WordPress SEO Tutorial: 31 Clever Ways To Boost Rankings In 2021

I wrote this WordPress SEO tutorial by researching some of the most common issues people had in SEO-related Facebook Groups, then putting together a list of common solutions for each.

Google’s core web vitals and algo updates are among the most important factors to take into account in 2021. I have a tutorial on optimizing WordPress for core web vitals and you should be following Google SearchLiaison on Twitter to see when they announce core algo updates.

Your Search Console reports are invaluable for finding SEO issues. Use these to find content that dropped in rankings, CTRs, and clicks. You can find issues with page experience, mobile, schema, security, manual actions, and even submit URLs to Google once you’re done publishing.

I will  cover general SEO recommendations as well, from themes to SEO plugins, keyword research, on-page SEO, and many less obvious tips. I tried to condense it as much as possible.

 

1. Theme

Many themes and page builders are slow (specifically Elementor and Divi). That’s because they add extra CSS and JavaScript to your website which can slow it down and affect core web vitals.

If you’re using one of these page builders, your core web vitals report likely has CSS and JavaScript errors or even enormous network payloads. You can optimize them by disabling unused CSS/JS from page builders using Asset CleanUp or Perfmatters (and Elementor’s Optimize DOM Output + Improved Asset Loading), but builders can still slow down your site.

Some developers like WP Johnny offer page builder removal services. If you don’t want to completely remove it, at least consider hard coding your header, menu, footer, and blog sidebar in CSS so those areas don’t use page builders. This alone can make a large speed improvement.

I encourage you to join some speed-related Facebook Groups (i.e. WP Speed Matters and WordPress Speed Up) and look at polls taken on the “fastest themes” or people who moved to a lightweight theme/builder and posted their results. Here are just a few (click image to enlarge).

Recommended Themes + Builders:

 

2. SEO Plugins

Choosing the right WordPress SEO plugins is key.

Rank Math is generally rated the #1 primary SEO plugin in Facebook polls, overtaking Yoast which is more bloated, has lots of ads, and doesn’t include nearly as many features as Rank Math. Below are a few Facebook polls taken on the best SEO plugins (click image to enlarge).

Recommended SEO Plugins:

  • Rank Math – #1 in recent Facebook polls and comes with many features not included with Yoast. If you’re currently using another SEO plugin that lacks SEO features, you may need to install extra SEO plugins like Schema Pro and Automatic Image Alt Attributes.
  • SEOPress – widely used with Oxygen Builder since Rank Math has compatibility issues.
  • Schema Pro – paid, reliable schema plugin (one of the few that adds markup properly). I recommend adding schema using Rank Math, Schema Pro, or Google’s Data Highlighter.
  • Lucky Table Of Contents – a TOC is great for SEO and user experience. Lucky is a highly rated TOC plugin and can also be configured to be inserted into your posts automatically.

 

3. Search Console

Search Console can help you improve SEO and find issues.

  • Sign up for Google Search Console
  • Enter your verification ID in your SEO plugin settings
  • Submit sitemap to Google and other Webmaster Tools (see example)
  • Identify content that has dropped in ranking, CTRs, clicks, impressions
  • Once you’re done publishing a page/post, submit it to Google’s URL Inspection Tool
  • Fix issues with page experience, mobile, security, sitemaps, schema, structured data
  • Use the mobile core web vitals report to learn whether you need to fix LCP, CLS, FID
Rank Math Webmaster Tools
Verify Search Console, Bing, and other Webmaster Tools using your SEO plugin
Low Performing Content
Find content that dropped in rankings, clicks, and CTRs
Search Console Mobile-Usability
Find mobile, schema, security, manual actions, and other errors
Core Web Vitals - Mobile
Use the mobile core web vital report to find issues with LCP, CLS, FID
Submit Yoast XML Sitemap To Google
Submit your sitemap to Google – usually https://yourdomain.com/sitemap_index.xml
Google Indexing Requested
Submit newly published URLs using Google’s Inspection Tool
Search Console Validate Fix
Once you’re done fixing something, validate the fix

 

4. Keyword Research

Call me old fashioned, but I still get my keywords from Google Autocomplete.

