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How NLP & NLU Work For Semantic Search

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How NLP & NLU Work For Semantic Search

Natural language processing (NLP) and natural language understanding (NLU) are two often-confused technologies that make search more intelligent and ensure people can search and find what they want.

This intelligence is a core component of semantic search.

NLP and NLU are why you can type “dresses” and find that long-sought-after “NYE Party Dress” and why you can type “Matthew McConnahey” and get Mr. McConnaughey back.

With these two technologies, searchers can find what they want without having to type their query exactly as it’s found on a page or in a product.

NLP is one of those things that has built up such a large meaning that it’s easy to look past the fact that it tells you exactly what it is: NLP processes natural language, specifically into a format that computers can understand.

These kinds of processing can include tasks like normalization, spelling correction, or stemming, each of which we’ll look at in more detail.

NLU, on the other hand, aims to “understand” what a block of natural language is communicating.

It performs tasks that can, for example, identify verbs and nouns in sentences or important items within a text. People or programs can then use this information to complete other tasks.

Computers seem advanced because they can do a lot of actions in a short period of time. However, in a lot of ways, computers are quite daft.

They need the information to be structured in specific ways to build upon it. For natural language data, that’s where NLP comes in.

It takes messy data (and natural language can be very messy) and processes it into something that computers can work with.

Text Normalization

When searchers type text into a search bar, they are trying to find a good match, not play “guess the format.”

For example, to require a user to type a query in exactly the same format as the matching words in a record is unfair and unproductive.

We use text normalization to do away with this requirement so that the text will be in a standard format no matter where it’s coming from.

As we go through different normalization steps, we’ll see that there is no approach that everyone follows. Each normalization step generally increases recall and decreases precision.

A quick aside: “recall” means a search engine finds results that are known to be good.

Precision means a search engine finds only good results.

Search results could have 100% recall by returning every document in an index, but precision would be poor.

Conversely, a search engine could have 100% recall by only returning documents that it knows to be a perfect fit, but sit will likely miss some good results.

Again, normalization generally increases recall and decreases precision.

Whether that movement toward one end of the recall-precision spectrum is valuable depends on the use case and the search technology. It isn’t a question of applying all normalization techniques but deciding which ones provide the best balance of precision and recall.

Letter Normalization

The simplest normalization you could imagine would be the handling of letter case.

In English, at least, words are generally capitalized at the beginning of sentences, occasionally in titles, and when they are proper nouns. (There are other rules, too, depending on whom you ask.)

But in German, all nouns are capitalized. Other languages have their own rules.

These rules are useful. Otherwise, we wouldn’t follow them.

For example, capitalizing the first words of sentences helps us quickly see where sentences begin.

That usefulness, however, is diminished in an information retrieval context.

The meanings of words don’t change simply because they are in a title and have their first letter capitalized.

Even trickier is that there are rules, and then there is how people actually write.

If I text my wife, “SOMEONE HIT OUR CAR!” we all know that I’m talking about a car and not something different because the word is capitalized.

We can see this clearly by reflecting on how many people don’t use capitalization when communicating informally – which is, incidentally, how most case-normalization works.

Of course, we know that sometimes capitalization does change the meaning of a word or phrase. We can see that “cats” are animals, and “Cats” is a musical.

In most cases, though, the increased precision that comes with not normalizing on case, is offset by decreasing recall by far too much.

The difference between the two is easy to tell via context, too, which we’ll be able to leverage through natural language understanding.

While less common in English, handling diacritics is also a form of letter normalization.

Diacritics are the marks, or “glyphs,” attached to letters, as in á, ë, or ç.

Words can otherwise be spelled the same, but added diacritics can change the meaning. In French, “élève” means “student,” while “élevé” means “elevated.”

Nonetheless, many people will not include the diacritics when searching, and so another form of normalization is to strip all diacritics, leaving behind the simple (and now ambiguous) “eleve.”

Tokenization

The next normalization challenge is breaking down the text the searcher has typed in the search bar and the text in the document.

