Metadata and SEO part 2: link rel metadata

In the first post of our metadata series, I discussed the meta tags in the <head> of your site. But there’s more metadata in the <head> that can influence the SEO of your site. In this second post, we’ll dive into link rel metadata. You can use link rel metadata to instruct browsers and Google, for example to point them to the AMP version of a page or to prevent duplicate content issues. The link rel tags come in a lot of flavors. I’d like to address the most important ones here.

Use rel=canonical to prevent duplicate content

Every website should use rel=canonical to prevent duplicate content and point Google to the original source of that content. rel=canonical is one of those metadata elements that has an immediate influence on your site’s SEO. If done wrong, it might ruin it. An example: we have seen sites that had the canonical of all pages pointed to the homepage. That is basically telling Google that for all the content on your website, you just want the homepage to rank.
If done right, you could give props to another website for writing an article that you republished.

If you want to read up on rel=canonical, please read this article: Rel=canonical: the ultimate guide.

Add rel=amphtml to point search engines to your AMP pages

In order to link a page to its AMP variant, use the rel=amphtml. AMP is a variation of your desktop page, designed for faster loading and better user experience on a mobile device. It was introduced by Google, and to be honest, we like it. It seriously improves the mobile user experience.

So be sure to set up an AMP site and link the AMP pages in your head section. If you have a WordPress site, adding AMP pages is a piece of cake. You can simply install the AMP plugin by Automattic and you’ll have AMP pages and the rel=amphtml links right after that.

If you’d like to read up about AMP, be sure to check our AMP archive.

dns-prefetch for faster loading

By telling the browser in advance about a number of locations where it can find certain files it needs to render a page, you simply make it easier and faster for the browser to load your page, or (elements from) a page you link to. If implemented right, DNS prefetching will make sure a browser knows the IP address of the site linked and is ready to show the requested page.

An example:
<link rel="dns-prefetch" href="https://cdn.yoast.com/">

Please note that if the website you are prefetching has performance issues, the speed gains might be little, or none. This could even depend on the time of day. Monitor your prefetch URLs from time to time.

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What about rel=author?

Rel=author has no effect whatsoever at the moment. It hasn’t had any effect we know of for quite a while actually, as Joost already mentioned this in October of 2015. You never know what use Google might come up with for it, but for now, we’re not pushing it in our plugin. It was used to point to the author of the post, giving the article more or less authority depending on how well-known an author was. At the time, this was reflected in the search results pages as well (it’s not anymore). No need to include it in your template anymore.

Other rel elements include your stylesheets (make sure Google can use these) and you can set icons for a variety of devices. SEO impact of these is rather low or simply not existing.

Is there more?

So we discussed meta tags and link rel metadata in the <head> . Is there even more metadata that affects SEO? Yes there is! In our next metadata post, I’ll explore social metadata, like OpenGraph and Twitter Cards. In addition to that, we’ll go intohreflang, an essential asset for site owners that serve more than one country or language with their website. Stand by for more!

Read more: ‘Metadata and SEO part 1: the head section’ »

Local ranking factors that help your local business’ SEO

If you have a local business, selling products or services, you have to think about the local ranking of your website. Local optimization will help you surface for related search queries in your area. As Google shows local results first in a lot of cases, you need to make sure Google understands where you are located. In this article, we’ll go over all the things you can do to improve Google’s understanding of your location, which obviously improves your chances to rank locally.

Google itself talks about local ranking factors in terms of:

  • Relevance: are you the relevant result for the user? Does your website match what the user is looking for?
  • Distance: how far away are you located? If you are relevant and near, you’ll get a good ranking.
  • Prominence: this is about how well your business is known. More on that at the end of this article.

Let’s start with your address details

If you have a local business and serve mostly local customers, at least add your address in the right way. The right way to do this is using schema.org, either by adding LocalBusiness schema.org tags around your address details or via JSON-LD. Especially when using JSON-LD, you are serving your address details to a search engine in the most convenient way.

Our Local SEO plugin makes adding that LocalBusiness schema to your pages a breeze.

This is very much about what Google calls distance. If you are the closest result for the user, your business will surface sooner.

Google My Business

For your local ranking in Google, you can’t do without a proper Google My Business listing. You need to enlist, add all your locations, verify these and share some photos. Google My Business allows for customer reviews as well, and you should really aim to get some of those for your listing. Positive reviews (simply ask satisfied customers to leave a review) help the way Google and it’s visitors regard your business. This is pretty much like on your local market. If people talk positively about your groceries, more people will be inclined to come to your grocery stand.

Getting reviews is one. You can keep the conversation going by responding to these reviews and, as Google puts it, be a friend, not a salesperson.

Your site’s NAP need to be exactly the same as your Google My Business listing’s NAP

Even if your business has multiple locations, make sure to match the main NAP (name, address, phone number) on your website with the Google My Business NAP. That is the only way to make sure Google makes the right connection between the two. Add the main address on every page (you are a local business so your address is important enough to mention on every page). For all the other locations, set up a page and list all the addresses of your branches.

