The Truth About WordPress SEO

by Ben Cook on January 26, 2010

WordPress SEO

WordPress users have been subjected to an incredible amount of hype surrounding the topic of search engine optimization (SEO). They’ve been told WordPress is an SEO friendly platform, there are countless SEO plugins in the repositiory, and almost every premium theme on the market claims to be able to improve your site’s SEO.

Given that environment, it’s only natural that some bloggers would question those claims. Alex Denning of WPshout.com recently published “Some Thoughts on SEO” and Jeffro over at WPtavern.com followed it up by imploring us to “Write for People, not Spiders.”

SEO = On-Site & Off

Search engine optimization (SEO) as a process actually encapsulates two distinct areas. On-site optimization, as the name suggests, focuses on making sure your site is organized to the search engines liking in hopes that they’ll rank your content higher.

Off-site optimization focuses on attracting the proper kind of links to your site to help improve your rankings. As Google has worked to make their rankings less vulnerable to manipulation, the importance of inbound links and other off-site indicators have skyrocketed.

When Alex states “As long as your design is coded well, that’s all the ‘SEO optimisation’ you need to do.” he’s completely ignoring the off-site element of SEO.

While most of the plugins, themes, and WordPress related SEO advice center around on-site optimization, you need both sides to capture rankings for the more competitive terms.

Content or SEO?

The main theme of Alex’s post is that you need good content to have a successful blog. Now I’m not foolish enough to argue against that point. You absolutely DO need to have quality content.

Content is King but it Needs SEOIn fact, there’s an old saying in the SEO industry (it may have originated somewhere else but that’s where I heard it first) that “Content is King“.

But, the need for quality content doesn’t in any way support Alex’s next claim:

“If you’re having to try to improve your search engine ranking that means your content isn’t very good.”

Almost every successful site on the web works on improving their search engine rankings, even the blogs like Smashing Magazine that Alex mentions.

Why? Because great content is useless until readers find it and SEO is a fantastic way to get more traffic to your site. The two work hand-in-hand. Good content makes it easier to attract links (off-site SEO) which in turn improves your search engine rankings, which results in more people seeing your quality content.

However, if you have great content, but your on-site SEO factors don’t support it (through proper linking, loading quickly, explaining what the content is, etc), search engines will never know how great it is and neither will their users.

So which do you need, good content or good SEO?

Both.

SEO Will Follow

Jeffro ended his post by saying:

“My general advice for SEO is to do a few little things to get started but write for people first, SEO will follow.”

the SEO Field of Dreams DelusionThis is what I like to call the “Field of Dreams Delusion.” Believe it or not, you can’t just throw something out on your blog and expect it to receive the attention it deserves. There are so many blogs and sites on the web that if you build it, there’s a good chance no one knows.

Quality content will rarely if ever rank just because it contains great information or is fun to read.

For most bloggers, especially those with newer less authoritative sites in the eyes of Google, content needs to be promoted, passed around & ideally linked to before it will start to rank.

Of course you should “write for humans”, but content that will perform well in search engines isn’t exactly in binary code. In fact, most of the time writing for the search engines simply means figuring out what terms the bulk of your human audience uses to look for the content you’re creating.

Often getting the most SEO bang for your buck is simply a matter of organizing your content well. For example, I noticed that a lot of people were searching in Google for Thesis skins. Unfortunately, I had a few posts that were all competing for rankings. By creating a new category and using the term in my internal links to the category page, I was able to achieve a page 1 ranking.

It wasn’t a complicated process but it was also probably not something I would have done if I hadn’t been paying attention to my site’s SEO. As a result, more people are finding and using my skins.

Note: This premise, that SEO is easy or SEO will follow, has been addressed several times in the past. Todd Friesen has written two very good rebuttals of this. While a couple of years old, the principles still apply.

Are Themes Really SEO-Friendly?

In following the Twitter discussion surrounding these two posts it seems much of the inspiration was derived from all of the SEO hype surrounding WordPress themes.

The bottom line is this: themes control the most important aspects of your WordPress site structure. As Thesis theme creator, Chris Pearson, said “ALL content is served to [search engines] via themes, so themes have 100% of the control.”

WordPress Themes Control WordPress SEOIf your theme is coded poorly, loads slowly, doesn’t allow customization of titles, descriptions, meta-data, or creates any number of possible SEO problems, it’s going to make life pretty difficult.

Many of the top themes on the market qualify as SEO friendly. None currently offer the level of customization that Thesis provides out of the box.

Is this a selling point?

Absolutely. I’ve used themes that harmed my rankings in the past and trust me, that’s a mistake you’ll only make once. There’s nothing worse than realizing you sacrificed a significant portion of your potential audience because of the theme you’re using.

Is it over-hyped?

Probably. The separation in terms of “SEO friendliness” between many of the premium WordPress themes on the market is fairly small. Even if your theme doesn’t provide all of the SEO related flexibility that Thesis or Headway provides, you can probably achieve similar results using a plugin or two, assuming your theme is coded cleanly. If you’re trying to decide between two themes, I’d certainly factor in the SEO functionality it provides, but don’t purchase a theme simply because it touts itself as SEO friendly.