It’s free and accurate with what people are searching (unlike many keyword research tools).

Go to google.com and start typing in a keyword to have Google complete the phrase (you’re looking for long-tail phrases usually with 3+ words since they are much less competitive). You can also use an underscore character _ anywhere in the phrase and Google will fill in the blank.

Google Autocomplete Keywords
Google can “complete the phrase” or use the underline character to” fill in the blank”
Google Autocomplete Keywords With Different Order
Try plurals and different word ordering to see different keywords
Date Keywords
The current year is often used in SEO titles to capitalize on “date keywords”
Competitive Keywords
Some phrases, even when long, are still very competitive (try getting even more specific)

Google Autocomplete doesn’t tell you two key metrics: monthly searches or competition. Instead of paying $100+/month for SEMrush/Ahrefs for this, I suggest Keywords Everywhere.

Keywords Everywhere Autocomplete
Keywords Everywhere shows you monthly searches, CPC, and estimated competition

Answer The Public is great for finding question keywords, and Google Trends for finding a keyword’s historical search volume. But for most people, Google Autocomplete will work fine.

The final step is to research the keyword’s competition. The most important part of this is Googling the keyword, clicking the top few results, and checking for competition indicators.

A keyword is more competitive if:

  • It’s broad
  • Top results have strong content
  • Top results are from authority sites
  • You see lots of ads from Google AdWords
  • There are lots of total results (shown when you Google a keyword)
  • You’re targeting a broad phrase in a large city (eg. Chicago Web Design)

 

5. Add Keywords

Set your keyword as the focus keyword, then your SEO plugin will give you recommendations.

Don’t obsess over green lights and do not stuff keywords in subheadings, image alt text, or the content. It doesn’t always make sense to use them here and the importance of keyword density has diminished anyway. You really only need to use your keyword in a few places, then move on. Plus, many SEO plugins only detect exact matches of your keyword which can lead to red lights.

Where To Add Keywords

  • Post title (ideally in front)
  • SEO title (ideally in front)
  • Meta description
  • Permalinks (shortened, ideally in front)
  • A few times in the content body (once in the first couple sentences)
WordPress Focus Keyword
You don’t need 100% green lights to rank #1 in Google

 

6. Don’t Obsess Over Green Lights

A common misconception is that green lights (adding your keyword where your SEO plugin tells you to) gives you higher rankings.

This is not true. In fact, keyword stuffing can make your content look spammy and can even result in a penalty. SEO plugins often only detect exact keyword matches. So you don’t always have to use your exact focus keyword. Sure, use the keyword in the front of the SEO title (usually, but not always), post title, shorten the permalink, and a few times in the content body.

But if you think it looks unnatural, it probably is.

“Keyword stuffing refers to… repeating the same words or phrases so often that it sounds unnatural.”

(source: Google)

 

7. Table Of Contents

Google says:

Ensure that long, multi-topic pages on your site are well-structured and broken into distinct logical sections. Second, ensure that each section has an associated anchor with a descriptive name (i.e., not just “Section 2.1″), and that your page includes a TOC which links to individual anchors.”

Why You Need It

  • Encourages long content (aim for 3,000+ words)
  • People can link to specific sections on your post
  • People can skim content and find what they need
  • People will click around on the page (good for SEO)
  • Chance of getting awarded list featured snippets in Google
  • Chance of getting jump-to links using named anchors (shown below)

You can use LuckyWP Table Of Contents or create the table of contents in HTML.

<ul>
   <li><a href="/permalink/#item-one">Item One</a></li>
   <li><a href="/permalink/#item-two">Item Two</a></li>
   <li><a href="/permalink/#item-three">Item Three</a></li>
</ul>

<h3 id="item-one">Item One</h3>
<h3 id="item-two">Item Two</h3>
<h3 id="item-three">Item Three</h3>

 

Featured snippets can be lists, paragraphs, or tables (your TOC can be used as the list)!

