For all small business WordPress sites that we create here at Tamara Olson Designs, we install and use the Yoast SEO plugin, which is (at the time of this article’s writing) the industry leader. SEO, or search engine optimization, is an important tool to help you drive traffic from search results on search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing to your website.

We receive a lot of client questions about how to use the Yoast plugin effectively. Although SEO techniques should always come from a larger marketing strategy, here’s a basic rundown of what you need to know about using the Yoast plugin.

“But wait, I just read that SEO was dead and pointless and so 2011! Why are you posting about SEO?”

Before we get started, I want to address something I’ve been overhearing: that SEO is dead, so why bother? My answer: It is and it isn’t. The answer really depends on what you mean by “SEO.”

If by “SEO” you mean “game the system,” you’re right. Google’s getting smarter, and it indeed will catch on to your wily ways. In the olden days, quantity beat quality, and it paid off to write the same keyword over and over, steal other people’s content, and pepper the Internet with bogus links to make yourself seem popular.

Those tricks don’t work anymore. In light of these improvements, SEO is less about black magic and knowing the tricks, and more about producing quality, well-structured, user-friendly content and utilizing best practices. (Alas, when does it not all tie back to UX?) As Google becomes smarter, the answer can be found in honest content that addresses user needs while targeting your business goals: It’s a win/win.

Remember, SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” As long as people are searching, there will be ways to optimize your content for their searches. Thus, if we stop equating “SEO” with black magic, and instead think of it as the practice of creating great content that is strategically positioned to help people and serve a specific, authentic purpose, I’d argue that SEO is far from “dead.” It’s just the methods of optimization that change.

Choosing focus keywords for each page

All right, time to step down from my soap box and dig into the nitty-gritty.

For each post or page, you’re going to want to choose keywords that make sense for your brand, keeping in mind your goals. What words or phrases are your potential clients or customers searching for when they go to Google or Bing? What results will drive them to your site? At a high level, you’re trying to optimize each page for a certain search query for which you want to capture traffic (if capturing search traffic is part of your marketing strategy). It always helps me to remember that your homepage is not the front door to your website; many times, users will come in via article pages or other landing pages.

I typically plan my keywords during the initial information architecture — which I’ll often do using a spreadsheet. To illustrate my concept, I’ll use my own site as an example.

Spreadsheet

The goal of my business is client acquisition, and I generally build websites for small to medium sized businesses. Consequently, I am very interested in capturing people who are searching for things like “law firm web design” or “website design nyc.” Although there might be a lot of people out there searching for “how to build my own website” (maybe more than “website designer nyc”), that’s not the type of person I want to capture. They are less likely to “convert” (hire me).

But how should you decide on keywords? The answer is going to sound like common sense (because it is): Find out what people are searching for, and optimize for the frequently searched phrases that are in line with the traffic you want to attract. To do this research, you can use the AdWords Keyword Planner Tool. This tool was designed for people who are looking to buy keywords (in other words, buy phrases that then make their ads appear at the top of Google search results), but it also works as a great, free tool for people seeking to optimize for organic search results. Here’s a great tutorial on how to discover keywords with the Google Keyword Planner.

If that sounds complicated/like too much work, another (easier) way to go about this is to simply see what auto-completes in Google:

GoogleSearch

This will give you decent insight into some top keyword phrases being searched.

Using Yoast to input your focus keywords

On each page or post, you’ll see a widget that says “WordPress SEO by Yoast” that contains several fields to fill in.

Enter your focus keyword (the search phrase for which you want to optimize the page/post) in the “Focus Keyword” input. Once you do, that section underneath the input will light up (“Your focus keyword was found in”). What’s happening, you ask? Yoast is encouraging you to place your keyword as many places as possible. The more places you do, the better, but you also don’t want your post to sound keyword spammy. Use your best judgment. Ideally, you want your focus keywords to appear in the title, meta description, page URL, and throughout your content (as it makes sense). If you are linking to other pages within the content (either on your own site or someone else’s), don’t use a generic “click here” as your anchor text, but rather try to incorporate your focus keyword into a call to action.

YoastWidget

Also in this widget are inputs that control the “SEO title” and “Meta description.” (Note that the “SEO title” field will auto-populate with a default title. You can tweak the defaults if you like in SEO > Titles and Metas.) Generally speaking, for subpages or posts, it’s best to make sure your keywords are toward the beginning of the title.

These two fields represent what will appear in search:

SearchResults

The “meta description” field, which is that chunk of text that appears below your title in search results, may not affect your search rankings, but it is essentially your sales pitch to potential visitors. We urge you to focus on the user here: A description that will entice your desired audience to click.

Clicking on the “Page Analysis” tab will give you some more general pointers from Yoast. Keep in mind that you’re not going to get every page to “green dot” status, and that’s okay. (For example, Yoast will always nag you that posts should be above a certain character/word limit, but there are certainly times on the Internet when a gorgeous design will dictate fewer words.) It’s great if you can pepper your focus keyword as many times as possible throughout your content (in paragraphs and in headings), but please: Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees and go overboard with keywords.

One last helpful hint for optimizing your content: make sure to include your location. This is separate from your focus keyword, but related. If you own a local bakery, for example, it is important that your website ranks if a user is searching for “best cookies new york city.” Include your address and location as possible/relevant, and make sure it’s consistent on each page.

Tagging posts

Tagging is great, from a user perspective and an SEO perspective (and, once again, that line is starting to blur as Google gets smarter). A good rule of thumb is to use categories as your table of contents and tags as your index. Both are a great way to allow users to find similar content, and you’re indirectly telling Google what topics are common on your site.

Tags

Canonical tags

Many of our clients want to publish content on their site that has previously been published in other places. That’s great — except that we don’t want Google to think you’re copying content. Google doesn’t like duplicate content, so if they see two versions of the same article posted, they always try to determine which one is the “original article.” There’s a tag, called the canonical tag, that allows pages to say “I’m the original,” or “This other page is the original.”

Generally speaking, it’s best if you have the canonical version of your works on your own site. However, huge sites like the Huffington Post may have policies where they won’t publish it unless they get canonical credit. In this case, we’d recommend publishing the full text of the articles, but giving them canonical credit.

If the other source is taking canonical credit, to avoid being penalized, give them canonical credit. You can do this by going inside the “Advanced” tab of the Yoast plugin, and pasting the URL in the “canonical URL” field:

CanonicalURL

Note: Leave the 301 redirect field blank, unless you actually want users who try to visit this post to go somewhere else. And if that’s the case, I would recommend using the Redirection plugin or a similar tool.

What does the “social” area of the Yoast plugin do?

Have you ever copied and pasted a URL into Facebook, and then been annoyed because it doesn’t show the right picture, title, or description? Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that website. Use the “social” tab to ensure your defaults are up to snuff — upload a default photo to use if a post doesn’t have a photo, tie your Google+ account to your content (“my what?”), etc. Here’s a great post outlining the ins and outs of all the bells and whistles inside this tab.

“Oh, one more thing. What are Panda and Penguin? Should I be afraid of these seemingly docile sounding animals?”

Panda and Penguin were two updates that were made to Google’s algorithm — generally speaking, Panda targeted sites with weak or duplicate content, and Penguin targeted sites that went crazy with links. Again, just Google trying to be smarter and honor more authentic, legit websites.

A final word

Optimizing your pages and posts for keywords that make sense for your goals and mission is critical; however, unfortunately, it’s not all there is to SEO. If SEO is a big part of your business and marketing strategy, we recommend working with a marketing agency to define and hone these objectives and strategies.

For further reading: