I use Yoast SEO for WordPress to optimise some of my articles and, in theory, drive more traffic to my websites. I do this largely to experiment with SEO and plugins for WordPress, but it can be enormously useful. Depending on why you want to optimise your articles using SEO correctly can raise your profile, increase your readership or customer base and even drive transactions.
I wrote a page for a former employer that ensured we were top of the Google SERPS for the phrases ‘top ten small cars’ and ‘best small cars’ for several years. It drove literally millions of hits to the site and was the engine for around 20-50 new car-buying leads every day. As a result we didn’t spend any money on display advertising or online ads for years. We sold every lead for around a tenner and sold every lead to up to five dealerships, brokers and manufacturers. You do the maths.
SEO is a movable feast though and it’s a skill that has to keep moving forward or it ossifies. Changing algorithms mean what might have worked for me ten years ago might not work anymore, though the basic tenets have remained largely the same. However an updated plugin such as Yoast SEO for WordPress keeps track of changes and will coach the user on how to optimise for selected keyword phrases, length of articles, keyword densities and snippets.
It’s a hugely useful and powerful tool and I’ve already used it to rank for the phrase ‘tango adverts‘ on my advertising blog. It’s currently fourth in the SERPS for that keyword phrase, beneath only Youtube, Wikipedia and The Guardian. Not a hugely valuable phrase, perhaps, but probably contested fairly well. And, as with most things, practising those skills was very much the point.
Because journalism these days is as much about broadcasting and sharing your work, journalists working online simply must know this stuff. But even the antediluvian duffers who naysay such stuff as too complicated can’t complain if they use Yoast SEO for WordPress. It’s a piece of cake. Use it correctly and it means a bigger slice of the online pie.
How to use Yoast SEO for WordPress
Most of the process for using Yoast is self-explanatory, assuming you have a self-hosted blog and have installed the widget. It should appear at the bottom of every post you create (or have created in the past) and will let you know how well optimised your article is. Assuming, that is, you do the single-most important thing properly…
Choosing a keyword phrase
The key to using Yoast is to think carefully about the keyword phrase you input. These are the words you’re competing for in Google – the words that you envisage people typing in when they search for your article. This should be your starting point every time.
You need to balance the need to rank for something sufficiently specific (for example ‘salford, Manchester, new order, ryan giggs, prime minister, england, x factor, labour, RSPCA, media city, cancer, brexit’ are too broad) against the requirement that you can organically include that phrase in your article (‘Salford university building at media city’ would be very hard to include throughout your article in an organic way).
Once you’ve come up with a keyword phrase Yoast will guide you in optimising your article using a variety of methods. It will guide you in (re)writing your headline, URL, meta description and other elements in order that you can rank for this keyword phrase. It uses a traffic light system to let you know about the ideal length of headlines, meta descriptions et al – plus how well you’ve optimised certain elements.
There are other factors that can determine your placing in the SERPs (authoritative external links is still a big factor). However using Yoast you can, in theory, rank very highly for specific keyword phrases if you follow its guidance.
Optimising for a keyword phrase
Here’s how I might optimise an article for this article on the new Mayor of Salford (http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/live-labours-paul-dennett-elected-11292896). I pasted the article into a WordPress CMS with Yoast installed so I could optimise accordingly. I have decided on my chosen keyword phrase, as follows:
Keyword phrase: Salford mayor Paul Dennett
I have decided on this keyword phrase because I can imagine people typing it into search engines when searching for information on him. Also acceptable would be “Paul Dennett”, but I can distinguish between him and other Paul Dennetts here – chances are people will search for his name in relation to his office if they’re searching for our Paul Dennett.
I also suspect that other pages will outrank me for the phrase ‘paul dennett’ so decided not to compete for this specific phrase. My phrase is also naturalistic enough that it can also be made to fit organically in copy, headlines etc.
Yoast will tell me to change various parts of my article if I want to rank for that keyword phrase. This might mean that I have to rewrite elements of my article accordingly. Here are the first few fields I changed with my new keyword phrase in mind:
Headline: Salford Mayor Paul Dennett in landslide victory over Tories
The headline includes the keyword phrase and is readable, newsworthy, compelling. It also contains a geolocationary keyword.
The URL (slug) contains the keyword phrase and includes other useful keywords that people might search for. This can be changed before publication but shouldn’t be changed after publication.
Meta description: Salford Mayor Paul Dennett triumphed over Conservative and UKIP candidates, with two thirds of the overall vote, to become the city’s new leader.
This is the snippet under the headline people see on Google when they’ve inputted the search term. I’ve included the keyword phrase and some interesting information.
This work means that the snippet that’s visible in Google when someone searches for ‘Salford Mayor Paul Dennett’ will look like this:
Salford Mayor Paul Dennett beats off tough Tory challenge
Salford Mayor Paul Dennett triumphed over Conservative and UKIP candidates, with two thirds of the overall vote, to become the city’s new leader.
I have included my keyword phrase several times, so when search engines look at this snippet information they are likely to conclude that it’s the sort of article people are searching for if they type in the keyword phrase “Salford Mayor Paul Dennett” and similar variations. It should also be clear to humans what’s in the article and if it’s the sort of article they were looking for.
