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WordPress SEO Without an SEO Plugin

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WordPress SEO Without an SEO Plugin

I optimize some of my WordPress sites without an SEO plugin because often, they simply have more features than I need for certain projects.

In this column, you’ll learn how to do WordPress SEO without an SEO plugin.

This is not intended to persuade you to not use one, but to show you how to take full control of your SEO without a plugin if you so choose.

SEO Plugins Are Useful

SEO plugins are recommended solutions for publishers who cannot code PHP, who are lost with HTACCESS files, and for those to whom robots.txt files are a mystery.

The technical side of SEO has a relatively high bar in terms of coding. SEO plugins democratize web publishing.

A major complaint about SEO plugins is how bloated with unnecessary features they are. But this isn’t the case across the board.

There are SEO Plugins that are lean and fast as well as modular, so you can choose which SEO features you need.

An example of this kind of SEO plugin is The SEO Framework. It’s an excellent choice for those who want more control over their SEO but prefer to pick and choose the features they need.

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SEO plugins are the safe choice for publishers who are risk-averse and don’t want to experiment with alternatives. A lot is at stake, so the best choice is often the most trusted solution.

Why I Don’t Use SEO Plugins

This year, because of the headaches caused by an SEO plugin bug, I launched a site without any SEO plugins. I was happy with my results and transitioned other sites away from SEO plugins.

I moved away from a single SEO plugin simply because it seemed I could control a website’s SEO better.

It was a round trip journey back to where I had started with WordPress — optimizing WordPress without a dedicated SEO plugin.

Reasons I Do Not Use an SEO Plugin

There are four reasons why I don’t use an SEO plugin:

  1. Features that duplicate what’s already in WordPress or in a theme.
  2. Unnecessary features that solve presumed problems.
  3. The complexity of SEO plugins can introduce numerous bugs and conflicts with other plugins.
  4. Greater control over SEO.

Reasons Why I Prefer Standalone Solutions

  1. Easier to code a solution that handles one problem.
  2. Some SEO features don’t need a plugin.
  3. Standalone solutions are easier to maintain.
  4. Leaner WordPress installation without unnecessary features.

SEO Features You Need for WordPress

WordPress has a fairly robust core nowadays. Things like canonicals are done automatically.

Many WordPress themes contain SEO features like schema markup, breadcrumb navigation, Open Graph meta data, and so on.

While your exact needs will vary according to the template you use, here are a few things to look for.

Necessary WordPress SEO Features

  • Breadcrumbs with Schema.org Structured Data.
  • Meta descriptions.
  • Open Graph meta data.
  • Removal of category base.
  • Schema metadata.
  • A way to easily add the nofollow attribute to selected links.

WordPress Plugins for SEO

Optional WordPress SEO Features

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs is a useful feature.

Adding Schema structured data to it will get you enhanced listings if you rank in the SERPs. And the enhanced listings may help the click-through rate.

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It’s possible to code breadcrumb navigation without a plugin. The code is supposed to go into your website’s “child” functions.php file.

Most tutorials say to add it to your theme’s function.php file but you’ll lose your breadcrumbs if the theme is updated and the functions.php file is part of that update.

Getting breadcrumbs right can also become complicated because you still need to associate schema markup with the breadcrumbs. So that’s even more coding.

It can be done but at this point, it might be easier to offload the responsibility of making sure it works to a plugin.

I have found that using BreadCrumbs NavXT WordPress Plugin is an adequate solution. It handles the breadcrumbs and the schema data.

The NavXT plugin was the subject of a medium-level vulnerability but it was quickly patched. This was unusual for this plugin and unlike more serious events associated with dedicated SEO plugins, it did not cause problems for users.

Meta Description

I have found Easy WP Meta Description an adequate solution for meta descriptions. Meta descriptions aren’t a ranking factor but they do show in the SERPs if you rank.

Google will rewrite your meta description if a phrase from your web page is a better match. With that said, Google does a fine job of providing a relevant snippet from your page.

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So it’s up to you. You can add your own meta description or let Google tell the user why your site is relevant to the query.

Title Tag

I craft an article title that is adequate to use as a title tag. If it’s good enough to serve as the title of the article, it should be good enough as the title of the web page. There are workarounds for coding this into the theme as well as plugins but I think those are superfluous.

Open Graph Meta Data

Strictly speaking, this isn’t an SEO feature but could influence how much traffic goes to your site. It allows you to specify an image and wording to show when your URL is shared on Facebook and Twitter.

Open Graph Meta Data plugin helps you present a professional appearance that will appeal to potential site visitors.

Remove Category Base from WordPress

The word “category” isn’t necessary for your URL structure. Shortening your URL to the domain name, the actual name of the category, and the page name is a best practice.

A shorter URL is easier to remember, less likely to be mistyped, and can tell users and search engines what the page is about using the least amount of words. Read more about the Remove Category Base plugin here.

WordPress Plugin for Schema Structured Data

The Schema WordPress plugin will integrate most Schema structured data you’ll need, including reviews and article schema.

Schema markup can be coded by hand, as well. For example, you can take the JSON-LD script for reviews and paste it into the bottom of your review directly into the WordPress editor while in Text Mode.

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Then, manually adjust the descriptive fields for rating, product name, etc.

JSON-LD review template with author:

<script type="application/ld+json"> { "@context": "http://schema.org/", "@type": "Review", "itemReviewed": { "@type": "Thing", "name": "NAME OF PRODUCT" }, "author": { "@type": "Person", "name": "NAME OF REVIEWER" }, "reviewRating": { "@type": "Rating", "ratingValue": "ENTER THE RATING EXPRESSED AS A NUMBER", "bestRating": "ENTER A NUMBER THAT REPRESENTS WHAT THE TOP SCORE IS, LIKE 5 OR 10" }, "publisher": { "@type": "Organization", "name": "NAME OF YOUR PUBLICATION" } } </script>

Pretty much every element of structured data can be handcrafted and manually or even automatically inserted on a post-by-post basis, or by editing your template directly.

You don’t have to use a plugin. But the plugin is clearly the best way to scale this process and have it up to date no matter how often WordPress updates.

Ultimate Nofollow Plugin

The Ultimate Nofollow plugin adds the option to make a specific URL nofollow at the moment you are creating that URL. There are additional options for sitewide nofollows, should you need those. But I don’t use them.

Optional SEO Features for WordPress

Attachment Pages Redirect

If you have inadvertently created web pages for every image attachment in your WordPress site, this plugin will easily solve your problem.

The Attachment Pages Redirect plugin will restore your individual attachments to their correct behavior. Just install and activate it and that’s it, your problem is solved.

The Attachment Pages Redirect plugin needs no setting up. Just activate it and forget it. Fixing rogue attachment pages couldn’t be easier.

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Just make sure to use the correct setting for redirecting attachments to the post when uploading media in the future.

Redirect manager

This is a useful plugin if you feel uncomfortable editing htaccess files to create redirects. Use this if you have a legitimate reason to redirect an old page to a new page.

404 Responses Are Not Unhealthy

Don’t use a redirect manager to redirect a deleted page to the home page.

Some SEO plugins try to scare you into believing that 404 error codes affect the “health” of your site. But that is incorrect. 404 response codes are not inherently harmful to the “health” of your site.

  • Some 404 responses are due to spammers linking to your site with a partial URL. That’s normal and nothing to worry about. The 404 response is the perfect response.
  • Some 404 responses are due to an internal linking error by the publisher. That’s your error (you mistyped the URL). That’s something to fix by updating the URL to the correct URL.

The truth about 404 response codes is that they are perfectly natural and do not make your website less healthy.

Google’s John Mueller states that 404 response codes are not something that needs fixing. He also states that 404 response codes are natural:

“There’s no need to “fix” crawl errors on your website. Finding 404’s is normal and expected of a healthy, well-configured website.

If you have an equivalent new URL, then redirecting to it is a good practice. Otherwise, you should not create fake content, you should not redirect to your homepage, you shouldn’t robots.txt disallow those URLs — all of these things make it harder for us to recognize your site’s structure and process it properly. We call these “soft 404” errors.”

WordPress SEO Without an SEO Plugin

Here is more information from Google about 404 response codes.

XML Site Map

Google uses site feeds to crawl a website. If you add a page, Google can find your feed and discover it in that manner.

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That’s why I list XML site map as an optional solution. Here’s what Google’s developer page says:

“Use Pubsubhubbub if you use Atom/RSS for your sitemap and want to broadcast your changes to other search engines in addition to Google.”

Google can also discover the web page through the normal process of crawling from link to link.

Another option is that you can choose to submit the URL individually or through a site map; see complete instructions from Google here.

If your site is not updated often, you can crawl it with an app like Xenu Link Sleuth and choose the option to create an XML site map. Then you just upload it to your server. No web hosting resources are needed to generate the map other than allowing Link Sleuth to crawl your website.

Or, you can use a plugin like the Google XML Sitemap Generator plugin.

Redundant SEO Plugin Features

You may find features included in SEO plugins that are redundant or not necessary.

Canonical URLs

Canonical URLs are built into WordPress. You don’t need an SEO plugin to handle this.

Robots.txt and htaccess File Editors

If you have a text editor or an HTML editor, then you have all you need for editing a robots.txt file or updating an htaccess file. Additionally, you should only mess with those files if you know what you’re doing.

