With the launch of our latest managed brand, XYZ Smart Collagen, an important question that keeps arising is, how do we ensure that our new website ranks as quickly as possible in Google and other search engines? What exactly does it take to give a new website, and an unknown brand, the best opportunity to rank?
Patience, persistence and attention to detail are your best friends when planning a new SEO project. Results can take time, but with your finger on Google’s pulse you can make small daily changes to improve your rankings.
I’m going to assume that you’ll be using a self-hosted WordPress site and have access to every aspect of your brand management from hosting through to social media management.
Choose your brand and domain name
At the initial set-up stage, the first thing you’ll want to consider is what domain name you’ll register for your website. Google has invested a lot of time in monitoring the usage of exact match and partial match domain names to ensure they aren’t being used to obtain an unfair advantage in their search results. This means you don’t have to worry too much about your domain name matching the product your users are searching for.
In fact, you can effectively rank a website with a brand name even if it doesn’t relate to the product you are trying to sell. I personally prefer partial match domain names so collogenproductreviews.com is the perfect domain for a collagen product website. It creates a unique brand name while also making it clear to the user what the brand does. It also helps with link anchor text by encouraging links to the home page to include the word collagen in them.
As affiliates, even though you are promoting external brands, you still want to create your own brand for your site. Creating your own brand is essential if you wish to appear authoritative within your chosen niche.
The advantage of having a unique brand and product name is clear: it provides more legal protection over your identity, allowing you to trademark your name. In addition, if you’re looking to register a company that matches your brand name, then you should check this is available too.
Another essential check to make before purchasing your domain name is that you’re able to register social profiles that are intuitive. Imagine having to use the Twitter username XYZcollagen_123 because someone had already taken XYZcollagen – you immediately look less professional.
The final important factor to consider when choosing your brand name is what top-level domain (TLD) you want to use. If you’re targeting a specific country then it may be best to use a country code top-level domain (ccTLD). However, if you’re looking to have a global audience it may be best to register a global top-level domain (gTLD) such as website.com. In addition, you can also consider the new TLDs such as .club, .diet and .london as viable choices; recent studies have shown they are fully capable of ranking as well as a .com domain.
You just need to remember that while Google may treat new TLDs equally, users might not. We’re all so used to .com and .co.uk domain names that something as bonkers as collagen.ninja won’t be as memorable, making it harder for users to return directly to your site.
Choosing the correct hosting
When thinking about SEO it’s easy to get absorbed in creating great content to the extent that you overlook the fundamentals. Choosing the correct host for your website really can be make or break for your website: poor hosting slows down load time and increases bounce rate due to the poor user experience. If you don’t choose wisely when considering your host, you really aren’t giving yourself the best chance of success. If you’re unsure what you’re looking for, it may be wise to outsource this to an experienced systems administrator or DevOps.
A significant aspect to consider when choosing a website host is its geographical location and how this may affect load times for your users. While geographical proximity doesn’t guarantee faster loading times due to the weird and wonderful ways that traffic is routed on the web, it is a great starting point to host in the same country as your target audience.
If you’re using a gTLD, then hosting in the UK may indicate that you’re targeting a UK audience to Google. If your actual primary target is the US, then it may be better to host somewhere closer to your audience. Over time when scaling up your website, you may choose to host localised sites in different countries and use a service such as AWS Route 53 to route traffic to the correct server based on their location or response time.
While speed is undoubtedly a main factor, there are also some vitally important technical considerations to be aware of. A suitable WordPress LAMP set-up requires PHP version 5.6 or greater, MySQL version 5.6 or greater, and the mod_rewrite Apache module. Without these you won’t be able to complete set-up.
Setting up your WordPress install
This may sound pretty simple, but there are a fair few problems that can pop up when installing WordPress. In my experience most of these relate to a couple of core problems:
- Pretty permalinks and images don’t work – This most commonly relates to mod_rewrite not being enabled in Apache. Occasionally you may need to edit your .htaccess file manually, if resetting permalinks in Settings > Permalinks doesn’t resolve the issue.
- Auto updating, installing themes and plugins fails – This is the second most common problem I see with WordPress installations and often relates to incorrectly set file permissions. This can be redone either through an FTP client such as FileZilla or using SSH access and chmod in the command line.