This step is necessary because word order does not need to be exactly the same between the query and the document text, except when a searcher wraps the query in quotes.

Breaking queries, phrases, and sentences into words may seem like a simple task: Just break up the text at each space.

Problems show up quickly with this approach. Again, let’s start with English.

Separating on spaces alone means that the phrase “Let’s break up this phrase!” yields us let’s, break, up, this, and phrase! as words.

For search, we almost surely don’t want the exclamation point at the end of the word “phrase.”

Whether we want to keep the contracted word “let’s” together is not as clear.

Some software will break the word down even further (“let” and “‘s”) and some won’t.

Some will not break down “let’s” while breaking down “don’t” into two pieces.

This process is called “tokenization.”

We call it tokenization for reasons that should now be clear: What we end up with are not words but discrete groups of characters. This is even more true for languages other than English.

German speakers, for example, can merge words (more accurately “morphemes,” but close enough) together to form a larger word. The German word for “dog house” is “Hundehütte,” which contains the words for both “dog” (“Hund”) and “house” (“Hütte”).

Nearly all search engines tokenize text, but there are further steps an engine can take to normalize the tokens. Two related approaches are stemming and lemmatization.

Stemming And Lemmatization

Stemming and lemmatization take different forms of tokens and break them down for comparison.

For example, take the words “calculator” and “calculation,” or “slowing” and “slowly.”

We can see there are some clear similarities.

Stemming breaks a word down to its “stem,” or other variants of the word it is based on. Stemming is fairly straightforward; you could do it on your own.

What’s the stem of “stemming?”

You can probably guess that it’s “stem.” Often stemming means removing prefixes or suffixes, as in this case.

There are multiple stemming algorithms, and the most popular is the Porter Stemming Algorithm, which has been around since the 1980s. It is a series of steps applied to a token to get to the stem.

Stemming can sometimes lead to results that you wouldn’t foresee.

Looking at the words “carry” and “carries,” you might expect that the stem of each of these is “carry.”

The actual stem, at least according to the Porter Stemming Algorithm, is “carri.”

This is because stemming attempts to compare related words and break down words into their smallest possible parts, even if that part is not a word itself.

On the other hand, if you want an output that will always be a recognizable word, you want lemmatization. Again, there are different lemmatizers, such as NLTK using Wordnet.

Lemmatization breaks a token down to its “lemma,” or the word which is considered the base for its derivations. The lemma from Wordnet for “carry” and “carries,” then, is what we expected before: “carry.”

Lemmatization will generally not break down words as much as stemming, nor will as many different word forms be considered the same after the operation.

The stems for “say,” “says,” and “saying” are all “say,” while the lemmas from Wordnet are “say,” “say,” and “saying.” To get these lemma, lemmatizers are generally corpus-based.

If you want the broadest recall possible, you’ll want to use stemming. If you want the best possible precision, use neither stemming nor lemmatization.

Which you go with ultimately depends on your goals, but most searches can generally perform very well with neither stemming nor lemmatization, retrieving the right results, and not introducing noise.

Plurals

If you decide not to include lemmatization or stemming in your search engine, there is still one normalization technique that you should consider.

That is the normalization of plurals to their singular form.

Generally, ignoring plurals is done through the use of dictionaries.

Even if “de-pluralization” seems as simple as chopping off an “-s,” that’s not always the case. The first problem is with irregular plurals, such as “deer,” “oxen,” and “mice.”

A second problem is pluralization with an “-es” suffix, such as “potato.” Finally, there are simply the words that end in an “s” but aren’t plural, like “always.”

A dictionary-based approach will ensure that you introduce recall, but not incorrectly.

Just as with lemmatization and stemming, whether you normalize plurals is dependent on your goals.

Cast a wider net by normalizing plurals, a more precise one by avoiding normalization.

Usually, normalizing plurals is the right choice, and you can remove normalization pairs from your dictionary when you find them causing problems.

One area, however, where you will almost always want to introduce increased recall is when handling typos.

Typo Tolerance And Spell Check

We have all encountered typo tolerance and spell check within search, but it’s useful to think about why it’s present.

Sometimes, there are typos because fingers slip and hit the wrong key.

Other times, the searcher thinks a word is spelled differently than it is.

Increasingly, “typos” can also result from poor speech-to-text understanding.

Finally, words can seem like they have typos but really don’t, such as in comparing “scream” and “cream.”

The simplest way to handle these typos, misspellings, and variations, is to avoid trying to correct them at all. Some algorithms can compare different tokens.

One of these is the Damerau-Levenshtein Distance algorithm.

This measure looks at how many edits are needed to go from one token to another.

You can then filter out all tokens with a distance that is too high.

(Two is generally a good threshold, but you will probably want to adjust this based on the length of the token.)

After filtering, you can use the distance for sorting results or feeding into a ranking algorithm.

Many times, context can matter when determining if a word is misspelled or not. The word “scream” is probably correct after “I,” but not after “ice.”

Machine learning can be a solution for this by bringing context to this NLP task.

This spell check software can use the context around a word to identify whether it is likely to be misspelled and its most likely correction.

Typos In Documents

One thing that we skipped over before is that words may not only have typos when a user types it into a search bar.

Words may also have typos inside a document.

This is especially true when the documents are made of user-generated content.

This detail is relevant because if a search engine is only looking at the query for typos, it is missing half of the information.

The best typo tolerance should work across both query and document, which is why edit distance generally works best for retrieving and ranking results.

Spell check can be used to craft a better query or provide feedback to the searcher, but it is often unnecessary and should never stand alone.

Natural Language Understanding

While NLP is all about processing text and natural language, NLU is about understanding that text.

Named Entity Recognition

A task that can aid in search is that of named entity recognition, or NER. NER identifies key items, or “entities,” inside of text.

While some people will call NER natural language processing and others will call it natural language understanding, what’s clear is that it can find what’s important within a text.

For the query “NYE party dress” you would perhaps get back an entity of “dress” that is mapped to a type of “category.”

NER will always map an entity to a type, from as generic as “place” or “person,” to as specific as your own facets.

NER can also use context to identify entities.

A query of “white house” may refer to a place, while “white house paint” might refer to a color of “white” and a product category of “paint.”

Query Categorization

Named entity recognition is valuable in search because it can be used in conjunction with facet values to provide better search results.

Recalling the “white house paint” example, you can use the “white” color and the “paint” product category to filter down your results to only show those that match those two values.

This would give you high precision.

If you don’t want to go that far, you can simply boost all products that match one of the two values.

Query categorization can also help with recall.

For searches with few results, you can use the entities to include related products.

Imagine that there are no products that match the keywords “white house paint.”

In this case, leveraging the product category of “paint” can return other paints that might be a decent alternative, such as that nice eggshell color.

Document Tagging

Another way that named entity recognition can help with search quality is by moving the task from query time to ingestion time (when the document is added to the search index).

When ingesting documents, NER can use the text to tag those documents automatically.

These documents will then be easier to find for the searchers.

Either the searchers use explicit filtering, or the search engine applies automatic query-categorization filtering, to enable searchers to go directly to the right products using facet values.

Intent Detection

Related to entity recognition is intent detection, or determining the action a user wants to take.

Intent detection is not the same as what we talk about when we say “identifying searcher intent.”

Identifying searcher intent is getting people to the right content at the right time.

Intent detection maps a request to a specific, pre-defined intent.

It then takes action based on that intent. A user searching for “how to make returns” might trigger the “help” intent, while “red shoes” might trigger the “product” intent.

In the first case, you could route the search to your help desk search.

Intent detection maps a request to a specific, pre-defined intent – then takes action based on that intent.

In the second one, you could route it to the product search. This isn’t so different from what you see when you search for the weather on Google.