These can be a huge source of traffic. It’s at Google’s discretion, but they pull this from any 1st page result that does a great job at concisely answering questions and providing accurate info.

Most times, Google pulls my featured snippets from the post’s table of contents, first few sentences (where I try to answer a question concisely), or even an answer in my FAQ section.

Paragraph Featured Snippets
Paragraphs are concise, objective, and usually answer a question or provide a definition
List Featured Snippets
List are often taken from the table of contents
Table Featured Snippets
Tables are the least common type of featured snippet
Paragraph Featured Snippets
Images can also appear in featured snippets

How To Get Featured Snippets

  • Make your snippet concise and objective
  • Determine whether a paragraph, list, or table make sense
  • Write a 40-60 word paragraph to be used as the paragraph
  • Consider adding a “what is XYZ” section to give a definition
  • Use an exact match keyword when writing paragraph snippets
  • If using FAQ schema, that is a great place to answer questions too
  • Create a logical TOC and consider using “Step #1” (or similar) in each step
  • Target keywords that already have an featured snippet but do a mediocre job
  • Create an image describing the keyword and use exact keyword as image file + alt text

 

9. SEO Titles

Writing captivating SEO titles can significantly increase click-through rates.

First, set your default SEO title (in your SEO plugin settings) in case you forget to write an SEO title. Mine is %title% %sep% %sitename%. However, you should never rely on default SEO titles for important content and instead, write each one manually. Titles are everything for your CTR!

Rank Math Post SEO Title

Edit a page/post and scroll down to the SEO title. Below are a few examples of posts that have high click-through rates. Partly because of the SEO title and partly because they also rank high.

Tips For Writing SEO Titles

  • Use a number or power word
  • Use your keyword in the front
  • If keyword is not in front, sprinkle it through the title
  • Follow character limits (around 60 characters or 580px)
  • Above all, write the title so it’s enticing for people to click on

WordPress SEO Title - Rank Math

WordPress SEO Titles

SEO Title Example

SEO Title Example

Click-through Rates
See your best/worst click-through rates in Search Console

 

10. Meta Descriptions

I honestly don’t write meta descriptions anymore.

Google has gotten better at matching a user’s query with an excerpt from the content. Even when I write a meta description, Google usually uses something else. Feel free to write a meta description (make it enticing and include your focus keyword), but Google probably won’t use it.

Meta Description
I don’t write meta descriptions
Meta Description Template
Set meta description template as %excerpt% in your SEO plugin settings

 

11. Schema

Schema helps you stand out in search results with reviews, FAQs, recipes, and other data types.

WordPress Rich Snippets
Rich snippets add “extra information” to search results and makes you stand out

Choose A Schema Method/Plugin

I recommend Rank Math, Schema Pro, or Google Data Highlighter for adding schema. Many other schema plugins don’t add the markup properly. This can result in schema errors which can be found in your Search Console schema report. I’m using Rank Math since it’s already built-in.

Configure The Settings

The first step is to configure the schema settings if you’re using Rank Math or Schema Pro. For example, Rank Math can automatically add article, blog post, video, and local schema just by configuring the settings. Which means you don’t need to manually markup to each page/post.

Rank Math Schema Markup
Configure schema settings in Rank Math or Schema Pro

Add Markup To Pages Or Posts

Reviews, FAQs, and other markup need to be added manually on a post-by-post basis. Edit a post, scroll down to the Rank Math (or Schema Pro) section, select the schema type, then you will be prompted to add the required data. Note that Rank Math free only lets you add 1 schema type on each page/post while the Pro version lets you add unlimited schema types.

Rank Math Schema

Check For Schema Errors

Once you’re done, test the URL in Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool or view your schema report in Search Console to check for errors. Google has cracked down on schema (specifically FAQs), so you need to add the markup properly and provide truly helpful answers to people’s questions. I like using FAQs to answer related question keywords from Google Autocomplete.

 

12. Images

Images can be optimized for both SEO and speed. Image SEO mainly involves creating high quality images or screenshots and giving them accurate file names + alt text which usually has, at least, parts of your keyword. Just don’t stuff exact keywords in images to satisfy green lights. Most image speed optimizations can be found in GTmetrix, Lighthouse, or PageSpeed Insights.

Image SEO

  • Use image file name as alt text
  • Label images before uploading
  • Don’t stuff keywords in alt text
  • Design images for featured snippets
Rank Math Image Alt Attribute
Add alt text automatically using the file name, then remember to label images before uploading

Image Speed

  • Lazy load images
  • Compress images
  • Use adaptive images
  • Use correct dimensions
  • Serve images through a CDN
  • Use next-gen formats (WebP)

 

13. High Quality Graphics

I use Canva, AppSumo, and also take a lot of screenshots with Chrome Extensions.

It’s pretty simple. Create one main graphic then crop/resize it to be used as your main blog image, featured image, Facebook og:image, and Twitter og:image. It makes posts look much nicer and the nicer graphics will also have a better chance of appearing in featured snippets.

Canva Graphics

 

14. Multimedia

I’m mainly referring to nice graphics, infographics, and videos.

YouTube specifically can be a huge source of traffic. Say you create 10 videos about 10 key topics on your blog, then you embed the video throughout your blog. This not only improves engagement with your blog (i.e. time on page), but increases engagement with your videos too (i.e. views, likes, shares, comments). Each of them work together to improve both their rankings.

 

15. Social Sharing

Make your content format nicely when it’s shared on Facebook and Twitter.

This requires you to create 2 custom graphics. One for Facebook (1200x630px) and one for Twitter (aspect ratio of 2:1 between 300x157px and 4096x4096px). I usually use 1024×512.

facebook-share

Next, edit a page or post, scroll down to your SEO plugin section, and click the Social tab. You’ll see an option to add images for Facebook/Twitter and change the title/description if you wish.

Rank Math Social Sharing

Enable open graph meta data in your SEO plugin (if there’s a setting for it).

Yoast Open Graph

 

16. Aim For 3,000 Words

Length is strength, but please leave out the fluff!

I’ve had posts go from 20 visitors/day to 100 visitors/day just by beefing up articles. However, increasing the word count without adding value is a cruel thing to do for readers. Stay concise.

Sure, articles on specific topics might only be 1,500 words (while articles on broader topics might be 5,000+ words). You need to Google the keyword, look over the top results, and cover the topic better than your competitors. Which topics (or FAQs) do they cover that you don’t?

Content Word Count
Length is strength, but leave out the fluff

 

Here are a few tips for your domain and permalinks:

  • Choose a memorable domain
  • Add SSL to serve your site from HTTPS
  • Enable breadcrumbs in your SEO plugin
  • Redirect attachments in your SEO plugin
  • Strip /category/ from URLs in your SEO plugin
  • Choose www vs. non-www (most use non-www)
  • Enable automatic redirects for when you change URLs
  • Alternatively, add redirects on a server level which is faster
  • Don’t remove stop words if it makes permalinks unreadable
  • Use “post name” permalink structure (Settings > Permalinks)
  • Avoid using dates in permalinks since they will change next year
  • Use parent pages when applicable (i.e. https://example.com/services/web-design)
  • Shorten permalinks by removing unnecessary stop words and emphasizing keywords
Yoast-Stop-Words-Examples
Letting SEO plugins remove stop words automatically can make permalinks read funny

 

Dr. Link Check scans up to 7,500 links/month for free. I still use Broken Link Checker since you can edit links directly in your dashboard. It consumes high CPU, so delete it when you’re done.

Dr-Link-Check

 

I prefer internal links if I have content about the topic.

External links are similar to citing sources for Google (look at how Wikipedia does it). You should ideally have a blend of both. The more content you create, the more you can use internal links which are a natural way to build links to your site. I’m not a fan of automatic linking plugins because I’m picky about when and where I link to something. I’ll usually briefly explain something and link one of my tutorials if readers want more info. No need to overcomplicate it.

 

Affiliate links should ideally have the nofollow and sponsored attribute.