Note: Leland over at ThemeLab.com responded with his thoughts on the issue as well. He seems to be doing a series of posts and judging from the first one, What Makes a “SEO-Friendly” WordPress Theme?,  it will be well worth reading

Comment Spam

SEO Comment Spamsource: @kevin033

Alex also mentioned the obnoxious practice of comment spam that I’m sure every blogger has encountered.

“One often gets the impression that these people [like] Best Plumber in Oregon are leaving comments in an attempt to increase their search engine ranking.”

That’s absolutely what they’re trying to do. As  mentioned above, attracting inbound links to your site, especially links with targeted anchor text, can drastically improve your search engine rankings.

In fact, comment spam like the example Alex provided can work quite well assuming the comments a) get published and b) don’t have the nofollow tag applied to them.

Most blogs automatically slap a nofollow tag on links in the comment section which tells Google not to include those links when calculating their rankings. However, some blogs (such as those that jumped on the DoFollow bandwagon a while back) have removed that tag, thus giving them SEO impact.

DoFollow blogs are so few and far between these days that I have to agree with Alex on this issue, bloggers would be better off spending their time creating new content than trying to squeeze “link juice” from blog comments.

But dismissing the entire practice of SEO because one tactic is no longer a worthwhile activity is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

SEO Resources for WordPress

Assuming my post has convinced you not to give up on SEO completely, here’s a list of resources that can help:

While those links will provide you with a lot of information, don’t get overwhelmed and certainly don’t neglect the other aspects of blogging. Keep writing, keep creating good quality content, but don’t turn a blind eye to SEO and assume it will all happen naturally either.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

john andrews January 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Let’s not forget the age-old tactic of “wait until it’s no longer an issue, and then talk about how it was never a big deal and was blown out of proportion”.

Wordpress has been horrible for SEO over the years. The “content is king” folks have always been wrong… although they may be less wrong now than they used to be (because Wordpress and themes have improved).

Even today, each new release includes code changes that for some reason screw around with the behavior of the permalinks management. Change a permalink and what does Wordpress do? Install a 301 redirect? Install 302 redirect? Throw a 404 at the old URL? Your guess is as good as mine as it seems they change the behavior EVERY TIME THEY UPDATE.

The Thesis people want to sel their product, so of course they say it’s all in the theme. It’s not all in the theme.

Oh and of course don’t forget Google is also changing… there is ALWAYS a need for SEO for Wordpress.

Alex Denning January 26, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Great response Ben. As a community, we should be doing this more — seeing views on a topic then responding with intelligent arguments and having a good old debate.

Michael Martin January 26, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I also posted at the Search Engine Journal last year some of the best SEO/Mobile plugins for WordPress – http://www.searchenginejournal.com/plugin-seo-wordpress/12928/

Joe Manna January 28, 2010 at 2:00 am

Great points and counterpoints — all of them individually have been discussed at length within the SEO and WordPress circles and you summed it up nicely.

I would like to add my few cents however all concluded from my experience. SEO is much more than a theme in WordPress, it primarily relates to the content and the ability to make a Web visitor happy. Period.

Even the suckiest of pages (in terms of clutter, excess code, etc) are ranked well because the visitors of the page naturally keep coming back repeatedly. Google and many other search engines look at this and is tracked via the Bounce Rate. Bounce Rates can sensibly be interpreted as a visitor clicked on your link from a search result, looked at the page for a second or two, hit the back button and resumed their search. While this is not anything a site owner can control through a plugin, they can control it by cleanly presenting the content, ensuring the title and the Meta Description matches the content and headlines in the content are treated as such with appropriate headline tags.

While it is rather “scientific” to break out a long formula for how to optimize WordPress for SEO – what really is needed is to simply present content well for humans, and make sure your WordPress theme behaves itself from not including crap links or even rooted installs. (I’ve seen legitimately free themes with encrypted/encoded PHP scripts where it would pull links from somewhere and include it in your site without knowledge. Just an example.)

While I don’t personally use Thesis, the benefit in using a commercial WP theme is the support and the quality and trust you receive from the author in that it’s in their best interest to maintain it. On the contrary though, a commercial theme doesn’t necessarily make it better. Additional free frameworks for WP such as Thematic and Hybrid are decent competition for These and can deliver “clean” code and an SEO optimized site out of the box.

SEO — like social media — is not a product, rather a practice in how content is displayed on the screen in accordance to guidelines from search engines. Offsite SEO is equally as important and it helps to forge relationships with similar content publishers in the same space. Posting slopping comment spam will only net you a nofollow link back and no benefit.

Content is king, but compliance to usability standards and overall user experience is queen and performance is jack.

Just some thoughts. I hope someone found this useful. :)

~joe

Kate Saunders January 30, 2010 at 7:30 am

Ben,

Awesome post. I love Thesis and find great tips on Double Mule’s site for SEO customization of Thesis. (I think they just need to update their free manual with some of the changes in the latest Thesis release.) So there’s a tip for some of the Thesis experts out there! =) Yep, some of us would even pay a little something for the updated material and life-time updates.

Love your new Simplicity theme. It’s beautiful.

Thanks for helping to rock Thesis.

Kate

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