Yoast SEO (formerly Yoast SEO for WordPress) is a plug-in for WordPress to optimise your content for search engines. It’s a simple tool, but it’s powerful when you know how to use it correctly.
I’m going to walk through the Yoast SEO plug-in to give your future blog posts the best chance at being seen by search engines and potentially generating more traffic to your content.
WordPress continues to be one of the most commonly used platforms on the internet. According to W3Techs, over 25% of websites today are powered by the content management system.
This post is for anyone who manages content for a website via WordPress and may have wondered: ‘what is that Yoast SEO thing at the end of my blog post?’
Well, allow me to explain.
There are over 200 factors that determine how webpages are ranked on search engines. Your content plays a huge role in whether your page appears for searches or not. Google can only return your page for relevant search queries if it can get an accurate sense of your content.
There are certain things you can do or include on each webpage that send clear signals to search engines, so they can better understand and rank your page accordingly. The Yoast plug-in is a handy tool for basic on-page optimisation; it analyses your content and prompts you to take measures to optimise the page for search engines.
Getting familiar with Yoast is a great way to get more eyeballs on your content.
Keep in mind, this is just one of many techniques to improve the search visibility of a web page.
For the purpose of this article, I’m focusing on the Yoast SEO meta box. This is the interface you see when writing the back-end of a post or page. Or, for the uninitiated: ‘that Yoast SEO thing at the end of my blog post‘. Although the plug-in has many different features, I’ll focus on the features that specifically relate to creating new content: posts or pages.
Remember, this is all assuming that other Yoast SEO plug-in settings have been configured by your SEO specialist. The examples included here are from Yoast SEO for WordPress version 4.4. This plug-in updates frequently and may have changed from the time of writing, so don’t worry if your interface looks slightly different.
There are 3 main parts to the Yoast SEO meta box:
- Snippet preview (sometimes referred to as ‘snippet editor’)
- Focus keyword
- Content analysis
I’ve included this diagram to highlight each section:
Here’s the Yoast editor in action, with the relevant sections marked 1, 2 and 3.
The snippet preview tells a search engine the text to display when your webpage shows up on results pages. The aim of the game is to provide a clear summary of the content on a page, even before someone makes the decision to click through and visit your site. If this text isn’t accurate or interesting, you may be missing out on traffic.
This is how the snippet preview appears in the plug-in. Familiar? It’s intentionally designed to mimic the look of Google search results.
You can edit the three different sections highlighted in the image above: the SEO title, the Slug (URL Editor), and the Meta description.
Edit these fields by simply clicking on the part of the snippet you’d like to change.
- SEO title. This is the title of the page that appears in the tab of your browser. It also features as the main ‘headline’ text when your webpage appears on search engines. The title is a strong indicator for search engines to determine what your webpage is about. It should describe the page’s main focus. If your Yoast SEO settings are configured correctly, the title is often automatically generated using the title of the page in WordPress. You can further customise your title tag if you choose to. A few tips for optimising your title:
- Try to keep it 50-60 characters long. At the time of writing this article, Google displays around 600px of your title. Your title is cut off (truncated) on the search result page if it gets too long. Pro tip: wider characters like ‘O’s and ‘W’s take up more room.
- If you’re optimising for focus keywords (which I’ll discuss shortly), try to place them early in the title. That way, people identify important keywords easily and quickly. It also helps with organic rankings.
- Depending on how your Yoast SEO is configured, your site name may already show up at the end of your title. However, it will be removed if you make any manual changes. I’d recommend including your site name at the end of each meta title: it helps with brand awareness.
- Try using any one of the four ‘U’s of headlines, and apply best-practice copywriting techniques.
- Slug (URL Editor). This is used to edit the uniform resource locator (URL) of your web page. The URL should only ever be changed on new, unpublished posts; altering the URL on an existing post can create multiple redirects. The URL is also automatically generated from the page title in WordPress. Still, make sure each URL clearly describes the page content so people can confirm they’re in the right place while navigating through your site. WordPress automatically creates the URL based on the initial title of the post. As with the above point, if your post title in WordPress is descriptive and reflective of your content then don’t worry about changing it. If you do choose to change your URL, there are a few things to keep in mind for SEO best practice:
- Use hyphens instead of spaces to separate words. Try not to use spaces or underscores: it’s the safest way to keep your URLs clean.