These two problems also relate to a wide variety of other issues you can encounter when testing your WordPress install. Testing these two pieces of WordPress functionality ensures that a whole variety of other features and plugins will work correctly down the line. Everything from redirection management through to sitemaps will be impacted if either of the above two issues aren’t resolved.
SETTING UP A WELL-OPTIMISED SITE
So you’ve got a basic WordPress install set up and it’s running relatively quickly on a suitable domain name. Now things start to get interesting; the foundations are laid and you’re ready to start building your toolset to optimise the site, and ensure that the content you publish is picked up and ranked by the search engines.
Basic WordPress settings
It’s worth remembering that ultimately WordPress is a blogging platform. So while you can use it straight out of the box, you’ll benefit from doing some basic configuration to make it more effective. Once your initial setup is complete, you should never have to return to this.
Set up your URL structure
You’ll want to immediately change your permalink structure otherwise each blog post will display something like: https://website.com/?p=3 rather than: https://website.com/xyz-collagen-review. The latter is going to be more search engine and user friendly, as it describes the nature of the page content.
The most commonly recommended setting is ‘post name’ so that all posts display as https://website.com/post-name/. I’ve seen best success with this set-up rather than a custom structure such as /%category%/%postname%/, especially for smaller websites. If you’re expecting to create a lot of content, it may be worth reconsidering your URL structure to prevent your site from becoming bloated with all posts existing directly off the root.
Ensure general settings are correct
The general settings in WordPress cover everything from the site title through to the URL of your website. Some themes use your tagline as part of the home page <title> element, so it’s worth setting it to any slogan you have for your website and brand.
The two most critical elements in general settings are the site title which is used in the title tag and the site address. Remember to be consistent with the site title; if you have a space in your brand name, now isn’t the time to omit that space from the site title. As for the site address, the most important thing to check is that it’s set correctly to either the www or non-www version of the website. Also, if you’re using an SSL certificate, ensure that it is set correctly to https:// rather than http://.
Once these are set up correctly, it’s a good time to quickly check that your website loads on the correct URLs. For example, with XYZ Collagen I will be testing the following:
- https://xyzcollagen.com – should load
- http://xyzcollagen.com – should redirect to https://xyzcollagen.com in a single redirect
- https://www.xyzcollagen.com – should redirect to https://xyzcollagen.com in a single redirect
- http://www.xyzcollagen.com – should redirect to https://xyzcollagen.com in a single redirect
- https://test.xyzcollagen.com – shouldn’t load – a test to show that wildcard subdomains don’t point to the root of the website
- http://test.xyzcollagen.com – as the previous example, this also shouldn’t load
Testing that these URLs behave correctly prevents multiple identical copies of the website from being served to users, which stops Google from confusing your site with duplicate content.
Important note: If you use a separate development domain to prepare the website before launching, then do not let Google index it. In fact, where possible, limit access by IP to those who need it, as you really don’t want a development website out there in the public. If a separate development domain gets indexed, you may find that the development domain rather than your real domain picks up and holds rankings for your content. In extreme cases this is a tricky problem to resolve and can result in having to rewrite content.
Don’t discourage search engines from indexing the site
This is pretty obvious but in Settings > Reading if you tick the box to discourage search engines from indexing the site, you will not rank. Even if you only wish to prevent Google from indexing while you’re developing the domain, it can sometimes be tricky to reverse the process once you’ve actually ticked the box!
Personally I’ve seen mixed results and have even seen Google refuse to index a site for almost a week after the option was unticked, with the page eventually having to be found through the Google Search Console.
The only exception to this rule is if you have a separate address for development domains. For example, if we ran dev.xyzcollagen.com we may choose to specify that this should not be indexed, but I’d much prefer to prevent Google accessing the site by restricting access by IP in .htaccess.
Choose your theme carefully
When choosing a WordPress theme, it’s very easy to be drawn to the shiny interactive ones with preloaders, parallax scrolling effects, animations, video backgrounds and an abundance of other ‘cool’ features. Although many of these elements may be beautiful, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be good for SEO. Here are some general rules to follow from an SEO perspective:
- Think fast first – Quite often it’s a good idea to run Google’s page speed test tool on the demo site before purchasing a theme. If the demo site doesn’t even run quickly then you can’t expect your production site to.