Facebook listing and reviews

What goes for Google My Business, goes for Facebook as well. Add your company as a page for a local business to Facebook here. People search a lot on Facebook as well, so you’d better make sure your listing on Facebook is in order.

Facebook also allows for reviews, like here for the Apple Store on Fifth Av. Note that this really is a local review, as the Fifth Avenue store scores a 4.6 average rating and the Amsterdam store just scores a 2.9 at the moment…

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City and state in title

The obvious one: for a local ranking, adding city and (in the US) state to your <title> helps. Read this article (2014), as Arjan sheds some more light on other aspects of local SEO as well. And please keep in mind that the effect of adding your city to your titles might be a lot less for your local ranking than adding your business details to Google My Business, but it won’t hurt for sure.

Local directories help your local ranking

Next to your Google My Business listing, Google uses the local Yelps and other local directories to determine just how important and local you are. Where we usually recommend against putting your link on a page with a gazillion unrelated links, the common ground for a local listings page is, indeed, the location. And these links actually do help your local rankings.

So get your web team to work, find the most important local directory pages and get your details up there. I’m specifically writing details and not just link. Citations work in confirming the address to both Google and visitors. If a local, relevant website lists addresses, get yours up there as well. And while you are at it, get some positive reviews on sites like Yelp as well, obviously!

Links from related, local businesses

Following how directories help your local ranking, it also pays off to exchange a link with related local businesses. If you work together in the same supply chain or sell related products, feel free to exchange links. Don’t just exchange links with any business you know, as these, in most cases, will be low-quality links for your website (because they’re usually unrelated).

Social mentions from local tweeps

Again, there’s a local marketplace online as well. People talk about business, new developments, products on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and more. All these social mentions find their way to Google’s sensors as well. The search engine will pick up on positive or negative vibes and use these to help them rank your local business. If a lot of people talk about your business and/or link to your website, you must be relevant. Monitor these mentions and engage.

Some say links, from other websites, directories and social media, are the key factor for local rankings. As always, we believe it’s the sum of all efforts that makes you stand out from the crowd. Not just optimizing one aspect. Take your time and make sure your Google My Business profile is right, schema.org details are on your site and you have the right links to your site, and the right people talking about you on for instance Twitter. And please don’t forget to do proper keyword research and simply make sure the right content is on your website:

Optimize your content for better local rankings

Google won’t rank your site for a keyword if that keyword isn’t on your website. It’s as simple as that. If your business is in city X, you probably have a reason why you are located there. Write about that reason. And note that these may vary:

  • You are born there or just love the locals and local habits
  • There is a river which is needed for transport
  • Your local network makes sure you can deliver just-in-time or provide extra services
  • The city has a regional function and your business thrives by that
  • There are 6 other businesses like yours, you’re obviously the best, and you all serve a certain percentage of people, so your business fits perfectly in that area.

These are just random reasons to help you write about your business in relation to your location. They differ (a lot) per company. Make sure your location/city/area is clearly mentioned on your website and not just in your footer at your address details!

Read more: ‘Tips for your local content strategy’ »

One more thing: Google also uses prominence as a local ranking factor

Prominence means that when Google can serve a result first from a well-known brand or business, they actually will. And despite all your efforts to improve your local ranking, this might get in the way of that number one position. It just means you have to step up your game, keep on doing the great work you do and trust that eventually, Google will notice this as well. And as a result, Google might allow you to rank on that number one position for that local keyword!

Keep reading: ‘Grow your business with ratings and reviews’ »

Metadata and SEO part 1: the head section

Metadata is all the information about a page that you send to a search engine that isn’t visible to your visitors. There seems to be some misunderstanding about this, as most of the articles I read about SEO metadata seem to imply that it’s just the title, description, keywords and robots declaration in the <head> of your website. Others feel social media declarations like Open Graph tags should be considered metadata as well. W3C states that “The <meta> element represents various kinds of metadata that cannot be expressed using the title, base, link, style, and script elements.” Literally, that means all these elements from meta to link and script are in fact metadata.

All these elements like link and meta might be metadata, but that does definitely not mean all that metadata is relevant for your SEO. In this article, and two articles about metadata that will follow soon, we’ll go over those metadata elements that do influence your rankings. In this first post we’ll focus on the metadata in the <head> of your website.

The obvious metadata elements

There are a couple of elements that obviously are metadata elements. Even if you know just a tad bit about SEO, you have heard of these.

Meta title

The title element is the main title of a page, represented by the <title> element.

Metadata: the title element

This is probably the most important element for SEO. Adding the right title to your pages can still have a direct influence on your ranking. Make sure to include the main keyword (or: focus keyword) at the beginning, and end your <title> with your company or website name for branding. The preferred length of your <title> might vary based on the most-used device people use to view your website, but a rule of thumb is that we have to keep a viewable limit in mind these days. An example: if you have lots of mobile visitors, go for a shorter title. It’s as simple as that.

Meta description

The meta description used to be the short description or summary of the page at hand.

Metadata: the meta description

In the old days, it helped Google to tell what the page was about in a heart beat. These days, Google simply ‘reads’ the entire page and the meta description has become a suggestion for the text displayed in Google’s search result pages. For this specific page and meta description, Google is for instance showing:

Metadata: search result pages

That example immediately emphasizes that the meta description is just a suggestion. Ours isn’t shown in the search result pages for this specific query. I used [WordPress SEO definitive guide]. That for sure doesn’t mean you should forget about it. It’s the invitation for your page you send to Google. It just might happen that Google prefers another snippet from your page to match a specific search query.

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Meta keywords

Forget about meta keywords now. They’re really just used for tags on some social sites, but meta keywords can easily backfire in Bing, for instance. Bing is said to use meta keywords the other way around: if you’ve heavily optimized your meta keywords, for instance by stuffing it with your focus keyword and a dozen synonyms, Bing will consider this spammy. I can relate to that. If you’re serious about SEO, you’ll by now know that the influence of meta keywords has become close to zero (and zero for Google).

Meta robots

Use the meta robots tag to tell Google how to treat the page. Do you want Google to index the page, or follow links on the page? Is Google allowed to get a summary from DMOZ or do you want it do consider the meta description and never use ‘third-party’ summaries? We have written an awesome ultimate guide to the robots meta tag that you should read to learn more about this particular metadata element.

Treat the meta robots tag with care, as the meta robots tag is respected a lot more than your robots.txt declarations by Google. If you want to learn more about robots.txt and the meta robots tag, you should check out our Technical SEO 1 training. In this training we explain how to assess and improve the crawlability of your site, one of the basic technical requirements for good SEO.

The other meta tags in your <head> section

There are more meta tags that can be included in your <head> section, but not all have an effect on SEO. I’d like to go over a number of the ones that might.

Meta refresh

If you pride yourself for being on the internet since Altavista, you know the meta refresh tag. It allows you to redirect a page after a given time to another page. Unless you have a very good reason to use this tag, I recommend using a HTTP status code, like a 301 redirect (or other redirect code) instead. That also means that if you find one on your website, you should consider changing it. An HTTP status code sends a much clearer signal to a search engine, as the meta refresh returns a 200 OK code. This means the webpage is OK to visit and index.

The meta refresh tag looks like this:

Metadata: refresh

It tells the browser to wait for 30 seconds and then simply go to yoast.com. The only logical reason to use this these days is to show a splash screen (a welcoming page) for your website, for instance with a notice or ad, and go on to your regular homepage after a certain number of seconds. But hey, there are nicer solutions for that.

Meta google

You read that right: Google also accepts some ‘personal metadata’. The ones they mention themselves are these two:

<meta name="google" content="nositelinkssearchbox" />

This one prevents Google from adding a site search box right in their search results like this:

Metadata: Sitesearch

This means people can’t search your site directly from Google. Sites like Amazon use this tag to make sure people actually use the search option on their own website. Among other things, this will make sure people see more and more related products, which might trigger more or higher sales.

The other one has to do with translations. If you don’t want Google Translate to ask a visitor to translate your site in whatever language, you can use this tag:

<meta name="google" content="notranslate" />

It’s named google but really doesn’t influence SEO that much. I wouldn’t use it, but instead, let my visitor decide.

A third Google related meta tag is the google-site-verification tag that is really only used to verify your site for Google Search Console. We recommend adding it to your site and keeping it added, so Google is able to verify whenever they want. For Yoast SEO for WordPress users: you can add it right in our plugin at SEO › Dashboard › Webmaster Tools. Here’s a video explaining how to verify your site to Google using our plugin.

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Meta viewport

The meta viewport is used to determine for instance the zoom of the page. A common use of the viewport tag is:

Metadata: viewport

Makes sense, right? The width of the page should be the width of the device, and the initial scale of the page should be 1 (default). There are reasons to think of why you’d like to change these settings, but I have seen that gone wrong a couple of times, ruining a website’s responsiveness (for instance). That’s the one reason I’m adding this one to the list, as a bad user experience could influence SEO. For more information on meta viewports, check CSSWG.org. There is obviously a lot more to consider if you want to optimize your mobile site. Be sure to read our article on how to improve your mobile site.

Is this all?

These are the meta tags that influence SEO one way or the other. But that’s not all there is when it comes to metadata. There is more hidden under the hood that you’d want to take care of. In next week’s post about metadata, we’ll elaborate on how to use link rel metadata to instruct your browser and Google. So stay tuned!

Read more: ‘The ultimate guide to the meta robots tag’ »

Top WordPress plugins every site should have

WordPress in itself is a decent system but plugins can really take it to the next level. Adding top WordPress plugins can make WordPress into the Swiss Army Knife of websites: just pull out whatever functionality you need for your specific site!

Top WordPress plugins

Many people have asked us for our list of top WordPress plugins. Of course, we’ve written quite a few WordPress plugins ourselves, but the list of great WordPress plugins is much larger than that. In the article below, we list the top WordPress plugins we use ourselves, on this site or other sites we build, analyze & optimize. This list changes over time; this is probably not the last time we updated it. Note: we listed the plugins in random order.