As I optimise the traffic lights below will go from red to green, to indicate that I am improving my optimisation. Yoast will look at keywords and also length of headers, meta descriptions et al.
At this point I have the following green lights:
• The focus keyword appears in the URL for this page.
• The page title is between the 35 character minimum and the recommended 65 character maximum.
• In the specified meta description, consider: How does it compare to the competition? Could it be made more appealing?
• The meta description contains the focus keyword.
• The page title contains the focus keyword, at the beginning which is considered to improve rankings.
These are, in my opinion, among the most important factors.
Other important factors
I am ambivalent on the value of turning every single item green, but if you want to optimise as much as possible there are some other considerations below.
Subheadings can break up your text and allow for more areas to insert your keyword phrase. Here’s what Yoast says:
• No subheading tags (like an H2) appear in the copy.
Yoast is telling me that I don’t have any subheaders in the article. I can change this by adding a subheader including my keyword phrase and selecting the largest Header option from the dropdown in Visual editor or by adding H2 Tags to the keyword phrase. I used the following subheading:
‘Real Opportunity’ – Salford Mayor Paul Dennett
Yoast immediately updates to say this:
• The focus keyword appears in 1 (out of 1) subheadings in the copy. While not a major ranking factor, this is beneficial.
Phrase in copy
Here’s another important factor: the number of times the keyword phrase is used in the copy. The more times – within reason – we use this the more likely a search engine is to promote our link when someone searches for our keyword phrase, or something similar. Here’s what Yoast said:
• The keyword density is 0.3%, which is a bit low; the focus keyword was found 1 times.
It’s important to never compromise readability for search engine optimisation, so you need to weigh up how many times you can realistically include your keyword phrase without damaging your article. As you add more examples of your keyword phrase Yoast will tell you whether your article would benefit from more examples. At one point it will tell you not to add any more. Between 1-4 examples are probably the best combination of SEO juice and readability in an article of between 500-1000 words but it’s not a precise science.
Yoast says that it is important to immediately use the keyword phrase in the first par of the copy:
• The focus keyword doesn’t appear in the first paragraph of the copy. Make sure the topic is clear immediately.
Your keyword phrase is probably fairly easy to work into the first par as your intro should be about the same issues and subsequently contain the same words.
Another field we can place our keyword phrase is in the alt data in images. These are the words you can assign to an image (if you download an image you will notice it is called robinpicture.jpg or something similar – the ‘robinpicture’ element is the alt tag. Search engines will also look at these tags to get a clue as to what the article is about. If we include our keyword phrase here too we can give our SEO a tiny boost. Here’s what Yoast will say before you change alt tags:
• No images appear in this page, consider adding some as appropriate.
• The images on this page do not have alt tags containing your focus keyword.
You can change the alt tags by hitting the Add media button, locating the relevant picture and changing the relevant Alt Text field. When you’ve done this Yoast will say this:
• The images on this page contain alt tags with the focus keyword.
Using the same keyword phrase for different articles
This is potentially problematic because you will start competing with yourself. That’s why it’s important to have different variations of keyword phrases (and another reason why very broad keywords such as ‘salford’ won’t work). Here’s what Yoast says if I include a different keyword phrase:
• You’ve never used this focus keyword before, very good.
And here’s what it will say if I’ve used it before.
• 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.
If you use the same content again and again Yoast will direct you to this article on Cornerstone Content. It’s a valuable guide on building suites of content that will rank for variations on the same core phrase and build up a key ‘cornerstone’ page you want to funnel traffic towards or through. You can think of it as the top stone of a pyramid, with lots of supporting bricks containing different versions of the same keyword phrase.
Yoast doesn’t like word such as ‘the’ ‘or’ ‘and’ etc – it considers these ‘stop words’ because search engines ignore them and will suggest you delete them:
• Your focus keyword contains one or more stop words. This may or may not be wise depending on the circumstances. Read this article for more info.
This is up to you but the attached article is worth reading on the cons of this approach.
Search engines like outbound links, but it’s important that when adding some you don’t link to a page that might outrank yours for the same keyword phrase.
Yoast will tell you if you do this.
• No outbound links appear in this page, consider adding some as appropriate.
Flesch reading test
Yoast will grade your writing based on how easy it is to read. The easier the better as far as this test goes. While not a hard-and-fast rule this is worth bearing in mind as online writing should generally be easy to read, using relatively short sentences without complex grammatical constructions such as sub clauses and convoluted punctuation.
• The copy scores 63.0 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered ok to read.
At this point I have a full set of green lights. If I chose my keyword well I have a good chance of ranking highly for it. I wrote my article in such a way that search engines will understand that it is about the phrase ‘Salford Mayor Paul Dennett’ and accordingly I should rank fairly highly for this phrase, driving more targeted traffic to the site.
However if I have optimised clumsily and prioritised SEO over readability humans are unlikely to stay on the page for long. It’s vital that there is a good balance between these factors, otherwise the work optimising the article is wasted.
The goal is to attract people to the page, get them to stay on the page and complete some sort of that goal. For businesses it may be completing a lead or sale; for others a sign-up or social media Like. For you it may be to convince people simply to read what you have to say – or to read another article.
Either way, this is a vital part of a journalist’s arsenal. They won’t come just because you build it – give yourself the best chance and teach yourself how to optimise properly.