- Think mobile first – The volume of mobile traffic on the web has exceeded that of desktop traffic since 2014 and for this reason you need to think about mobile users first. Preferably choose a responsive design and one where you don’t need to drastically reduce the amount of content for mobile devices. Read this article on mobile first indexing for more information.
- Avoid preloaders – If a theme has a preloader, then in my experience it generally performs poorly in search results. They’re usually used for heavily interactive sites and while there are some exceptions to this rule, preloaders are not recommended for sites where organic traffic is the primary goal.
- Avoid themes lacking content above the fold – The fold is the point at which you would have to scroll down to see the rest of the page. Content above the fold is more valuable than content below in terms of SEO, so having a big hero image and no content can hurt your SEO efforts.
These are the four core rules for theme selection that I follow. Additionally, if you have a multi-regional or multilingual site, it’s advisable to ensure that there are no compatibility issues with the plugin that you are using to manage your translations.
Choose your plugins wisely
Plugins are, in my opinion, both the number one saviour and the killer of WordPress sites for SEO. Straight away you can greatly improve your site’s functionality and save hundreds of hours of development work by using a solution straight out of the can.
Conversely, plugins slow your website down! Being conservative when selecting plugins can make a massive difference to your website’s performance. If you aren’t going to use it then don’t install it and if you’ve been using a plugin for a temporary campaign, don’t leave it active all year long when it isn’t needed. Another thing to consider is each time you install a plugin you increase the chance that one plugin will conflict with another, potentially causing a whole host of issues.
So before selecting your plugins, it’s worth considering WordPress’s weaknesses in terms of SEO.
- Editing metadata
- Preventing pages from being indexed by Google
- Sitemap generation
- Integrating social networks
- Generally it’s a little slow – even when set up well
With these points in mind, we can start to examine which plugins will help to improve your SEO performance.
YOAST SEO FOR WORDPRESS
Although Yoast is a great plugin for SEO, it’s still far from perfect and requires some manual configuration to ensure it’s working optimally for your site. Also, the way Yoast builds sitemaps isn’t my preferred method and it has compatibility issues with the common translation plugin WPML. Still, there’s no greater all-round SEO plugin especially when making changes at page level. You can use it to:
Verify your Webmaster Tools accounts – This is an easy process to complete using Yoast and prevents you from having to manually upload files to your website to verify ownership. Simply go to SEO > Dashboard > Webmaster Tools and set up both your Google and Bing Webmaster Tools profiles for the website.
Make sure your page titles are set up correctly – By default WordPress displays the <title> element in the head as the name of your site followed by the post name. This isn’t intuitive for SEO, since the most important information should be at the start of the title followed by any branding. For example, ‘Daily Collagen Routine | XYZ Smart Collagen’ is a better title than ‘XYZ Smart Collagen | Daily Collagen Routine’ for a page that focuses on the best routine for a collagen product.
This can be configured using Yoast in the menu SEO > Titles and Metas > Post Types. You’ll probably notice that the format is something like: ‘XYZ Smart Collagen %%sep%% %%title%%’ which you simply need to reverse so that the brand name is at the end. A quick fix now will save the need for many manual changes in the future. If you’re using taxonomies such as categories and tags, then it’s also worth configuring these at this point to ensure you follow a similar format.
Let search engines know your social profiles – Search engines may use social signals for a whole host of reasons, from checking that your name, address and phone number is consistent through to an indication of brand activity and relevancy of your brand. With this in mind, it’s wise to set up your social profiles so they are integrated into your website, both visually for users and in the <head> using Open Graph data.
To do this in the menus, simply go to SEO > Social and enter all of the accounts you have set up for your website. In addition, ensure that the Facebook tab has Open Graph enabled and a default image is set so any pages that are shared which don’t contain an image still display an image on Facebook. One other important thing to do is to ensure that the Google+ tab has your Google Publisher Page entered and that you have linked your Google+ account to your website.
Disable XML sitemaps – Some people will disagree with this strongly, but I’m not a fan of sitemaps produced by Yoast. There are frequent compatibility issues with WPML, and there’s nothing worse than sending a sitemap of broken links for Google to crawl. To disable the sitemaps functionality, simply go to SEO > XML Sitemaps and click ‘Disable’. We’ll come back to a better solution later when we discuss in more depth what to look for in a good sitemap solution.
Edit your robots.txt file – The ability to edit your robots.txt file is really useful and can be found at SEO > Tools > File Editor. Once you’ve created a sitemap you need to include a correctly formatted reference to it in your robots.txt file.