Let’s go.

WP Rocket

It makes the sites you build perform to your expectations, instead of slowly crawling. And yes, I think every site should be cached to get the maximum performance for each and every user, not just when you start hitting social sites. We recommend using WP Rocket for that.

On a side note: we really like WP Rocket, but if your site is hosted by a great company like SiteGround (like ours is) caching and more speed optimization is taken care of. This eliminates the need for a caching plugin.

Google Analytics by Monster Insights

Since we sold our Google Analytics for WordPress plugin to Monster Insights, they have actively developed and improved what we feel is the best plugin for adding and analyzing Google Analytics data right in your WordPress dashboard. Please check out Google Analytics by Monster Insights for yourself.

Nested Pages

If your site grows larger and larger, you might start to feel the need to move around some pages. A decent site structure helps Google to crawl your site in the most efficient way. Nested Pages uses a nice drag-and-drop interface to maintain that site structure.

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AMP

We predict a vast increase in the number of sites that are built solely in AMP as a replacement for your regular website. It probably takes some years, but bottom line is that AMP makes your website more user-focused and faster. Prepare your website with this plugins: AMP.

BlogVault

Not having a backup isn’t an option if you rely on your website for your business. For Yoast SEO Care, we rely on Blogvault to create backups of every site we address. For your website, BlogVault creates incremental backups, so your site won’t be overloaded.

Sucuri WAF

It’s no secret that we really like Sucuri’s security solutions for WordPress. Awesome security monitoring and great service. At least install their Sucuri Scanner plugin. But I recommend checking Sucuri WAF and other products and decide what works best for you.

WP Google Authenticator

I wouldn’t even overthink adding this plugin to your WordPress site. It’s no hassle and will add an extra layer of security to your website. An alternative could be Rublon, which works in a similar manner, but we usually use WP Google Authenticator.

Login Lockdown

For an extra layer of security, we recommend installing a plugin like Login Lockdown, that prevents automated login requests from firing a gazillion login attempts. If some IP range does a surplus of attempts, the login function is disabled for all requests from that range. For more details, check Login Lockdown in the plugin repo.

Any image compression plugin

Yes, I would like to name just one. But the truth is that it depends on your website what plugin works best. We have used Smush, tried EWWW. Kraken.io has a plugin and ShortPixel has one. And has anyone tried the premium Imagify? I would really like to see a comparison for these plugins from an independent, image-heavy website. For now: pick one and use it.

Ninja Forms or Gravity Forms

Both are great plugins to create drag-and-drop forms. Both provide an option for conditional logic and are really easy to use. If you have a form on your website, and any website that has a contact page should have a form, I recommend using Gravity Forms or Ninja Forms.

Better Search Replace

Sometimes you need to do a search and replace in your database in order to make things work right, like after a domain migration. There are more plugins that can help you do a search and replace in your database, but we have used Better Search Replace and found it very helpful. As database actions shouldn’t be taken lightly, I recommend always performing a so-called dry run before doing the actual replacement. This plugin allows for that dry run.

No, we’re not leaving our own main plugin out here. Simply because you really need it.

Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress

We believe this is the best SEO plugin out there, in our own humble opinion of course. Install it on all your websites, simply because it takes care of all the SEO hassle and guides your editors into better writing.

To date, this is the only SEO plugin that is developed by SEO experts, where all the others are made by friendly people that are first and foremost software developers. We stay on top of any changes in SEO and make sure these changes are implemented in the way we optimize your website. That is why we feel our Yoast SEO for WordPress plugin should definitely be in this list of top WordPress plugins.

Read more: ‘5 handy WordPress plugins for your blog’ »

5 handy WordPress plugins for your blog

Every WordPress website owner occasionally stumbles upon a problem that could probably be fixed in a heartbeat with a handy WordPress plugin. That’s what makes WordPress great, right? I recall a friend of mine asking about the possibility of an answering machine on his website. There’s a plugin for that. Need to add testimonials in an orderly way? There’s a plugin for that as well.

Plugins range from large, like our Yoast SEO plugin (which every website needs) to really small, with almost Hello Dolly-like impact. No matter what the size, plugins can come in really handy, especially when you’re not a developer or you lack the capacity. In this post, I’ll go over a number of plugins that really saved my day in the past!

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Auto Post Thumb Pro

Especially webmasters that have had their sites for ages will recognize this issue: a lot of themes you can find in the WordPress theme repo just look a lot better with a post thumbnail, but not all of your posts have that thumbnail. It doesn’t matter if your theme allows for a list of recent posts or if it includes excerpts on your archive pages, chances are that they will include post thumbnails. That just looks so nice, right?

The legacy of your old posts without a thumbnail makes that the alignment of a collection of posts (f.i. in a widget) looks off. It looks messy. In comes Auto Post Thumb Pro. When I wanted to repost Instagram images on a website, this plugin made sure there was a thumbnail for every post. And (re)generated thumbnails for every older post. After installing this plugin, I can use any theme I wanted to use that displayed these thumbnails on (almost) every page.

By the way, if you are looking for a new theme for your blog, I can recommend Anders Noren’s themes. I’ve used a few and really like the clean designs and easy-to-use setup.

Easy Custom Auto Excerpt

One of the things we come across in our SEO consultancy is duplicate content caused by displaying entire posts on taxonomy pages (like category pages). WordPress has plenty of ways to display excerpts instead of full posts. Usually, one of the requirements is using a <!-- more --> tag in your posts. Include that tag by clicking the icon in the Insert More tag | Handy WordPress pluginsimage, located at the styling options on the Edit pages in WordPress. If you feel that that’s too much of a hassle, the Easy Custom Auto Excerpt plugin will help you out. It’s one of those plugins that you install, configure and forget about, simply because it works.

The Easy Custom Auto Excerpt plugin allows you to automate that more tag by, for instance, adding it after a number of characters or after the first (or first two) paragraphs. It allows you to do some basic tweaking of how that excerpt looks like (alignment of the thumbnail for instance). In the premium version, you can also fine tune the Read more button – a feature that convinced me to purchase a license – and disable excerpts for certain post types (like posts that just contain an awesome photo). Of course, this depends on the type of blog/site that you have. Go see for yourself how this handy WordPress plugin can help you out.

Responsive Lightbox

What to say about this handy WordPress plugin? If you’re a bit like me, you installed, removed and re-installed your share of lightbox plugins. The horror! They either don’t work out of the box, add fancy stuff to that pop-up or simply ignore your galleries. And how about those previous/next buttons that are too small to click. Not to start about how crappy things look on a mobile device, right?

Responsive Lightbox | Handy WordPress plugin

I found Responsive Lightbox to be a nice solution. If you are sick and tired of your current lightbox plugin, install this plugin and see for yourself.

Simple Custom CSS

Sometimes you want to do just a little design tweak and not worry about it being overwritten the next time you update your theme. You have two options:

  • Create a child theme, which might be a bit of a hassle for that tiny little tweak, or
  • simply add some lines of CSS code via this little plugin: Simple Custom CSS.

It does just that. I really like it. There are more handy WordPress plugins that do this, but I found this one to be both the less bloated (I just want to add CSS, not learn CSS) and the one that works without the constant need to add !important to my declarations.

Yoast Comment Hacks

Last but not least, I’d like to add this little gem Joost developed: Yoast Comment Hacks. If you have a WordPress blog and receive a lot of comments, use this plugin to add some smart extras to your comment maintenance toolkit. Among others, it allows you to thank first-time commenters by redirecting them to a thank you page. It also allows you to set a minimum comment length, for instance. Go check for yourself how this little handy WordPress plugin can make maintaining your comments just a bit easier!

I’d love to hear about your favorite handy WordPress plugins in the comments!

The sense and nonsense of XML sitemaps

Fact: if your website is set up the right way, you shouldn’t need an XML sitemap at all. You shouldn’t need to think about your category’s XML sitemaps or about including images in your post’s XML sitemap. But why do we keep talking about them like it’s the most important thing ever for SEO? It’s an almost daily subject in our support. That might be, because it’s a convenient list of all the pages on your website. It makes sense that Google is able to crawl all pages of your website if you list them on a page, right?

Google is almost human

Over the last years, we have been talking a lot about Google becoming more ‘human’, so to say. Google is quite good at mimicking the user’s behavior on a website and uses this knowledge in their ranking methods. If your website is user-friendly and gives users the answers they were looking for in Google, chances are your website will do well in the search result pages.

Structure is a sitemap within your website

In the process of setting up your website, you should look at the keywords you’d like to address and translate that to a proper site structure. Using, for instance, the internal linking tool in our Yoast SEO plugin, you are able to create structured links to all the pages of your website. That simply means that Google is able to follow all links and find all pages. That means you have set up a great infrastructure within your website for search engines.

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But why should I use XML sitemaps in that case?

Sitemaps, both HTML and XML, come in handy when your site structure and internal linking structure really aren’t that good, to be honest. When you’re dealing with a huge, messy inheritance of the previous owner, years of writing (more or less unstructured) content, or if you simply haven’t thought about internal links that much, your XML sitemap is probably a life saver.

In addition to pointing Google to all your content, XML sitemaps can also optimize crawling of your website by a search engine bot. XML sitemaps should include the last modified date. This date will immediately tell a search engine which pages should be crawled and which haven’t changed since the last crawl and can be excluded from this crawl. This is a huge benefit of using XML sitemaps.

Analyzing your XML sitemaps

In Google Search Console’s Sitemap section, you can find errors in your sitemaps. Pages that are linked there, but don’t work. There’s a huge list of possible errors in the Google Search Console Help documentation.

Apart from that, an important thing to analyze is the types of XML sitemaps you have. You can find these in Google Search Console and in the SEO › XML Sitemaps section in our plugin. In WordPress, sitemaps are created for post types and taxonomies, where sometimes you just don’t need an XML sitemap for all of these. In Yoast SEO Care, we find websites that have XML sitemaps for filter types (in eCommerce shops for instance), or for dimensions and things like that. If these ‘pages’ don’t make sense for the user, by all means, disable that XML sitemap in our Yoast SEO plugin. Only serve sitemaps that matter.