Look, and notice that you get a weather box at the very top of the page. (Newly launched web search engine Andi takes this concept to the extreme, bundling search in a chatbot.)

For most search engines, intent detection, as outlined here, isn’t necessary.

Most search engines only have a single content type on which to search at a time.

When there are multiple content types, federated search can perform admirably by showing multiple search results in a single UI at the same time.

Other NLP And NLU tasks

There are plenty of other NLP and NLU tasks, but these are usually less relevant to search.

Tasks like sentiment analysis can be useful in some contexts, but search isn’t one of them.

You could imagine using translation to search multi-language corpuses, but it rarely happens in practice, and is just as rarely needed.

Question answering is an NLU task that is increasingly implemented into search, especially search engines that expect natural language searches.

Once again, you can see this on major web search engines.

Google, Bing, and Kagi will all immediately answer the question “how old is the Queen of England?” without needing to click through to any results.

Some search engine technologies have explored implementing question answering for more limited search indices, but outside of help desks or long, action-oriented content, the usage is limited.

Few searchers are going to an online clothing store and asking questions to a search bar.

Summarization is an NLU task that is more useful for search.

Much like with the use of NER for document tagging, automatic summarization can enrich documents. Summaries can be used to match documents to queries, or to provide a better display of the search results.

This better display can help searchers be confident that they have gotten good results and get them to the right answers more quickly.

Even including newer search technologies using images and audio, the vast, vast majority of searches happen with text. To get the right results, it’s important to make sure the search is processing and understanding both the query and the documents.

Semantic search brings intelligence to search engines, and natural language processing and understanding are important components.

NLP and NLU tasks like tokenization, normalization, tagging, typo tolerance, and others can help make sure that searchers don’t need to be search experts.

Instead, they can go from need to solution “naturally” and quickly.

More resources: 


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Headings With Hierarchical Structure An “Awesome Idea”

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Headings With Hierarchical Structure An "Awesome Idea"

Google’s John Mueller discussed heading elements with a member of the SEO community where he affirmed the usefulness of using hierarchical structure when using heading elements.

Background Context to What Mueller Said

Heading elements <H1> – <H6> are supposed to be used to indicate what a section of a webpage is about.

Furthermore the heading elements have a ranking order, with the <H1> being the highest rank of importance and the <H6> being the lowest level of importance.

The heading element purpose is to label what a section of content is about.

HTML specifications allow the use of multiple <H1> elements. So, technically, using more than one <H1> is perfectly valid.

Section 4.3.11 of the official HTML specifications states:

“h1–h6 elements have a heading level, which is given by the number in the element’s name.

If a document has one or more headings, at least a single heading within the outline should have a heading level of 1.”

Nevertheless, using more than on <H1> is not considered a best practice.

The Mozilla developer reference page about the use of headings recommends:

“The <h1> to <h6> HTML elements represent six levels of section headings. <h1> is the highest section level and <h6> is the lowest.

…Avoid using multiple <h1> elements on one page

While using multiple <h1> elements on one page is allowed by the HTML standard (as long as they are not nested), this is not considered a best practice. A page should generally have a single <h1> element that describes the content of the page (similar to the document’s <title> element).”

John Mueller has previously said that it doesn’t matter if a webpage uses one <H1> or five <H1> headings.

The point of his statement is that the level of the heading isn’t as important as how they are used, with the best practice being the use of  headings for indicating what a section of content is about.

What Mueller Said on Twitter

A member of the SEO community was joking around and gently ribbed Mueller about using more than one H1.

He tweeted:

The SEO followed up by sharing how he preferred using the best practices for heading elements by using only one <H1>, to denote what the page is about and then using the rest of the headings in order of rank, give a webpage a hierarchical structure.

A Hierarchical structure communicates sections of a webpage and any subsections within each section.

He tweeted:

“I’m too traditional with header elements. (HTML 4 for Life! lol)

I’d still recommend using just one H1 element on a page.

I patiently go back to pages to implement header hierarchy for fun.”