Affiliate Links

Sponsored Nofollow Links
Follow Google’s guidelines on link attributes

 

21. Noindex Unwanted Pages

Noindexing unwanted pages prevents the PageRank of important pages from being diluted.

Most SEO plugins give you the option to noindex unwanted pages. Consider noindexing search results, paginated pages, archives, password, and tag pages. Chances are, pages and posts are the only ones that will rank anyway, so why risk getting penalized for thin or duplicate content?

Rank Math Noindex Settings

Rank Math Noindex Empty Category Tag Archives

Rank Math Robots Meta

 

22. About Page

Keep people on your site longer by creating an awesome about page.

I didn’t realize how important this was until after I did mine. One thing I did was create a “50 random and disturbing things about me” section where I list all the crazy things I’ve done. I constantly get emails about it, as well as how my story inspired people to stay their journey. I even met my business partner because he read it and decided to fly in to Denver to meet me. And strictly speaking of SEO, Google also wants to know you’re a legitimate person or company.

About Page

 

23. Update Old Content

Updating content can definitely improve rankings.

I spend more time updating old content that I do writing new articles (partly because a lot of things change in the WordPress industry). Improving graphics, bulking up content, adding an FAQ section, and staying relevant with new topics is key in many industries. Keep it updated!

You should also consider using post modified dates.

When you add the post modified date to the top of your blog, the date will refresh to current day each time you update a post (the post modified date will also be shown in search results). When talking about CTRs, keeping content looking fresh is one of the best things you can do.

Post Modified Data in Search
Updating posts and keeping the modified date current can increase CTR
Post Modified Date
Add post modified date to the top of your blog
Date-In-Snippet-Preview-Yoast
Some SEO plugins have settings to show dates in snippets

You need to add the post modified date to your theme. Alternatively, you can use the Post Updated Date (or Genesis Simple Edits to add the post modified date shortcode to the Entry Meta section in Genesis → Simple Edits). Here are examples depending on the theme/plugin:

<p>Last modified: <?php the_modified_date(); ?></p>

Entry-Meta

Here is Rank Math’s solution:

add_filter( 'rank_math/snippet/rich_snippet_review_entity', function( $entity )
{ global $post;
$entity['dateModified'] = $post->post_modified;
return $entity; 
}, 10, 1 );

 

24. Cornerstone Content

This is the most helpful content on your website.

For me, these are my tutorials on WordPress speed optimization, affiliate marketing, WP Rocket settings, and even this guide on WordPress SEO. Learn core topics your audience wants to learn and create in-depth content about them. This is what gets most of my links, shares, etc.

Cornerstone Content
My top 10 tutorials drive 50%+ of all traffic
WordPress SEO Series
Showcase core tutorials in your menu, sidebar, footer, or homepage

 

25. Core Web Vitals

You need to optimize your WordPress site for core web vitals.

There are plenty of tips in that guide (including fixing specific items in Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insights), but I’ll cover a few things that can potentially make a large improvement.

First, check your mobile core web vitals report in Search Console and see if you have errors with LCP (largest contentful paint), CLS (cumulative layout shift), or FID (total blocking time).

Largest Contentful Paint WordPress Element - Background Image
LCP element is usually an image or background image you can optimize (preload, compress, etc)
Cumulative Layout Shift Debugger
Layout shifts can be caused by fonts, animations, missing dimensions, and asynchronous CSS
Main-Thread Blocking Time
Optimize JS (defer, delay, minify, Perfmatters/Asset CleanUp, host fonts/analytics/GTM locally)

 

26. Google’s Core Algo Updates

Follow Google SearchLiaison and look out for core algo updates.

Google will usually announce them ahead of time so you can prepare. Core web vitals, product update, and the big core update of May, 2020 were just a few of them. These can significantly impact your traffic. If your rankings suddenly drop, make sure you check whether Google announced a core update on Twitter. Or better yet, prepare for them before they’re released.

Google core algo update

 

27. Check For Mobile + Browser Issues

Even if you use a mobile responsive theme, you can still have mobile issues which you should check in Search Console.