Link your Search Console profile – This is a quick setting change that makes life easier when it comes to identifying and resolving problems such as 404 errors. Simply set it up at SEO > Search Console > Settings.
Add canonical URLs straight out of the box – One of the best features of Yoast is that it adds canonical URLs to the vast majority of pages in WordPress by default. This prevents many problems from occurring on shopping sites with URLs making small changes to a product or category page. For instance, Google could index multiple copies of the same product category page just because it had been sorted in different ways, e.g. by price, availability or recently added.
Filtering is another area where canonicals are really useful. It enables Google to determine which pages to rank and give authority to. In addition, you frequently see similar use of canonicalisation on product pages for different colours or different sizes of the same product.
GOOGLE ANALYTICS FOR WORDPRESS
It’s debatable whether this plugin is actually required, as you could change this in a child theme directly in the header of the site. However, if you’re not comfortable with this, then the best option to set up Google Analytics is the MonsterInsights plugin, a brand formerly owned by Yoast.
Set-up is a simple process that really doesn’t require any explanation; I would opt for universal analytics and set it to ignore logged in users so that you don’t track your own traffic to the website.
GOOGLE XML FOR SITEMAPS
This is perhaps the best sitemap plugin I’ve tried to date, as not only does it specify the URL and date lastmod tag, it also provides the priority and change frequency of the page. The settings can be found in the menu at Settings > XML-Sitemap, and configuration requirements are minimal.
I recommend that you have a sitemap containing the home page, posts and static pages. Avoid adding categories and tags to the sitemap as this will bloat it with lower value content. Google will still discover some of this anyway, so just restrict it to the most important content.
Google XML can also prevent specific pages or posts from being included in the sitemap. This is particularly useful if you have several websites and they all have the same ‘Terms and Conditions’ page which you probably don’t want to be indexed multiple times. You would simply have to enter the IDs (separated by commas) of the pages or posts you don’t want in your sitemap and this will prevent them from appearing.
Once you’ve created your sitemap, ensure you submit it directly to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
W3 TOTAL CACHE
This plugin is much more than just a caching solution. It allows you to manage CDNs, minification of JS and CSS, and a whole variety of other features that improve website performance. Effectively this is an all-in-one solution to speed up your website.
Configuration isn’t simple and solutions such as caching can get messy if you have a plugin such as WooCommerce installed, and you accidentally end up caching the cart. I’d recommend obtaining help to set up W3 Total Cache correctly so you can discuss at length with a systems administrator the benefits and how caching and any content delivery network is going to be implemented.
You can either end up having an impressively fast website or a host of problems when using W3 Total Cache, so be cautious when installing it and changing settings.
The default WordPress commenting system is well known for spam and generally being poor in terms of quality and uptake. I much prefer Disqus commenting system which in addition:
- It doesn’t prevent page rendering while comments load.
- It loads faster than the standard WordPress commenting system.
- Google can index the comments.
- It’s easier to moderate discussions and engage people who comment.
- It looks great and works well on mobile devices.
Generally Disqus looks smarter and more professional, and promotes a community around your content and commenting, encouraging people to upvote comments and interact without causing site performance problems.
PROMOTING YOUR NOW WELL-OPTIMISED SITE
Even the most expertly optimised site can struggle to be found – you need to promote it! One of my favourite snippets of wisdom from Google’s Matt Cutts is that no website should rely on Google and organic SEO alone for promotion. In my opinion, this mindset appears to have fed back directly into Google’s ranking algorithm. Websites which directly promote themselves through social media, the press and even through traditional forms of advertising find it much easier to rank organically.
So log out of WordPress for a while and consider using a few of the following off-site techniques to improve your Google rankings.
NAP stands for name, address, phone number – three important items of information that identify your website. If your website has business profiles all over the web it’s essential to ensure that they’re consistent.
One of the first places to register has to be ‘Google My Business’ as it seems silly not to use Google’s own platform when you’re looking to optimise for Google. In addition, you can add your company information to various business directories or even mobile apps such as Foursquare – just make sure the details are consistent.
Having a clear identity and exposing as many details about your company as possible increases your legitimacy since Google will verify your identity across the web. This will lead to increased trust and more significantly, give local SEO a boost.