John Mueller tweeted his approval in response:

“I think that’s an awesome idea & a great practice.

Header hierarchy is not just useful to Google, it’s also important for accessibility.

(Google still has to deal with whatever weird things people throw up on the web, but being thoughtful in your work always makes sense.)”

Hierarchical Page Structure

In the early days of SEO, <H1> used to be counted as an important ranking factor, one that was more important than an <H2>.

So, back then, one always put their most important keywords in the <H1> in order to signal to Google that the page was relevant for that keyword.

H1 used to have more ranking power so it was essential to use the <H1> to help rankings.

Google’s algorithm was using keywords as a way to “guess” what a webpage was about.

Keywords in the anchor text, keywords in the title tag and keywords in the <H1> helped Google guess what a page was relevant for.

But nowadays, Google doesn’t have to guess.

It is able to understand what sections of a webpage are about, and consequently, what the entire webpage is about.

Despite those advances, many SEOs still believe that using an <H1> is some kind of magic ranking factor.

Headings are no longer about shouting what keyword you want to rank for.

The role of heading elements are now about telling search engines what a section of content is about.

Each section of a content is generally about something specific.

Heading tags make it easier for search engines to know what a page is about.

And that helps them rank the page for the topic.

And according to the official HTML specifications, that’s technically the proper way to use heading elements.

Lastly, Mueller mentioned a quality of the heading element as a way to better communicate for accessibility reasons, like for people who use screen readers.

The official HTML specifications say:

“Descriptive headings are especially helpful for users who have disabilities that make reading slow and for people with limited short-term memory.

These people benefit when section titles make it possible to predict what each section contains.”

So thank you John Mueller for calling attention to the benefits of using headings with a hierarchical structure, for calling attention to how hierarchical structure is useful for Google and for accessibility.

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The Challenges & Opportunities For Marketers

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The Challenges & Opportunities For Marketers

Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., reported its fourth straight quarter of declining profits.

It made $76 billion in sales over the past three months, but it wasn’t enough to meet Wall Street’s expectations.

Google’s revenue was down 9% compared to last year, and its biggest business, Google Search, saw a 1% drop in revenue. Even YouTube’s advertising sales fell by nearly 8%.

Alphabet has decided to cut its workforce by 12,000 and expects to spend between $1.9 billion and $2.3 billion on employee severance costs.

This latest earnings report shows tech giants like Google are facing challenges in the current digital advertising landscape.

But Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, believes that the company’s long-term investments in AI will be a key factor in its future success.

In a press release, Pichai says he expects major AI advancements to be soon revealed in Google search and other areas:

“Our long-term investments in deep computer science make us extremely well-positioned as AI reaches an inflection point, and I’m excited by the AI-driven leaps we’re about to unveil in Search and beyond. There’s also great momentum in Cloud, YouTube subscriptions, and our Pixel devices. We’re on an important journey to re-engineer our cost structure in a durable way and to build financially sustainable, vibrant, growing businesses across Alphabet.”

Alphabet’s CFO, Ruth Porat, reported that their Q4 consolidated revenues were $76 billion, a 1% increase from the previous year. The full year 2022 saw revenues of $283 billion, a 10% increase.

Going forward, Alphabet is changing how it reports on its AI activities.

DeepMind, which used to be reported under “Other Bets,” will now be reported as part of Alphabet’s corporate costs to reflect its increasing integration with Google Services and Google Cloud.

What Does This Mean For Marketing Professionals?

It’s important to stay updated on the latest developments in the tech industry and how they may affect advertising strategies.

Google’s declining profits and decreased revenue in their search and YouTube platforms are reminders that the digital advertising landscape is constantly evolving, and companies must adapt to keep up.

Marketers should consider diversifying their advertising efforts across multiple platforms to minimize the impact of market swings.

Additionally, Google’s focus on AI and its integration with Google Services and Cloud is something to keep an eye on.

As AI advances, it may offer new opportunities for marketers to target and engage with their audience effectively.