There is a reason Google included an XML sitemap section in Google Search Console. Google likes to know every page of your website. They want to see everything, to see if it contains interesting information to answer their user’s search queries. Your XML sitemap is like a roadmap to all the different POI’s on your site, to all the tourist attractions. And yes, some are more interesting than others. Last year, the XML sitemaps served by our plugin contained a priority percentage. Heavy users of our plugin sometimes requested an option to alter that percentage and we never got to that. We decided to remove the percentage altogether as it just did not work as intended – on Google’s side. That emphasizes even more, that it’s just a list of pages. A convenient list, nevertheless.

Should every website have an XML sitemap?

Perhaps I have already answered this question. Yes, I think every website should have an XML sitemap. Or multiple XML sitemaps to provide a lot of links in a better format. It’s a way to make sure search engines find every page on your website, no matter how much of a mess you make of your website. But you should really put your best effort in making that XML sitemap an extra and not a necessity.

If the crawlability of your website depends on your XML sitemap, you have a much larger problem on your hands. I really do think so. Hopefully, you can still go back to the drawing board, invest a bit in a good keyword research training. Restructure the site. Use our internal linking tool when going over your most visited pages again and insert the right links. And then, when most of your pages can be reached via your website itself, rely on that nice, comforting XML sitemap to serve Google any forgotten leftovers and help you to further optimize the crawling of your website.

Read on: ‘WordPress SEO tutorial: definite guide to higher ranking’ »

Know your customer

Once in a while, every company needs to take a closer look at the state of its marketing. Are you still sending the right message to your customer? Do you still target the same customers? And, in what way did these customers change? In this article, we’ll address a number of things every website owner needs to ask him or herself every now and then!

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Do as Amy says

Recently, we visited Conversion Hotel, an excellent event about (yes) conversion. One of the speakers whose story we liked best, was Amy Harrison. Amy talked about conversion copywriting and stated that when you lose customer focus, you’ll end up writing product focused copy or just using best practices from your industry. That won’t make you stand out from your competitors, and even worse: it won’t let you connect to your customers.

Amy talked about distinguishing yourself from your competitors. Don’t use terms like ‘high quality’ or ‘easy to use’. Amy calls these ‘umbrella terms’, as everyone in the industry is using these and it really doesn’t say anything about the product. You should focus on the gap between what you know, what you say and what the customer thinks that it means. Close that gap. Write about that to sell your product.

Closing the gap to your customer

If you want to know what your customer is looking for in your product, there are a number of ways to find out. They all come down to one thing: ask them.

Customer Survey

Especially when you have a larger user base, you can easily send out a survey every now and then. Literally ask the customer what could be improved, what they liked and, for instance, why a product did not meet their expectations.

One of the things we found, when asking our site review customers about expectations and ways to improve our product, is that many customers would really like regular guidance. Instead of just a one time report. After some thinking and shaping, that resulted in our new service: Yoast SEO Care. In Yoast SEO Care, we touch base with customers on a monthly or quarterly basis on what needs to be improved on their website to rank better or get more traffic.

For us, this is an ongoing process. Our products come with support, and our customers like to share their expectations and feature requests. Obviously, you could guide them in this by sending them a survey. That could be done every six months, or, for instance, six weeks after purchasing a product. It all depends on your need for input and the variety of customers you serve.

Questions on your site

Another way to get an idea of what your customers are looking for is, for instance, an exit-intent question. I deliberately say “question” (singular), as I wouldn’t bug the leaving visitor with a lengthy questionnaire. Just ask “did you find what you were looking for, and if not: what were you looking for?” or something similar. If you’re serious about UX, you know/use Hotjar. They actually have something similar baked in their product. The description says it all:

Ask your active users and customers WHAT made them choose you and WHAT made them nearly abandon your site. Discover WHO they really are and HOW to improve your site and Organization.

Note that Hotjar allows you to add a large survey, but why not limit that to one question, right? It’ll give you some nice, personal insights about what people are looking for on your website, just by asking!

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Yoast: Github feature requests

Now if you are a software development agency like we are, working in an open source environment, you probably have your code on (some platform like) Github. On that platform, you collect possible bugs and patches. In addition, it provides an excellent platform to collect feature requests.

We encourage users to use Github and not just send us random tweets with feature requests :) Feature requests on Github equal surveys on your website in the way that these are all things your user wants or expects your product to do. Sometimes feature requests can be handled quickly, when a feature is already there but just not found by your customer. Sometimes they end up on a pile of user/installation specific feature requests – you can’t win ’em all. But if a feature is requested by enough users, you probably are inclined to add it as a future feature to your roadmap.

These feature requests not only show what customers want, they also teach you a lot about how they use your products. And that, in return, will tell you more about their personal motivation to use your product. Which you can use in your product descriptions and marketing. Circle closed.

