WP Fastest Cache
- W3 Total Cache
- WP Rocket
- WP Super Cache
- Cache Enabler
- StackCache (specific to 20i’s hosting platform)
💡If you host your WordPress website with 20i, it’s not recommended to use any other cache plugins apart from StackCache. This is because StackCache controls the caching of 20i’s users and their websites to a precise degree, essentially ‘super-charging’ your site.
Image optimisation plugins for performance
If your site is hosted with 20i, image optimisation is provided by the Website Acceleration Suite, part of our free Content Delivery Network. If not, there are quite a few well-reviewed and widely used plugins to do this job.
Keeping images small is a major part of keeping your page load times quick, which can help with search engine performance. It’s a problem that often shows up on slower sites on Google’s Page Speed Insights tool. You’ll also get warnings about ‘Largest Contentful Paint’ in Search Console, which is part of the new Core Web Vitals tests: these flags usually relate to images.
The following plugins can help with compressing images:
The original image optimisation plugin, Smush has over 1 million downloads and a five-star rating. It’s also won awards and is regularly updated to keep up with key changes.
Smush makes some otherwise very technical features accessible to those who don’t code. It’s also much quicker for those that do. For example, the lazy-load feature, which loads images after it loads the more important elements (in terms of your SEO), can be turned on at the click of a button.
With 800k+ downloads and a 4.5-star rating, EWWW has become one of the main competitors to Smush.
Whilst it can be customised, some users have noted it is a bit more complex to use. This might suit webmasters who want more control, but for image optimisation alone it can feel time-consuming.
With 300k+ downloads and a 4.6-star rating, Shortpixel seems to present one of the best free offerings and is very cheap to go premium. It’s designed to be very lightweight and intuitive.
It does what it says it will do: optimising images and PDFs using as few resources as possible. It also provides glossy JPEG reduction in its free service, which is significant for those who need to retain the quality, such as photographers.
Whilst this is a relatively new plugin, Imagify seems to have some of the best reviews. It performs optimisation at server-level, which is great for your load times and can be tweaked for more precise control.
It also has the future-proofed ability to create and show .webp versions of your images. This is considered by Google a “next-gen” image format and is likely to affect the search results at some point. Unfortunately, it’s not yet supported by all browser types (Safari being the main one), but this could be a key feature in the not-too-distant future.
Free WordPress SEO plugins
We all like a bargain, but getting something for free is even better! Here’s a list of the plugins we’ve mentioned so far that are completely free:
- Advanced Excerpt
- Easy Table of Contents
- WP SEO Structured Data Schema
- Schema Rich Snippets
- Rel Nofollow
- Easy Table of Contents
- WP Super Cache
- Cache Enabler
- Code Snippets
- WP Sweep
- W3 Total Cache
While not confined to WordPress, we also have this post about Free SEO Tools.
Nearly-free WordPress SEO plugins
These plugins are free to an extent, often with excellent free services, but require payment for more advanced or added features:
- Yoast SEO – whilst there is a very comprehensive free version, further tools and improvements are available on the premium version.
- AIOSEO – there is a free version, but payment is required for more advanced features and integrations.
- SEOPress – free for the basic version, with a premium version available.
- SEO Framework – default functionality is free, but you need to pay for the premium extensions.
- SEO by Squirrly – free to use, but the PRO version contains more in-depth features for content marketing and SEO.
- WP Rocket – this is a premium, and very popular plugin, with a three-tier pricing system. It has a 14-day free trial period, too.
- Table of Contents Plus – an extension to Easy Table of Contents, the creator asks for a donation to a charity of your choice for users of the Plus version.
- Akismet – free for personal use, but there is a subscription fee for business and commercial use.
- WP Fastest Cache – this is free to download and use the basic features, but the premium version can be purchased after download.
- Imagify – free up to 25Mb of images, then a one-time or monthly fee.
- Asset CleanUp – limited features are available for free, but the full version is paid.
- SEO Squirrly – all tools are included for free, but there is an optional PRO plan for further improvements and functionality.
- Smush – compressing images is free, but further features are available in the paid-for version.
- EWWW – free for the essential options, but some advanced features come with the paid plan.
- Shortpixel – all services are included for free, up to 100 image credits per month. It’s inexpensive to buy more image credits, which is useful if you add lots of images per month.
Good luck with your WordPress SEO!
Optimising your WordPress website for search engines may seem like a never-ending to-do list at times. But don’t be disheartened.
It’s important to remember that beyond these SEO tips, the most important thing for good SEO is to provide high quality, accessible content that answers people’s questions. You can still do well in search results without religiously covering every single recommendation in this article.
But even working through one or two of the points on this guide each month will begin to provide tangible results.
Let us know how you get on, and feel free to get in touch.
One way to improve your website performance – and therefore your SEO – is to have fast, reliable web hosting. With 20i’s hosting, you get that. Your website will load quicker, pleasing your users – and Google!
Every hosting plan includes things like WordPress Staging, a CDN, a Website Acceleration Suite, an SSL, free daily backups, unlimited email and a whole lot more! Check out our WordPress Hosting here.