By staying informed on the latest tech advancements, marketers can stay ahead of the curve and make the most of these opportunities.

Despite Google’s recent financial setbacks, the tech giant is still a major player in the digital advertising landscape, and its investments in AI show its commitment to continued growth and innovation.


Featured Image: Sergio Photone/Shutterstock

Source: Alphabet



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How to Use WordPress in 9 Simple Steps (Beginner’s Guide)

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How to Use WordPress in 9 Simple Steps (Beginner’s Guide)

WordPress is the world’s largest content management system (CMS)—around 810 million websites are built on it.

It’s free to use and includes all the features any website owner could need. And if it doesn’t have a feature you want or need, you can have a developer create it for you because it’s built on open-source software.

But with all of these features come some complications. WordPress has a fairly steep learning curve compared to other CMSes like Wix or Squarespace.

I’ve built dozens of websites using WordPress.org (not WordPress.com, which is a totally different beast) and have narrowed down the process to nine simple steps that anyone can follow.

Let’s start with…

Step 1. Get a domain name and hosting

Every website built on WordPress.org needs a domain name (www.thisisyourdomainname.com) and a hosting service that stores and displays your website on the internet.

You can buy a domain name for a small fee from a domain name registrar like NameCheap or GoDaddy. However, if you buy your domain name and your hosting from separate companies, you will need to change your website’s Domain Nameservers (DNS) to point your domain name from your registrar to your hosting company.

They look like this:

SiteGround DNS settings example

It’s a little cheaper to do it this way but not worth the hassle in my opinion. Instead, most hosting providers (such as SiteGround or Bluehost) can also sell you a domain name and connect it with your website automatically, allowing you to skip messing with DNS settings.

You can check out this guide to choosing a domain name if you’re not sure what to pick.

Step 2. Install WordPress

Once you purchase hosting, most hosting providers have a one-click install to set up WordPress on your website. Here are some links to guides on how to do this with common hosting services:

You can also opt for a faster (but more expensive) dedicated hosting provider like Kinsta or WP Engine. These companies will set up WordPress for you when you buy their hosting.

Step 3. Familiarize yourself with the UI

Now that you have a website with WordPress installed, let’s get into how to use WordPress. You can log in to your WordPress dashboard by going to www.yourdomainname.com/wp-admin.

Once you log in, your dashboard will look like this (with fewer plugins since you’re on a fresh install):

WordPress user interface

Let me explain the options here:

  • Posts: This is where you’ll create blog posts.
  • Media: You can go here to see all the media on your site, such as images and videos. I typically upload media directly to my posts and pages and don’t visit media often.
  • Pages: This is where you’ll create static pages on your site, such as your homepage, about page, and contact page.
  • Comments: Here is where you’ll moderate any blog comments.
  • Appearance: This is where you’ll customize the appearance of your website, such as your website’s theme, font type, colors, and more.
  • Plugins: A plugin is an add-on to your website that adds functionality, such as custom contact forms or pop-ups on your website. I’ll discuss these in more detail later.
  • Users: Here is where you can add users to your website, such as writers, editors, and administrators.
  • Settings: Pretty straightforward; here is where your general website settings are located.

Now that you know what each option does, let’s get your website settings dialed in.

Step 4. Optimize your settings

Your WordPress website comes with some generic settings that need to be changed, as well as some things I recommend changing to optimize your website for search engines.

Specifically, you should:

  • Change your title, tagline, time zone, and favicon.
  • Change your permalink structure.
  • Configure your reading settings.
  • Delete any unused themes.
  • Change your domain from HTTP to HTTPS.

Let’s walk through each of these steps.

Change your title, tagline, time zone, and favicon

Head to Settings > General to find these settings. Change the title of your website and the tagline, which can appear underneath the title if you choose to display it.

Next, check that the time zone is correct (according to your local time zone) and upload your favicon. A favicon is the little icon that shows up in browser tabs next to the title of the page, like this:

Examples of favicons

You can make a favicon for free with Canva. Just make a 50×50 design with whatever you want your favicon to look like. Check out this guide to learn more. 