- Don’t use special characters, such as ‘&’, or ‘=’ or ‘$’ — they can confuse browsers and break your page.
WordPress doesn’t actually allow you to include these symbols within a URL. It automatically removes any confusing characters.
- Meta description. This is the text that displays under your page title on search engine result pages. A meta description is like a little blurb for the page. It should offer a brief overview of the content on the page and entice people to click through to your site. Try including a call-to-action like ‘Find out more‘ or ‘Sign up today‘ to encourage people to click through. The meta description does not directly affect your webpage rankings, but it can play an important role in enticing people to click through.
A few extra things to consider when editing snippets:
- Consider the keywords people might use when searching for your content. This can inform the variety of keywords you include in your snippet. Google will bold keywords that are highly relevant to user search terms. This makes your snippet stand out and hopefully encourages greater click-through.
- Make sure meta titles and descriptions are unique to each page, and not replicated across multiple pages on one website. Search engines can get confused if multiple pages are optimised for the same titles.
- You should always focus on providing content to meet your audience needs. Don’t try to broaden your appeal by filling snippets with keywords that don’t reflect the content on the page. Google may actually penalise your site for the dark art of ‘keyword stuffing’.
- Sometimes Google will alter titles or descriptions on a search results page if it deems the change more relevant to the search term. For example, if Google identifies that someone is looking for a specific brand or webpage, Google will put the site name in front of the main title. Don’t be surprised if a page or meta title is not displayed exactly as intended.
- Snippet updates won’t show up straight away on the search engines. Google requires a few days to notice changes and update the snippet accordingly in search pages. Patience is a virtue.
- As with everything in WordPress, don’t forget to save your changes.
You can toggle the snippet preview between mobile or desktop view using the handy buttons shown below. Remember to check out how your snippet appears on both devices.
These buttons allow you to toggle between mobile and desktop view.
The Focus Keyword input field, with the example focus keyword(s) ‘Yoast SEO tutorial’.
The focus keywords section can be confusing. It is used to highlight a word or short phrase that you want to optimise your page for. After you’ve chosen your focus keyword(s), Yoast SEO analyses various elements of the page relating to the focus keyword, like overall content, page titles, and URLs. It then generates suggestions for optimising the page, and presents them in the ‘Content Analysis’ section (see below) that appears directly underneath the ‘Focus Keyword’ input.
The focus keyword doesn’t affect rankings. It guides the plug-in on what to look for throughout the content. Your focus keyword(s) should be a descriptive word or phrase articulating the main theme of the page content.
For example, if your article offers tutorials to help people attain black-belt level Yoast SEO ninja status, and you think people will search the phrase ‘Yoast SEO tutorial’ to find similar content, then the focus keyword should be ‘Yoast SEO tutorial’. Think about the common terms people are likely to use when searching for your content.
The content analysis section automatically generates suggestions for improving your content and SEO. Suggestions appear in colour codes of red, amber, and green: just like a traffic light. Yoast SEO is about optimising content for increased traffic, after all.
It’s pretty much the same rules as on the road:
- Green = the content meets best-practice, it’s good to go.
- Red = stop doing this, or go back and reconsider your approach.
- Amber = somewhere in the middle. You may benefit from revisiting these aspects of your content, or you may choose to ignore these recommendations.
Remember, these suggestions can be worthwhile, but you don’t need to follow them strictly. Hitting as many as possible gives content the best chance of being understood by search engines, not necessarily people.
A typical list of recommendations as suggested by Yoast’s content analysis section.
The content analysis is broken up into two sections. The Readability tab (1) and the SEO analysis tab (2). These sections can be found in the tabs at the top of the meta box.
The suggestions in the readability tab, as you may have guessed, focus on improving the readability of content. The more readable your content, the more useful it’s likely to be for users. Google’s algorithm does actually take into account how well written your content is on a page. It’s worth taking a look at these recommendations to find ways you can improve your content.
SEO Analysis tab
Once your content’s reading beautifully, the SEO tab helps you ensure it is properly optimised for search engines. It includes lots of useful SEO best practice suggestions that focuses on optimising your content according to your chosen focus keyword.
