On Thursday, May 13, Natasha Burtenshaw-deVries shared an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) checklist that can apply to every WordPress website, from personal blogs to larger businesses. Natasha is an SEO Strategist at Flywheel Digital in Vancouver (although she lives in Hamilton). She first started with WordPress a decade ago, and has been an “active” (her quotes) user for about five years. She has been working in SEO for three years.

It’s Chaos Out There

Many SEO “Experts” would prefer you to remain in a state of unknowing when it comes to SEO. While some users start to get into it, then back off, others don’t even start. Natasha wants make users comfortable (cool, even) with SEO. You’ll be amazed at what a difference implementing a few basics can make to sites of any size.

SEO In A Nutshell

Your site needs to be usable by Googlebot, as well as humans on a mobile device. Does your website have content users are looking for? Is it useful, valuable content? Is there proof of the legitimacy of your site? Is it linked from trustworthy sites?

These questions are the fundamentals of SEO: Usability, Relevance, and Trust. They need to be working together. Which one takes precedence is up to you, based on what your site is about and where you’re at with it.

What To Do

The first thing you want to do is install an SEO plugin, such as RankMath or Yoast SEO, which will make it easier to work with SEO without coding or manual intervention. But there’s more to SEO than installing a plug-in. You need to use it to gain from it.

If you’re serious about SEO, set up Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) and use it to track your progress. However, if you’re on a WordPress.com site, the ability to set it up depends on which plan you have. In addition to tracking clicks, impressions and the positions of search queries from Google, it will also provide technical insights such as problems indexing, core web vitals or mobile-friendliness.

Analytics tracking can be done using Google Analytics or a similar program. This will provide information on how well (or not) your SEO is working. You may also want to consider keyword tracking, although those tools are quite expensive and probably not worth it for small sites or if you’re just running a personal blog.

Usability

1: Is your site indexed?

Your site must be indexed by search engines in order for SEO to work. You can check if your site is indexed by searching site:yourdomain.com and seeing if your pages show up. If so, great. If not, you may have a problem. 90% of the time everything is fine, but then there’s the other 10%. If you’re building your site live, don’t forget to turn off “no indexing”.

You can also check the coverage section of Google Search Console. This will tell you how many pages are indexed, and which ones. Note that sometimes this can be a day or two behind your updates.

If your site isn’t indexed, or only a few pages are indexed, there are a number of things you can do including checking your WordPress and SEO settings to ensure that “do not allow search engines to index your site” is not checked off. You can also check your robots.txt file if your site has one. If there’s still an issue, you can create a sitemap (an XML file of all the pages on your site) and submit the URL through Google Search Console. SEO plugins and WordPress will generate a sitemap for you. It’s helpful but you don’t absolutely need to submit a sitemap to have your site indexed; stay away from anyone who tells you otherwise. Aside from setting a development site to noindex, if you don’t know what you’re doing with a robots.txt file and setting the indexing settings for a page, STOP and hand it off to someone who does. Unless you really know what you’re doing, you’re more likely to create problems than any sort of benefit.

2: Is your site mobile-friendly?

You want to ensure that your site is not only responsive but truly usable. You can use the Chrome Developer Tools to see how your site will look on various devices. Google is moving to mobile-only indexing (not just mobile-first) and has a mobile-friendly test you can use that is about 80% accurate. Be sure to check more than just your home page and remember, just because Google says it’s mobile-friendly it doesn’t mean it’s easy for a user to navigate on their device. Check it on your phone to be sure that your site really is mobile-friendly.

3: Is your site fast?

For Google rankings, speed is more of a tie-breaker than a ranking factor. Core Web Vitals involve not just the time your site loads but how it loads and how quickly it becomes interactive. What’s good for SEO is also good for users; a better site speed means lower bounce rates and higher conversion rates.

You can make your site faster by:

  • properly sizing and compressing your images
  • using JPGs rather than PNGs
  • removing unnecessary plugins
  • installing a speed optimization plugin
  • getting a faster host

Refer to our February 2021 Meetup: Need For Speed for more information on how to make your site faster.

4: Is your site easy to understand?

If you strip out all the images, branding, and other visual elements from your site, would a stranger still know what it’s about? Ease of understanding applies to index crawlers as much as humans.

You can make your site easier to understand by:

  • using HTML for text as much as possible
  • using headings
    • only one H1 tag per page (the title)
    • ascending header structure (while no longer very important for SEO, still important for accessibility)
    • use headings rather than bold text or other in-line styles
  • using ordered and unordered lists where appropriate
  • adding alt text to images
    • Alt text is what a screen reader uses to convey the image information to a user. Alt text should be an understandable description of the image. If your image contains text, include it in the alt text.

5: Using the SEO title and meta description

Customizing the SEO title and meta description can have a big impact on your rating. You have 56 characters in the SEO title field to make your pitch and put in a few keywords. Standard format is page title followed by brand name, then something descriptive (“Homepage” is not descriptive). The meta description field is not always a factor in SEO but it’s still worth using. Treat it as a mini-ad to attract users to your page.

Relevancy

1: Are you talking about things that people are actually searching for?

Your website needs to talk about what people are searching for. The terms you use aren’t always the terms searchers will use. Think of searching for “car insurance” when insurance companies talk about “auto insurance”. Not all content is a good fit for an organic search. It may be best to reach people through social media or online communities. There are free keyword research tools you can use, including Google Ads Keyword Planner and Keyword Surfer Chrome Extension, although many companies are cracking down on free usage.

2: Do you have a blog?

A blog is a great way to establish relevancy and content. It helps you reach new audiences through informational and non-branded search queries (“WordPress Page Builder” versus “free page builder”), establishes topical relevance, and helps your site get natural, inbound links which will boost your authority.

Write about questions that readers are asking, or focus topics around questions. If it’s a commercial site, choose topics that address different stages of the marketing funnel. Write about relevant or trending topics related to your website.

Refer to Natasha’s August 2020 Meetup: Blogging for SEO for more information on how blogging can help your SEO.

Trust / Authority

1: Do you look legit?

Do you have an About page? Links to social media and media coverage? Links to rating sites/testimonials? Do posts have author bios? Do you have a map showing your physical location? These are all signals to Google that you’re a real entity and have a presence on sites other than your own.

2: Have you filled out the knowledge graph info?

A knowledge graph is that right-hand block in your search results. It contains information about a person or company as Google understands them. Not every search is going to have a corresponding knowledge graph, particularly if you’re a small entity, but it’s still helpful to ensure that the information it’s looking for is contained on your website. You can do this through your SEO plugin. First, choose whether you’re a person or a corporation, then include all your social media profile URLs.

3: Are there links pointing to your site?

A link to your website is equivalent to a popularity vote for your website. The more links you have, the more popular you appear. The higher the quality of the sites linking to yours, the more weight Google assigns them. Do NOT buy links, build them. You can check your links for free using Ahrefs Website Checker.

Ways to build links:

  • social media
  • media coverage
  • business directories
  • partner websites
  • speaking or sponsorship opportunities
  • people using your site as a resource

SEO In a Nutshell

Don’t overcomplicate your SEO or fall prey to so-called experts online. Focus on the three fundamentals: Usability, Relevancy, and Trust.

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