Change your permalink structure

Head to Settings > Permalinks. A permalink is the URL structure your blog posts take when you publish them. By default, WordPress displays the date in your URLs, which isn’t great for SEO or readability.

WordPress permalink structure settings

I always change this to the “Post name” option (/sample-post/) to add the title of the post by default. You want to optimize all of your URLs individually when possible, but this setting will make the process easier.

Configure your reading settings

Head over to Settings > Reading to choose whether you want your homepage to be a static page or if you want it to be a feed of your latest blog posts. 

WordPress homepage display settings

Personally, I always create a unique static page to use as my homepage because it gives me more control over the homepage. I like to add internal links to specific pages to help them rank higher on Google, as well as add an email opt-in form on the homepage.

Check out this guide to homepage SEO to learn more.

Delete any unused themes 

By default, you have a few themes installed. Once you choose a theme in step #5 below, you should delete any unused themes to remove vulnerabilities from your site (hackers can attack WordPress websites with outdated themes).

To do that, go to Appearance > Themes, click on the unused theme, then click the red Delete button in the bottom right.

How to delete unused themes on WordPress

Change your domain from HTTP to HTTPS

The “S” in HTTPS stands for secure. Adding this is done with an SSL certificate, and it’s an important step. It means your website is encrypted and safer for viewers.

Having HTTPS instead of HTTP gives you the “lock” icon next to your URL—Google (and most internet users) wants to see a secure website.

HTTPS secure "lock" icon

Most hosting providers automatically activate the secure version of your website. But sometimes, it needs to be manually activated by you. Here are guides on how to do this with common hosting providers:

If your host isn’t shown here, just do a Google search for “[your host] SSL encryption.”

Step 5. Select and customize your theme

Once you’ve optimized your settings, it’s time to start actually building your website using a WordPress theme. A theme is a customizable template that determines what your website looks like. 

You can browse for themes by going to Appearance > Themes, then clicking the Add new button at the top of the page. 

WordPress theme page

The generic Twenty Twenty-Three theme is actually pretty good. Most WordPress themes these days are optimized to show up in search engines and for requirements of the modern user, such as being mobile-friendly. 

However, some themes have a lot of added bloat that can slow a website down, so choose a theme that only has the features you need without extras you won’t use.

Alternatively, if you don’t like any themes or want something that’s more drag-and-drop, you can use a website builder like Elementor or Thrive Architect. These tools make building a website extremely easy, but they do add bloat that can slow a website down.

I use Elementor to build my websites but only use it to build static pages that I want to convert well. Then I use the built-in Guttenberg editor for my blog posts.

If you decide to go with a regular theme rather than a theme builder, you can edit the theme by going to Appearance > Customize. You’ll be taken to the following editor:

WordPress theme customization options

Depending on the theme you installed, you may have more or fewer options than the screenshot above. Rather than trying to cover every option you may encounter, I’ll just recommend that you go through each option to see what it does. 

For the most part, the options are self-explanatory. If you hit a snag, you can always do a Google search for that option in your theme to see forum posts from other users or even the theme’s FAQ or manual.

Step 6. Build your basic pages

After you’ve selected a theme, you can start building your website’s pages. Every website typically needs at least the following pages:

  • A homepage
  • A contact page
  • An about page
  • A privacy policy page
  • A terms of service page

Rather than going through how you should create each of these pages, I’ll refer you to the following guides:

Keep in mind that your privacy policy and terms of service (ToS) pages will vary depending on the country you live in. If you’re in the U.S., you can follow this guide for privacy policies and this guide for ToS pages.

That said, there are some general tips you should follow when building any page on your website. In general, make sure that your font is easy to read and a good visible size (18–20px is typical), your colors match, and you avoid too much clutter.