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If you are skilled enough to edit these, then you don’t need a WordPress plugin to handle this. Just open your text file and an FTP app like a normal person, right?

404 Status Code Redirection

SEO plugins provide this under the mistaken belief that 404 status codes are harmful. As noted above by Google’s John Mueller, 404 response codes are fine. Just fix the ones that are due to actual errors, like a typo in the URL.

Sitemap Generators

As noted above, a site map is not strictly necessary because Google crawls URLs via RSS feeds and links.

However, a site map is useful if you have made major changes and want Google to discover them as fast as possible. In this case, a manually generated site map is useful, as you don’t have to install a plugin to generate it.

You can still install a site map generator plugin and that makes far more sense to do than installing a huge SEO plugin to do this one single task.

Keyword Research and Word Processing

WordPress and your server resources might not be the best platform for conducting keyword and word processing functions. If you want a real-world app for checking your content, use a real software program like the Hemingway App. If you want to do web page analysis use a real app that generates a word cloud.

All of these kinds of functions are limited on an SEO plugin anyway. A standalone app will do a better job.

Why Use Six Plugins Instead of One?

An all-in-one SEO plugin might be just a single plugin, but it’s still behaving as if it’s ten or more plugins.

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Count the features on your SEO plugin and count each one as a single plugin. You’ll be surprised that you could be larding up your WordPress site with the features of twelve plugins – features that you may not need.

So the question shouldn’t be about whether you need six plugins versus one. The question should be how many features do you need?

For me, the clear answer is a lot fewer features that are offered by all-in-one WordPress SEO plugin solutions.

All in One is Not the Same as All You Need

As you can see, SEO plugins are useful for users who have little to no skill with coding or WordPress. SEO plugins accomplish an important task for users who don’t have the skills to choose what solutions they need.

A dedicated SEO plugin is a good choice for a large organization that wants to play it safe and not have to deal with individual plugins or handcrafted solutions.

However, for those with more skill or who aren’t constrained by bureaucratic constraints, SEO plugins can be overkill.

People are installing SEO plugins by default, essentially sleepwalking through their WordPress SEO.

This article shows that you don’t need everything a dedicated SEO plugin offers.

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There are alternatives to installing an SEO plugin with features you don’t really need. An all-in-one solution may not be what you need.WordPress SEO Without an SEO Plugin

Searchenginejournal.com

SEO

Better Alternatives To ‘Click Here’

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Example of CTA

Nothing is more boring and unmotivating to a user than seeing a big “Click Here” or “Learn More” link.

As a user, they’re already researching a product or a service they want to purchase. Of course, they’re going to click links to learn more.

Going Beyond “Click Here” Or “Learn More”

So, how do we get users motivated to take the action that we want them to?

It begins by:

  • Understanding user goals and user behavior.
  • Establishing trust.
  • Creating accessible, clearly labeled directions that inspire interest.

It sounds so easy in theory, but in truth, why are our webpages only converting at an average of 2.8% in the US?

Obviously, something is missing from our webpages. If 97.2% of us don’t convert on a webpage, we’re likely confusing our users on what we want them to do to some degree.

Let’s dive into how we can accomplish this.

While You’re Here, Go There Now

The trick to optimizing calls to action is to present the action at the precise moment when your website visitor is most interested in taking the next step.

If a user is met with a call to action before any information, do you think they are going to click on it?

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There has to be compelling content preceding the link, as well as an accurate description of the landing page.

If the landing page isn’t what a user expected, every time you present another opportunity to leave the page, your user may not trust that you can help them solve their problem.

The call to action is clearly labeled in the example below.

Even better, it is obvious designers understand their customers’ fears over money, ease of use, customer confidence, and the use of color.

Screenshot from TurboTax.Intuit.com, June 2022

First Date Links

When your webpage visitor is ready to take action, they must feel confident that the link invitation is worthwhile, credible, and constructive.

When you present a new product offering, nothing should prevent your visitor from immediately seeing what it is.

We may begin by being sly, especially if we want something. I call these “First Date Links.”

Example of CTA with no products or content.Screenshot by author, June 2022

The screenshot above is taken from an ecommerce website. What you see here is the entire top half of the homepage.

There is no text. There are no product images.

First-time visitors would need to know in advance what the company is selling.

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With this website, first-time visitors are required to scroll down, wait for the gigantic images to load, and scan minimal text to gain a better understanding of the brand and its products.

The fun part of this “First Date Links” example is knowing that this particular brand runs this special or something similar to it every single day.

There is no incentive to “shop now” for regular customers and first-time visitors have no idea where that “shop now” button is taking them.

They’ve been presented with this link that will likely overwhelm them with choice and decision paralysis – and most likely leave the site.