Read more: ‘Creating loyal customers’ »

Pagination or infinite scrolling: which is best for SEO?

Something that’s always up for discussion is how to load new content on your archive, category or search results pages. You can do this in a number of ways. You can list a certain amount of posts or products and add a ‘next’ link at the bottom of that list. You can add a ‘load more’ button at the bottom. Or even load more content when scrolling down (infinite scrolling). Or, you might add numeric pagination at the bottom of your page, so users can jump to the next, or last page. In this post, we’ll tell you what works best for SEO.

The downside of simply clicking from page to page

I’m not a huge fan of ‘older’/’next’/’newer’/’previous’ links at the bottom of my page. It leaves me stranded with no idea how long my journey is going to be. It’s unclear and doesn’t trigger me to click. In that case, I’d rather find the site’s search form and look for specific blog posts or products. Although Google is able to follow that link to the next page, it will take a vast amount of time to index all the subpages of archives on larger sites. Our Yoast SEO plugin helps a bit by adding rel=”next” and rel=”prev” to pages like that, but it’s still up to Google to see how many archive links it wants to follow per crawl session. This is, obviously, not my preferred method.

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How infinite is infinite scrolling

Like with older/newer links, infinite scrolling leaves me wondering how long that scroll will be. And what about mobile websites? It’s probably extra JavaScript that needs to be loaded, which might slow down the site unnecessarily. Although this method was pretty popular for a while, I see less sites using infinite scroll (apart from most social network sites). But that might just be me.

One of the SEO downsides is that the content is hidden until scrolling. True, Google seems to index hidden content (although they stated differently back in 2015). Still, the general rule of thumb seems to be that content that isn’t hidden holds more SEO value, than content that is hidden. Next to that, your infinite scroll is probably triggered by JavaScript. Although Google gets better at indexing all things JavaScript, it still means that user behavior is harder to understand when using JavaScript.

That brings us to UX and conversion. Infinite scrolling gives the user a smooth experience, however the focus lays less on the individual items. Usually the focus shifts to displaying the most current information at the top of the page, which obviously makes sense for social media, like Twitter or Facebook.

And, since we’re discussing infinite scroll: have you ever tried to reach the footer at instagram.com? I really wanted to click that API link in the footer the other day. But that’s just another reason I prefer our next option: pagination.

Pagination

Pagination means spreading the content over a number of pages and linking these. As mentioned above, you could link these pages by adding ‘older’ or ‘previous’ links, but that isn’t the best solution. Linking multiple pages, like Google does, just makes more sense:

Google's Pagination

This way, you allow Google and your visitors to click to a lot more pages of your archive. A common use of pagination for archives is to use links to the first and last page as well. Besides that, links in the ‘line-up’ can vary like this:

yoast pagination

pagination wpbeginner

That way, you’re not just sending people to consecutive pages, but also guiding them to others. The benefit of this is that every page in the archive becomes reachable within just two, maybe three clicks. Even with search engines picking up on your XML sitemaps for all the pages, this provides links on a specific page that lead to specific, related pages, which in return could help your SEO.

One extra remark here: even in paginated archives like this, it pays off to add the rel=”prev” and rel=”next” tags to your template, to tell Google how consecutive pages relate in that archive.

Wrapping things up

Even though Google and other search engines are getting better and better to index your site – no matter what kind of archive or category ‘experience’ you provide your visitor – we’d still like to recommend pagination. Infinite scroll is a great method to use, when the focus lays less on the specific items of a page and more on going through the archive. Pagination helps your visitor and Google to ‘jump’ through your archive and find specific items they’re looking for.

What are you using and why? Let us know!

Read more: ‘Archive by topic; not by date’ »

Low-budget branding for small businesses

Over the last year, we’ve written quite a bit about branding. Branding is often associated with investing lots of money in marketing and promotion. Branding is about getting people to relate to your company and products. Branding is about trying to make your brand synonym for a certain product or service. This can be a lengthy and hard project. It can potentially cost you all of your revenue. However, for a lot of small business owners, the investment in branding will have to be made with a relatively small budget. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on how to go about your own low-budget branding.

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Brand values

Branding with a limited budget starts with defining your company’s and your brand’s values. You need to think about what you, as a brand, want to communicate to the world. This is obviously totally free, provided you are capable of doing this yourself. It’s a pretty hard task when you think of it. It’s about your mission, the things that make your brand your brand. Brand values relate to Cialdini’s seventh principle, Unity.

My favorite example illustrating that unity is outdoor brands like Patagonia and The North Face, which make you feel included in their business ‘family’. We are all alike, share the same values. By being able to relate to these brands and their values, we are more enticed to buy their products. It’s a brand for us, outdoor people.

Take some time to define your brand values. That way you’re able to communicate your main message in a clear and consistent way. It makes your marketing all the easier. You’ll be able to create brand ambassadors, even on a budget.

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Come up with a proper tagline

Now that you have defined your brand values, it’s time to summarize all of this into one single tagline. WordPress’ mission is to “democratize publishing“. In your tagline, you reflect your values and combine these with your added value for the customer, user or visitor. Again, be consistent. If you set a tagline, your actions and products should relate to that tagline, actually even be based upon it. It summarizes your business.

