Welcome to the latest of our Ask an SEO features. I was lucky enough to catch up with Rhys Wynne, Digital Marketing Consultant at Firecask and author of bbPress Complete to talk about WordPress – a platform that is believed to power around 20% of all websites.
Rhys shares some incredible insight here – so if you use WordPress and have an interest in SEO, grab a brew and read what he has to say!
Q) Hi Rhys, can you start by telling us about your background and how you got into the weird and wonderful world of SEO?!
A) Hello! Yes like many people who are into 5+ years of SEO I fell into it by accident. When living in North Wales I managed to land myself a junior web design role at a small agency. Graphics wasn’t my strong point but programming was. On day 2 of the company I was introduced to WordPress and eventually started making my plugins (one of which evolved into WP Email Capture. When the programming side of the business was quiet I was shown the basics of SEO – title tags, descriptions, headers and sent away to learn. Something work as I began to get results so over time I was moved to work in SEO full time.
Q) Can you tell us a little bit about your current role and the team at Firecask?
A) My current role at Firecask is I am the lead in most WordPress development projects that arrive in the company. It is my responsibility to manage the projects to completion on projects I am the manager of. As well as this I also support the account managers with any development work that needs doing to improve the searchable nature of client sites. Finally, I do also have my own accounts that I manage, which require the help of the super talented copywriting and in-house team we have in house at the company.
Q) What does a typical day look like for you?
A) I arrive in the office and generally begin by answering emails, seeing what needs to be actioned immediately or what needs to be done at some point. After that, if time allows, I usually sit down with Alex (Moss – The Technical Director) and discuss a plan of action developmental wise for the day or two ahead – occasionally clients come directly to me or Alex so it’s a good way to structure work on priorities and deadlines. After that I usually begin my tasks, which can range anything from programming a new feature or plugin for a client’s site, bug fixing, maintenance or design, through to more traditional SEO tasks such as outreach, on page SEO, or report writing.
The average day usually has about 6 or 7 different tasks, working on usually 2 to 3 websites. This does vary particularly if we have a full site build to be built, or a complex plugin to develop – ask any programmer and it is far more productive to work on one site for the entire day if that’s the case, as opposed to chopping and changing.
Q) You specialise in WordPress development, could you explain why exactly this is such a popular platform to work on and what attracted you to specialise in it?
A) It’s popular for two reasons. The first it’s open source. Free to download, take apart and mess with. Nothing is hidden in the core version of WordPress you can download from wordpress.org. As such, the barrier of entry for prospective website owners and developers is almost non-existent.
The second thing is that – out of all the open source systems – it’s probably the most user friendly one out there. Granted it’s not perfect, but in my opinion it’s the long way best of a pretty bad bunch.
I specialised in it as it was the one piece of software that seemed to do more and more as time went on. When I started playing with WordPress (around build 2.0), it was simply a blog platform – you couldn’t specify a default front page for example. Now you can build things like shops, ticketing systems and forums on it, and for the most part they work extremely well.
Finally, depending on who you believe, it’s installed on between 18-25% of all sites on the internet. It has the biggest market share of any CMS, so longevity wise, it’s probably going to be going round for as long as there is a World Wide Web.
Q) What is it, specifically, that makes WordPress so popular and effective from an SEO perspective?
A) Probably because out of the box it isn’t too bad SEO-wise anyway, and if you install one plugin (Yoast’s WordPress SEO Plugin) it becomes brilliant.
Let me give you a quick example, a few years ago I was working on a Joomla website. To get keyword rich permalinks (i.e. not index.php?post=102), you had to pay for a plugin to stick on your site and then set it up by adding a bunch of lines by hand to both your database and .htaccess file.
To do it in WordPress you tick one Radio Button in your WordPress Settings.
Q) How important is having a clear taxonomy on your WordPress blog/sites and do you have any tips on how to achieve this easily?
A) It is vitally important.
Having a clear taxonomy (be it categories, tags or custom taxonomies) can help the indexation of your website and also aid usability. You don’t want people guessing between what could be a category or what could be a tag. As long as your taxonomy makes sense, and doesn’t lead.
One piece of advice I can give is aimed at people sticking blogs on sites that use WordPress as a CMS. That advice is to keep the date in the post URL. It’s a bug bear of mine seeing blogs remove dates from the URL. The reason being is that occasionally if you have a post and a page the same name, without the date one will be at the URL http://www.example.com/post-name-2/, and changing the slug can lead to all sorts of problems. By keeping the date in the URL, you’re telling WordPress to look for the post with the URL slug post-name, rather than the page with the URL slug post-name, so you can name posts and pages the same and not cause any issues.
Q) When categorising blog posts, should you be as specific as possible, or is it the case that less-is-more?