Some of the more common suggestions include:
No meta description has been specified, search engine will display copy from the page instead
Google will typically pull text from your page if you don’t include anything in the meta description field. It’s not a critical issue if you don’t include a meta description as it won’t directly affect your rankings. That said, if you don’t include a meta description, you miss out on the opportunity to write custom text that could attract people to click through.
The focus keyword does not appear in the page title
This is an important consideration. The page title is a strong indicator of any page’s focus. It is also the main text that appears on the search result pages. Ensure that every page title contains your focus keyword, or topic, to attract users.
The text contains ## words. This is far too low and should be increased
The more content on your site, the more likely a page will be relevant for a wider range of search terms. That said, don’t jam-pack your post with filler content. Add an amount of content that will satisfy your audience’s needs.
The focus keyword doesn’t appear in the first paragraph of the copy. Make sure the topic is clear immediately
Including your keyword early in the content helps both people and search engines immediately understand what the page is about. This can increase the chance that people will stay and read your page. If your main content starts somewhere further down the page, you run the risk of people not finding it and therefore leaving immediately, or ‘bouncing’.
The focus keyword does not appear in the URL for this page
Try to ensure the URL provides an accurate description of the page content. This generally means including your focus keyword within the URL.
The page title contains ## characters, which is less than the recommended minimum of 40 characters. Use the space to add keyword variations or create compelling call-to-action copy
As I mentioned earlier, search engines can only show a certain amount of characters in the search results; the title will be cut-off if there are too many characters. On the other hand if your title is too short, it’s a missed opportunity to add important words or calls to action. Make sure your title is descriptive and easy to understand.
The copy scores ## in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered fairly easy to read
The Flesch Reading Ease test is used to analyse reading ease. As with most automated tools, the results or suggestions aren’t always going to be perfect. Consider your audience and the level of understanding they may have.
The keyword density is ##%, which is great; the focus keyword was found # times
Keyword density can be a strange way to look at content; it analyses how often focus keywords appear. Some people believe there is a certain percentage you should aim to achieve. Don’t take this too literally, especially if your focus keyword is a long phrase like ‘Yoast SEO tutorials designed to help get more traffic to your content’. Instead, ensure focus keywords or topics are present on your page and that your post covers the key topic comprehensively. Use the keyword density metric as a rough guide and focus on creating content that resonates with your users. For example, if the keyword density for a piece on Yoast SEO tutorials is ridiculously high and every second word is ‘Yoast SEO tutorials’, it won’t offer the best reading experience. On the other hand, if it’s 0%, then you haven’t mentioned your focus keyword anywhere, which is problematic. It’s all about balance. If everything makes sense and sounds natural then don’t worry too much about the exact keyword density of your content.
You’ve used this focus keyword once before, be sure to make very clear which URL on your site is the most important for this keyword
Your focus keyword should reflect the main topic of a page. Avoid multiple pages that focus on the exact same topic. You can have variations of a topic, but if there’s a page that offers overly similar material then consider consolidating it on a single web page.
Let’s get social: prepare to share.
If you feel like you’re acing the meta game, then up the ante and explore the social tab. The social tab allows you to further optimise how your article appears when people copy and paste the URL into a Facebook or Twitter post.
You can find the social tab by clicking the social icon to the left of the meta box.
Toggling between the Yoast Meta tab and the social tab.
Here, you’ll find options for customising your titles, descriptions and images for Facebook and Twitter. Toggle between the Facebook and Twitter tabs using the tab buttons at the top of the Yoast SEO meta box. If you don’t enter anything into the Twitter inputs, Yoast SEO defaults to using the Facebook settings. If you don’t enter anything into the Facebook tab, Yoast SEO defaults to using the Yoast settings.
Use this feature if you want to get serious about promoting your content via social media.
Just like a scalpel is to a surgeon, or a hammer to a carpenter, the Yoast SEO plug-in is a great basic tool that becomes powerful when you know how to use it like an expert.
Remember, you don’t necessarily need to go overboard trying to hit on every single one of the points I’ve covered in this article.
The most important thing is to create quality content that will resonate with your audience, then focus on optimising it with Yoast.
That’s the best way to ensure your content always hits the nail on the head.