If, as in many cases, you don’t have a phone number or address listed on your website, don’t worry, just ensure all the details that you do provide are consistent. Also if you have a registered company, then always try and include its name and address in the footer along with the trading name which you’re using.
A long time ago I was told that social media was just a fad; now it is part of our daily lives. Being involved with social media isn’t a small commitment; it requires ongoing active monitoring of all your social channels. In addition to the brand benefits of social media there are also the outreach prospects: finding communities with similar interests, networking, building a relationship and eventually selling to them.
Day-to-day involvement with social media and the social signals this creates are very unlikely to be a direct ranking factor in Google. In fact, both Matt Cutts and John Mueller from Google have directly stated in the past that social media isn’t a ranking factor. However, many case studies have proven that there’s a strong correlation between social signals and rankings, so just because it isn’t a direct ranking factor doesn’t mean there is no SEO impact.
Indeed, social sharing may result in additional links to shared content which may be the core value of social sharing. Getting your content in front of other content creators improves your chances of spin off articles, some of which are likely to link back to your original post.
One final important aspect of social media for me, as an SEO advisor, is creating a consistent brand. Ensuring that your NAP details are consistent across all platforms, channels such as Google Plus are verified, and that relevant Open Graph data is displayed on your site all really help to build a relationship between your website and its social channels. The more general web exposure your brand has, the better the chance of Google showing Knowledge Graph information alongside your standard search results.
This may or may not be an option depending on your budget, but paid advertising can be a great way to supplement your SEO traffic. Improving brand exposure through paid advertising results in more direct traffic, more branded searches, and in my personal experience, a more general poke to Google to say this site’s become more active, and perhaps you should keep an eye on it and consider its rankings.
Paid advertising can come in many forms, such as banner advertising, social boosting and remarketing. Monitor them closely or you may simply be throwing your money away. However, use them correctly, and you could see great returns as well as some small SEO benefits.
Become a good web citizen
This may seem a little out of place when discussing the promotion of your site, but being a good web citizen is an important mindset to have, and can really help your SEO in the long run. Here are my top tips for being a better web citizen:
- Become involved with communities you don’t own – When you get out there and explore the web, you’ll discover many communities with similar themes to yours. Get involved, give good advice on forums and occasionally provide a link back to your content. You aren’t there to build links, you’re there to offer good advice so only provide links if they are both relevant and useful for the reader.
- Don’t fear external links – If you’ve written a post and it is heavily influenced by other sources, then reference them. Actually, I highly recommend going one better than that and letting those people know that you’ve referenced them, after all if they like your post they may share it on their social channels.
- Remember the web is full of people – When you’re interacting with other websites remember that behind that website is a person. They won’t want you to blatantly copy their ideas, pester them on social channels or generally be an annoyance. On the other hand you should remember that if someone writes something great they deserve praise, and will almost definitely appreciate it. When networking, you network with people not websites so try to get to know the people behind the websites. You may even develop a few good friendships.
- Manage your reputation – If you’ve done something wrong, provided poor or misleading advice and generally messed up, apologise! Also if someone praises your work, links to you, or provides positive feedback, thank them. Be careful to monitor reviews about your website and post appropriate replies. And if you’ve done something wrong in the past, reach out to those who reviewed you poorly once the issue is resolved. The web is a community and you’ll no doubt benefit from being an active part of the community you’re in.
These ideas may seem minor, but as a whole they represent a positive and proactive way of thinking when growing a new site.
Wrapping it up
When creating a new WordPress website, it’s important to remember that SEO is multifaceted. You can’t simply consider the content and hope for the best; you need to be involved from day one of the project and ensure that SEO is considered at every stage.
Remember, at its core, SEO comes down to a few simple concepts:
- Branding factors – everything from your domain name to social presence.
- Fundamental technical factors – UX and Googlebot.
- Site architecture – how pages relate and link to each other.
- Content factors – metadata and on-page ranking factors.
- Off-site work – everything from advertising to NAP consistency.
One thing you may have noticed that we haven’t discussed is the process of creating and optimising individual pages in full. This is a lengthy subject that I’ll be discussing in the near future. Hopefully by now, you’ll have the tools required to set up a WordPress website that has a great chance of picking up some Google rankings.
What you choose to rank for and how you choose to go about that, for now, is down to you. Until our next post on content marketing and optimisation…!