It’s 2016, nearly 2017 — we all know SEO is important. Today, no one needs an explanation as to why SEO matters or the role it plays in digital marketing. We now take all of those points as foregone conclusions. But what about how to improve SEO?

Discussions about improving SEO are as old as those about the importance of SEO, but the difference is that strategies and tactics to improve SEO evolve on a regular basis. As a result, these efforts are not ones we can learn once and move on.

How Do You Keep Up to Date with Changing SEO Practices?

Since SEO practices change regularly, it’s imperative for marketers to keep up to date on these changes and evolve efforts accordingly. Accomplishing this goal requires you to constantly educate yourself about changes implemented by search engines and about how best practices evolve as a result of those changes. However, actually putting that knowledge into practice at the drop of a dime isn’t always easy.

So how do you ensure you can put those ever-evolving best practices into action? As always seems to be the answer these days, it’s technology to the rescue.

Introducing the Yoast SEO Plugin for WordPress

The Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress is one of the most used technologies for maintaining SEO best practices. And it’s easy to see why, as Yoast provides a comprehensive, easy-to-use set of tools geared toward site-wide SEO and is free for hosted WordPress sites.

The Yoast plugin includes settings for the site homepage, different pages and posts, social networks, XML sitemaps, permalinks, taxonomies and more. For the day-to-day user, the most important piece of the plugin to understand is the box that appears on every page and post of a WordPress website:

Yoast SEO plugin

This box includes fields for a focus keyword, SEO title and meta description as well as a preview of how the listing will appear in search results, a page analysis and fields for social titles and descriptions for enabled networks.

As you create new pages and blog posts, filling out these fields can help boost the SEO for each page/post. Best of all, Yoast will use this information to rate the quality of each page/post in the eyes of search engines to let you know how you’re doing and offer tips for improvement. Yoast provides these ratings by way of colored markings — green for areas that appear good, yellow for areas that need work, red for areas that have problems and gray for areas with not enough information. You can also check the page analysis for more details on why a page received a certain color rating and to review tips for improvement.

Maximizing the Value of the Yoast SEO Plugin

While the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress, or any other such plugin for that matter, can go a long way toward helping you boost SEO, the technology can’t do all the work for you.

In order to maximize the value of the Yoast plugin and improve your SEO along the way, you first need to understand the big picture SEO principles and ensure you have a strategy in place. Furthermore, you need to understand how each of the fields in the plugin aligns to your SEO strategy.

Beyond that overarching understanding, what can you do to “get the greenlight”? It’s time to move past the trial and error to see what changes the Yoast rating from red to yellow to green in order to get it right the first time, every time. With that in mind, we recommend the following best practices:

  1. Treat the page analysis like a good friend: The page analysis will break down your page/post in detail, pinpointing different pieces that are good, need work, etc. This analysis is obviously useful in cases where a page receives a red or yellow rating, but it can also be helpful for pages that receive a green rating since there’s always room for improvement. All of that said, remember that even the best of friends can lead you astray. As we often heard during our childhood, if “so-and-so” jumped off a bridge, would you? Sometimes you’re more in tune with what people and, more specifically, your customers want, than a machine, and in those cases you need to follow your gut.
  2. Give every title a “KIC”: Every single SEO title needs to include your focus keyword for that page/post (K), garner reader interest to entice clicks (I) and feature your company name (C), typically at the end. The SEO title doesn’t necessarily need to match the title of the page/post, although it should appropriately describe the content. If you want to follow a standard format, such as TITLE | Company Name, you can set up templates for your SEO titles in the settings of the Yoast plugin to make it easy to ensure consistency across the board.
  3. Create unique meta descriptions: Although it’s easy to pull the first line or two from a page/post for the meta description, you should always write a unique one. Think about how you conduct searches and view the results. You very likely use the meta description to determine if a search result is worth a click, which makes these 160 or so characters extremely important. In order to capture attention and clicks, your meta descriptions must be well written, enticing, include target keywords and properly describe the entire page/post. Additionally, you should include a call to action where applicable. With the Yoast plugin, you can also set the meta description to include the date of publication via the plugin settings, which can be helpful in putting context around time-sensitive content.
  4. Take advantage of social descriptions: Yoast allows you to link social accounts from Facebook and Twitter and add a unique title, description and image for each. These fields will impact how the page/post appears when you and others share the link on the designated networks. As a result, it’s important to take advantage of this capability to make sure you put forth the best possible image of your content. Additionally, remember that each network’s audience is unique and as such your titles, descriptions and images should be tailored for each network accordingly.
  5. Go beyond the basics: Yoast most certainly has all the basics covered and can help provide a significant SEO boost when used correctly, but it also offers opportunities to go beyond the basics. For example, the plugin allows you to easily optimize alt attributes on images, handle XML sitemap functionality to let search engines know when your site has been updated, optimize templates with breadcrumbs and headings, prevent indexing on archived pages and much more. Yoast also offers several premium extensions (which are paid), for SEO optimization for everything from videos to local search results. Tapping into these advanced features can give your SEO program the boost it needs to go from good to excellent.

Ready to Take Your SEO to the Next Level?

There’s no way around it: SEO can be tricky, but as long as you get a good handle on your strategy, stay on top of changing best practices and implement tools like the Yoast plugin, mastering it doesn’t have to be impossible. In fact, with the right foundation in place, you’ll be well on your way to racing through the SEO greenlight like an expert.