Here’s a good example of a webpage that is clean, legible, and thought out:

Ahrefs about page example

Here’s an example of a webpage that has too much clutter and displays an ad over half the page, causing confusion:

CNN poor website design

In general, less is more and legibility is better than fancy fonts.

Step 7. Install these essential plugins

One of the best parts of using WordPress is access to its massive library of plugins

A plugin is a custom piece of code written by a developer that anyone can install on their WordPress website in order to add specific functionality to the site, such as a contact form, extra customization options, or SEO features.

You can install a new plugin one of two ways. Head over to Plugins > Add New. From here, you can either:

  1. Browse the plugins directly on this page, then install and activate them directly.
  2. Download a plugin .zip file from the plugin’s website, then click the Upload plugin button at the top of the screen and upload the .zip file.
How to upload a plugin to your WordPress website

While many plugins are free, some are paid or have a premium paid version. It depends on what you need. However, I always install the following free plugins on my websites:

Rank Math: This plugin makes basic on-page SEO easier. It tells you if you’re missing basic things like metadata, image alt text, and more. It also allows you to create a robots.txt file and a sitemap, which are important for search engines to crawl your website the way you want.

Wordfence: This is a security plugin to help prevent your website from being hacked. I always install some sort of security plugin on my sites.

Insert Headers and Footers: One of the things you’ll often find yourself needing to do is insert code into the header or footer of your pages. You need to do this for everything from setting up Google Analytics and Google Search Console to adding the Facebook Remarketing pixel and more. Having this plugin makes it much easier to add this code.

Keep in mind that installing a lot of plugins on your website can cause code bloat and slow down your loading speeds, so only install plugins that you really need. 

Step 8. Start creating content

Now you know all the basics of how to use WordPress. But another important thing I want to talk about, which is probably why you wanted to start a WordPress website in the first place—how to create content for your blog.

Writing blog posts is an essential part of showing up on search engines like Google, having something to share on social media, and attracting more visitors to your website.

What you write about depends on your goals. I always start with some basic keyword research to figure out what people are searching for on Google that relates to my website.

A quick and easy way to do this is by plugging a broad keyword into Ahrefs’ free keyword generator tool to get some keyword ideas. 

For example, if I’m starting a website about farming, I may type “farm” into the tool. I can see keyword ideas like “farming insurance” and “vertical farming,” which are two potential blog topics I can write about.

Keyword ideas for farming, via Ahrefs' free keyword generator tool

If I want to get a little more specific, I can try a keyword like “how to start a farm.” This gives me ideas like “how to start a farm with no money” and “how to start a farm in texas.”

Keyword ideas for "how to start a farm," via Ahrefs' free keyword generator tool

Try different seed keywords—both broad keywords and more specific ones—to come up with some blog topics. Once you have a few ideas, go ahead and outline the article and then write it and publish it.

Check out our guide to writing a blog post to learn more.

Step 9. Monitor your website for technical issues

A regular part of maintaining your WordPress website is keeping plugins and themes up to date, as well as monitoring your website’s technical health.

WordPress automatically notifies you of updates to your plugins or themes with a red circle next to Dashboard > Updates. Log in to your dashboard at least once a week to update everything.

WordPress updates dashboard

Beyond weekly updates, use the free Ahrefs Webmaster Tools to run a technical audit on your site and see any issues your site may have, such as broken links, missing metadata, or slow loading speeds. 

Ahrefs website audit overview, via AWT

If you click the All issues tab, you can see every issue your site has—with an overview of what the issue is and how to fix it if you click on the ? icon.

All issues report, via AWT

You’ll also get email alerts when anything on your site changes, such as a link breaking or a page returning a 404 code. It’s a helpful tool to automatically monitor your WordPress site.

Final thoughts

Congratulations, you now know the basics of using WordPress. It may have a large learning curve, but learning how to use this CMS is one of the most valuable skills you can have in today’s digital age.

You can use your WordPress website to make money blogging, promote your services as a freelancer, or even sell products online. Knowing how to build a website is almost mandatory these days for anyone who wants to start a business.

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