A) Less is more definitely for categories.
You should aim to have only a few categories. The problem is for blogs is when bloggers begin they have all the will and the energy to turn their blog into the next Huffington Post. However over time they can falter, and nothing is worse for your site than a site with a lot of categories and very few posts in each. Ideally you should from day one know what your blog is about, so include 3 or 4 categories which you can fill up. Then over time expand, but try to expand down – so the first level categories should be as general as possible.
A good rule-of-thumb for most blogs is you should be able to fit your top level categories into the default WordPress template menubar.
Q) Could you explain the difference between WordPress categories and tags? Which should we be using for SEO and why?
A) In a nutshell categories are hierarchical methods of categorising posts whereas tags aren’t.
Ideally you should be using both, but only let Google index one (generally categories). The key to effective categories and tag usage is that there should never be any crossover. Having a category or a tag the same name is rather redundant. Categories should generally be what the post is about, whereas tags should be used for the more specific aspects of the post – such as who is mentioned in each post, for example.
Q) WordPress gives us plenty of options in terms of sidebar widgets, which of these would you recommend using and avoiding in terms of SEO?
A) I’m not sure in terms of SEO what I would use for SEO. Sure listing categories and archives is pretty good for site navigation, and I’d recommend some form of email capture widget to try and encourage signups so you don’t have to rely so much on Google.
One widget I would recommend avoiding is the tag cloud widget that comes with WordPress. If I remember correctly it uses header tags for it’s different sized text. However this was about 2 years ago, and probably has been fixed. Even if it’s not, I did get to #2 in Google for a client’s main keyword by having the tags pages accidentally indexed and having a tag cloud in the widget, so shows what I know!
However, if it has been fixed, there’s a reason why I’ve not used it. Design wise it’s a bit of an odd thing to have in your sidebar.
Q) Comment spam is the bane of my existence! Any tips on how to avoid it, and conversely, any tips on how to get genuine comments on your posts?
A) In all honesty having Akismet up to date is good enough for almost all comment spam.
On my sites I get very little comment spam, and I run about 5-6 WordPress sites and umpteen WordPress test installations. I’d be unfortuante to get just one spam comment a week.
I am not sure how to get genuine comments to posts, beyond the usual advice of “ask questions” and “promote discussion”. However two plugins I recommend can increase the comment numbers quite easily.
The first is by using the Social WordPress plugin. Social is one of those standard plugins that shares your content on Twitter & Facebook, however what it also does is that any reply to or share of that Tweet or Facebook status update will result it appearing as a comment on the site. This helps increase the comments, and increasing social proof, this can make your site seem bustling, rather than dead, and hopefully create a snowball effect for your comments.
The second is ReplyMe. This emails anybody who replies to their comment with a notification (that can be switched off or unsubscribed from). This hopefully creates discussion on the site. The only concern is that hasn’t been updated for two years, so if it ever breaks when WordPress updates something, then don’t expect a fix unless it is forked.
Q) What are your favourite WordPress plugins for SEO?
A) Well like anybody who knows anything about SEO on WordPress, I’m a huge fan of Yoast’s WordPress SEO. It is superb, and does so much!
Other than that, I quite like the Enhanced Distribution module in Jetpack, which uses WordPress.com’s own method of distributing posts to help get your site indexed quicker. However, Jetpack is a bit of an annoying plugin, activating things by default and breaking other plugins by being so ham fisted. It is actually surprising considering how light the rest of WordPress is. As such, I recommend before installing Jetpack you install and activate the Manual Control by Mark Jaquith.
Other than that a WordPress caching tool can help page speed. For most sites, WP Super Cache is fine, but W3 Total Cache is very good. However, it is incredibly technical to set up so full testing is required once installed and set up.
Q) Any other tools you can recommend?
Q) Who would be your dream SEO client and why?
A) Haha! As a massive wrestling fan I’d love to do some SEO for the WWE website. The job actually came up on LinkedIn a few years ago, but it was a big move, with less pay and I didn’t really fancy working in the US as it offered a “generous” 15 days holiday a year.
Q) Who are your favourite SEO “rockstars”?
A) I’m not a huge fan of the “rockstar” term. I believe unless you’ve flooded a hotel room or play in a band then you cannot call yourself one. However two people’s who opinion I trust more than most and are most approachable is Peter Handley & Richard Shove. Ironically two people I also speak to not about SEO most of the time!
Also away from pure SEO, I find myself trusting the opinions of Simon Wheatley, Simon Dickson & Kimb Jones for WordPress, Jem Turner & Jenny Wong for PHP, Rachel Shillcock & Andy Clarke for design and Alex Moss, Shane Jones & John Wilson for making sure I’m not doing anything stupid.