WebP images (among many other things) can cause browser compatibility issues. Make sure you check your site in Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and other major browsers manually to make sure you don’t have errors. I had a browser error for many weeks and lost many visitors because of it.

Broken WebP Background Image

 

28. Affiliate Blogs

Google has cracked down on affiliate sites in the past.

I highly recommend reading Google’s affiliate guidelines. So many affiliate sites are too salesy and don’t provide enough value. They always list affiliate products first, most of their content is focused on selling, and they create “thin” content that doesn’t add value in regards to people going directly to the merchant. For this reason, affiliate marketers have gotten a very bad rep.

Bottom line: gain trust with your readers by adding more value than sales pitches.

Affiliate Tips:

  • Avoid thin, salesy content
  • Don’t only write about topics where you can sell something
  • When creating list posts, don’t always list affiliate products first
  • Don’t use an affiliate link every time you mention a product/service
  • Write a review of the affiliate and sometimes, try linking to that instead
Cloudways Affiliate Commissions
Gaining trust with readers is a large reason I’m making $150,000/year with affiliate marketing

 

29. Local SEO

Local search has different ranking factors.

The pie charts are from 2018 but the ranking factors haven’t changed much at all.

2018 Local Search Ranking Factors
Local search ranking factors (source: Moz)

These mainly consist of Google My Business, citations, NAP, reviews, geo-targeted pages, optimizing for mobile, links, and on-page SEO. Moz Local and Whitespark are great resources.

 

30. YouTube SEO

YouTube uses engagement signals to rank videos (views, likes, comments, watch time, etc).

Find a keyword in YouTube Autocomplete and use the VidIQ Chrome Extension to learn about the keyword’s competition. Just like you would research a keyword for your WordPress site, you want a keyword with a good amount of monthly searches but not too high of competition.

YouTube Keywords
Research video keywords in YouTube

Create a 10+ minute video and actually mention the keyword a couple times. Organize the video into logical sections so it’s easy to navigate (and so you can divide it into chapters later). Content is also king on YouTube. Write a script, edit, and invest in equipment (i.e. microphone).

YouTube Chapters
Break videos into chapters

Label the video file as the keyword and upload it to YouTube. Write a catchy title with the keyword, write a lengthy video description which also includes your keyword, and add timestamps to divide your video into chapters. Correct any spelling mistakes in the translation and design a (very) catchy thumbnail. Finally, don’t forget to embed it on your WordPress site.

 

31. WooCommerce SEO

SEO isn’t all that different for WooCommerce.

  • Make product SEO titles enticing to click on
  • Write thorough, helpful product descriptions
  • Optimize product images (alt text, speed, high res, etc)
  • Create separate categories for seasonal + clearance items
  • Optimize product category pages (design, SEO titles, etc)
  • Make it easy for users to browse products with files, related products, etc
  • Disable WooCommerce scripts/styles on non-eCommerce pages (for speed)
WooCommerce SEO Keywords
Optimize for specific product keywords

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best WordPress SEO plugin?

Rank Math, SEOPress, and Yoast are generally regarded as the best SEO plugins. Many people are switching from Yoast to Rank Math because it has more SEO features (such as schema and automatic image alt text).

Is WordPress Good For SEO?

Yes, WordPress is good for SEO especially when using a highly rated SEO plugin. Remember to use reliable, lightweight plugins (and page builders) that won't slow down your site and hurt SEO.

How do I SEO my WordPress site?

Installing an SEO plugin and configuring the settings is a great start. From there, it's mostly about finding relevant keywords and writing in-depth, optimized content about them.

What are some lesser-known WordPress SEO tips?

Use a table of contents for long posts, add post modified date to your blog and update posts to keep content fresh, and avoid stuffing keywords to get green lights in SEO plugins.

See Also: Optimizing WordPress For Core Web Vitals

Cheers,
Tom

About Tom Dupuis

Tom Dupuis 2017Tom Dupuis writes WordPress speed and SEO tutorials out of his apartment in Denver, Colorado. In his spare time, he plays Rocket League and watches murder documentaries. Read his bio to learn 50 random and disturbing things about him.

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