Rethink your logo

Having a great logo is essential. When designing that logo, you’ll have to keep in mind that it’s probably something you’ll have for years. It’s the main thing – besides yourself – that will trigger (brand) recognition. Not that you will never be allowed to change your logo, but don’t ‘just’ add a logo. Think about how it stands out from other logos, for instance on a local sponsor board. We actually did this with our current one.

Design that logo, print it, stick it on your fridge for a week or so, and see if there’s anything about it that starts to annoy you. If so, back to the drawing board. Feel like you don’t relate to it in terms of business values or even personality? Back to the drawing board. When talking about low-budget branding, designing a great logo is probably your most expensive task.

We still haven’t spent that much money, right? But then, we just designed the basis.

Online low-budget branding

You might be a local bakery with 10 employees, or a local industrial company employing up to 500 people. These all can be qualified as ‘small business’. All have the same main goal when they start: the need to establish a name in their field of expertise. There are multiple ways to do this, without a huge budget. Low-budget branding is facilitated by the surplus of social media. Low-budget branding is possible because of all the blogs that relate to your niche.

Costs?

I do a lot of local networking, because I really like the city we live in, and the huge variety of entrepreneurs that work in Wijchen (our hometown). During network meetings, one of the phrases I often hear is: “Social media is just costing me too much time”. To be honest, it might be wise to stop whining about the costs and start seeing the revenue social media can bring you. It really is the easiest and probably one of the cheapest ways to promote your brand. Basically, it costs you time and time alone (depending on how aggressive you want to use the medium).

Share your expertise

Twitter is used to keep in touch with like-minded business owners. Discover the huge number of Facebook groups in your area, and/or in your field of expertise. Bond with people that share the same values. Feel free to answer questions in your field of business, be sure to do this with confidence. Position yourself as the to-go-to company for these questions. Help people that way and create brand ambassadors.

Scary? No. But you really have to put some effort in establishing your position. It won’t happen overnight. Before we became a business, Joost was already sharing content/expertise and our open source software. He engaged actively in forum and social media discussions about WordPress and SEO. Commenting on other people’s blogs. Time before revenue: 8 years. I’m not saying you need to wait eight years before making money with your passion. But I do think that you should be able to write, comment and take a stand in topics that matter to you from the start.

Make yourself visible

Eventually, it all comes back to business values. Everything you communicate should reflect these values. It’ll give you guidelines and will make sure your message is delivered in the same way, always. Low-budget branding might be just about that: making yourself visible, in a consistent way.

Any additions and your own experiences in this are welcome.

Read more: ‘5 tips on branding’ »

SEO basics: What’s a slug and how to optimize it

In SEO, we often talk about creating the right slug for a page. But what is this really? And why should you optimize it? In this post, we’ll explain all you need to know about it.

When you google “what’s a slug”, you’ll find that the definition we’re looking for is “a part of a URL which identifies a particular page on a website in a form readable by users.” It’s the nice part of the URL, which explains the page’s content. In this article, for example, that part of the URL simply is ‘slug’.

WordPress slugs

In WordPress, it’s the editable part of your URL that you can edit when writing a new post. Note that this only works with the right permalink settings. It looks like this:

slug-slug

If you have added more variables to your URL, we’re still talking about just that editable part of the URL to the page, like this:

slug-ocw

There’s an additional value at the end of that URL. In this case, that extra variable is used so slugs can be the same without the URL being the same. I think these examples clearly show what the slug we are talking about is.

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Optimizing your slug

What are the things you need to think of when constructing the right slug for your post or page? Let’s go over a number of characteristics you need to take into account:

No stop words

Filter our all the unnecessary words. Filter out “a”, “the” and “and” and similar words. We have written a tad bit more on stop words in our WordPress SEO article. For users of our Yoast SEO plugin: you might have noticed we filter stop words out by default.

Add focus

Don’t just filter out stop words, but really all the words that you don’t need. Make sure the slug still makes sense though. In the case of this post, WordPress automatically creates the slug “what-s-a-slug-and-how-to-optimize-it” (based upon the permalink settings in WordPress), which I manually reduced to “slug”.

There is one thing to keep in mind here. “Slug” as a subject is not likely to get another page on its own on our blog. This informative article will most probably remain the central point for information about slugs on our website. So I can reduce the slug to just “slug” for that reason. If this was an additional post to a main article, it would probably have been something like “optimize-slug” (and I wouldn’t have explained what it is, for that matter). So, do consider the page’s level or position on your website.

Keep it short, but descriptive

The URL of your page is shown in Google search results. Not always, sometimes it’s for instance replaced with breadcrumbs (awesome). When it’s shown, Google highlights the matching words from the search query:

url-in-search-result-pages-2

So you need to keep that in mind as well. Next to this, a short slug, right after the domain, will allow Google to show these keywords it in its mobile search result pages as well.

Now go optimize your slug with these three things in mind!

Read more: ‘SEO basics: what does Google do?’ »