Try adding specific promotions for your loyal customers, or even first-time customers, into your marketing strategy.

By creating specific promotions segmented by customer type, you’re showing that you understand what they’re searching for.

Trust, credibility, and being forthcoming with your story add spice to calls to action on websites and real-life too.

Scarecrow Links

If you have watched the original film, “The Wizard of Oz,” you will understand why I refer to these calls to action as “Scarecrow Links.”

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These are calls to action that provide many choices, usually with vague labels and often to the same destination.

In the film, when Dorothy is traveling the Yellow Brick Road to find Oz, she comes upon the Scarecrow and asks for directions.

Dorothy: Now which way do we go?
Scarecrow: Pardon me. That way is a very nice way… [pointing]
Dorothy: Who said that?
[Toto barks at the Scarecrow]
Dorothy: Don’t be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don’t talk!
Scarecrow: It’s pleasant down that way too! [pointing in another direction]
Dorothy: That’s funny. Wasn’t he pointing the other way?
Scarecrow: Of course, people do go both ways [pointing in both directions]. That’s the trouble. I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t got a brain. Only straw.

Sometimes, calls to action are placed within webpage content at a moment when we really don’t want choices. We just want to be directed to that cool thing you just showed us.

In the example below, the top CTA is the best option because the destination is clearly defined and is the desired user task.

Example of 3 call to action buttons in a row.Screenshot by author, June 2022

If the company wants customers to learn more about curvy jeans, they can provide this information on the landing page that presents sorting options when they click to shop all the curvy jeans.

The smaller link to details would make more sense if it explained what the details are about.

Is it a size chart? Pricing?

What does that link do for us that “Learn more” doesn’t offer?

What does the user really want to do here after they have been shown images of curvy jeans?

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Link Optimization Is More Than A Label

This next example is a mixture of a button, text sentence, and text sentence with a clickable icon overlaying a large header image.

If you were to watch someone using your website during a live session, you would most likely watch them mouse over the button, the text, and the text with the icon to see which one is going to go somewhere they want to go.

For this example, the “Learn more” button label provides no information about what we are going to learn.

It is the most visible CTA and the eyes of the person in the image are facing the button, which is a designer trick because studies show we look to see what the face is looking at.

How can we optimize the CTA for this page?

First, remove the “Learn More” button. We are going to give it an upgrade.

The text below the image, in tiny font size, is not linked. It asks a question, but the user must look for where to get the answer.

It also asks a question that may not be as important or interesting as the one following it. I would remove the entire “Want to get to know us better” sentence.

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The more compelling story is why.

The button can be larger and placed in line with the model’s eye gaze. The button label is the invitation to “See why we do what we do” and link that to their story.

Not only does this narrow the choice to one link for one lead task, but it is easier for screen reader software to announce the link and direct visitors listening to the page.

Link optimization is more than a label.

Links with labels such as “Learn more,” “Read more,” “Shop now,” “Submit,” “Click here,” “Download,” and “Continue” are common.

However, these links are probably less likely to be clicked on than a more specific, inviting link.

Don’t be afraid to experiment to optimize calls to action by inviting the action. Don’t be afraid to tell the user what you want them to do by clicking that link.

If anything, you’re guiding them on their purchase decision journey.

Now, sometimes we may get a little too enthusiastic with our link text.

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Example of CTA from ecommerce site.Screenshot by author, June 2022

Every Call To Action Is A Risk

Remember that when providing a call to action, it must be placed at the moment when you inspired your reader to leave their train of thought.

Every call to action is a risk. At the minimum, your link should:

  • Have a clear label with the exact destination.
  • Be easy to see and read.
  • Be compelling to the person.
  • Present itself at the exact moment when it is most useful.
  • Not have competition (other links) nearby.
  • Navigate to the desired task that will provide a benefit to your user.

As humans, our attention span is already short.

Each time a call to action takes them forward, they may have forgotten where they just were.

It is important to support tasks with well-organized information architecture and navigation that provides signals for a sense of place.

Calls to action are sometimes annoying interruptions.

What additional incredibly fascinating information is hiding behind “Learn more” that is so compelling that you have interrupted their thought process?

It better be worth it.

Conclusion

We have a small window of time to catch a user’s attention.

Using generic language like “Click Here” or “Learn More” won’t cut it anymore. When creating call-to-actions for a user, try to reiterate what exactly you want them to do.

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Don’t insert CTA links for the sake of having them or taking up space.

Rethink your link strategy by viewing it from a user’s point of view: Is there more than one link option? Are they both needed? Are they clear enough for a user to take action?

Furthermore, your content leading to that call-to-action should be enticing enough for them to want to take action.


Featured Image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

In-post image #4 created by author, June 2022

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