How To SEO Your WordPress Theme

This post was guest blogged by Courtney Tuttle of Court’s Internet Marketing School.

First things first – most WordPress themes are horrible for targeting search engine traffic. Whether you’re using a free theme or even a custom theme for your WordPress blog, you’re trusting a web or graphic designer to ensure that your blog is set up to target keywords properly, and that is a huge mistake.

Don’t misunderstand, you can still get search traffic with a weak WordPress theme. Since there are so many factors that contribute to search engine rankings, your strength in some aspects might help to grab search traffic. However, setting your blog up to properly target keywords can often remove the lead weight that’s keeping How To SEO Your WordPress Themeyour search traffic from growing more quickly. You may get a 50% or bigger increase in search traffic by simply implementing a few ideas.

Being an SEO consultant for literally hundreds of websites has given me a unique look into how sites should be set up for maximum benefit. I have taken those insights and have applied them to my own blog and am now ranked in the top 10 in Google for ‘internet marketing’, which is arguably one of the hardest keywords out there. Today I’m going to pass on some of those insights to you.

4 Reasons Most WordPress Themes Are Terrible For SEO

  1. Multiple use/poor use of the H1 tag. H1 tags are only meant to be used once on each page. Also, many themes don’t use keywords in the H1, even though that would provide a search benefit.
  2. Excessive/improper use of H2 tags. Many WordPress themes use H2 tags in tons of places where they shouldn’t. If you were to view the source code for your WordPress blog, chances are that each section of your sidebar will use an H2 tag. This is a mistake because the H2 tags on your pages should include the second most important heading on your pages, probably your post titles.
  3. Poor use of keyword authority. Using text and links properly can help any site to build authority for the keywords they are targeting. Most themes are not set up to create these links and text automatically so they must be added in manually (more on that below).
  4. Pages create onsite duplicate content. You would never want your category, tag, and archive pages to show your entire posts. This would create multiple URLs in your site that have the full content of your posts. Bad idea!

How To SEO Your WordPress Theme

Start with your site’s H1 tag. You want the H1 tags of your site to do two things for you:

  1. Target your site’s main keyword with every page. My site’s main keyword is ‘internet marketing’ and it shows up in the H1 section of all of my pages.
  2. Target the keywords you use in your post titles.

Most people think that they can only use the h1 tag to target either their site’s main keyword or the keywords in their post title, but I have created a piece of code that will allow you to do both. You can find the code here (opens in new window). You will add in your main keyword where prompted, insert the code where you would like the section to show up (probably in your theme’s header.php file), and will then make it look how you want using CSS.

Set up H2 tag properly. You want to set your theme up to use the H2 tags around the post titles in your WordPress blog. You can find out if it’s set up this way by looking at the source code for your blog, and searching for the H2 tag, which looks like this: <h2>. The post title should appear there. If it isn’t there, you will want to adjust your theme accordingly.

The code that creates your post titles will usually be located in either your single.php or index.php file and looks like this: <?php the_title(); ?>. If it’s set up properly, it should have H2 tags around it: <h2><?php the_title(); ?></h2>.

Now you will want to make sure that you aren’t using H2 tags in funny places, like your sidebar and comment sections. If your sidebar uses these tags around the section headings such as ‘Categories’, you will want to change them. You can easily change them to H3s and you’re good to go.

Subtle keyword authority changes. There are two very simple things you can add to your theme that will help you to create more keyword authority for the keyword of your choice:

  1. Create a footer link that points to your homepage using your main keyword as anchor text.
  2. Create links in your sidebar that point to pages related to your main keyword. My main keyword is ‘internet marketing’, so I have created links in my sidebar that point to posts related to internet marketing. This helps me to create more site-authority for internet marketing.

Eliminate duplicate content. Some people recommend using a plugin that adds ‘no index’ to category, archive, and tag pages. I would not recommend this because having more URLs in search engine indexes can help you to create authority for your keywords. I would recommend changing each of those pages to show excerpts only.

This can be accomplished by editing the theme files that create these pages. For example, category pages are usually created by the category.php file. You would edit that page and look for the code that creates the post itself: <?php the_content(); ?>. Change that code to <?php the_excerpt(); ?> and you’re good to go.

Create Your Stronger Site

These insights can help you to create a stronger site, but now it’s on you to implement these ideas. I know that these methods aren’t simple. It might take you all day to figure out how to make them all work. I can promise you that it’s worth as much time as it takes. If this is too difficult for you, you can take a look at some of the SEO themes I’ve modified for your benefit.

Bonus Tip

While this tip doesn’t change your theme itself, you still need to use it to get the most out of your WordPress blog. Use the All-In-One SEO Pack plugin to get your HTML titles set up properly. John gave a great explanation on that topic here: All in One SEO Pack for WordPress. Since the HTML title tag has a huge effect on search traffic, make sure you’re using this plugin.

89 thoughts on “How To SEO Your WordPress Theme”

  1. Great advice Court! There were a few things I had no idea about here… thanks!


    1. DeboHobo says:

      I agree!!! πŸ™‚

    2. John Esberg says:

      I’m right there with you. SEO for WordPress is a new territory for me. Rather exciting to an old coder such as myself. πŸ˜›

      1. Honest Ed says:

        SEO’ing a wordpress blog is simple if you’re a coder.

        A month back I wrote a post on how to SEO wordpress that got picked up by White Paper SEO guide.

    3. Court says:

      You’re most welcome! Please let me know if there’s anything you have questions about. πŸ™‚

      1. Terry Tay says:

        Excellent post Courtney!

        I’ll have to go through my code and see what needs fixing. I love how you show us how to do it in your article. Even someone that has basic knowledge could make the changes you talk about.


  2. DeboHobo says:

    Court this is a really good article. So often we are told what we can and should do. I want to thank you for taking the time to give the ‘How To’.

    Great Post πŸ™‚

  3. Ecko says:

    I’m not a WP user, because I think WP is harder than Blogger. Anyway, this article helps me understand more things about WP. Thanks a lot.

    1. DeboHobo says:

      But I have found that WP is so much better than Blogger. Take for instance the plugins and widgets. Blogger as far as I remember does not have those.

      1. Robert says:

        Oh, without a doubt, WP is WAY BETTER than blogger. I have used both, and WP is phenomenally superior.

    2. Terry Tay says:

      When you host your own WordPress site, sure there is more work involved, but it is your blog to do with as you please. You have control over all aspects of it.

  4. clickfornick says:

    DeboHobo has a point, after switching from Blogger to WordPress, I’ve increased my daily traffic by 3,000. you get the whole widget support, a large community of bloggers, plus when John Chow tells you about a new SEO widget its almost always WordPress… follow the trend…
    Click for Nick

  5. lee says:

    Good solid article – nuts and bolts type of stuff. Good job.

    Most of us WP users tend to get lazy b/c we think WP is superior…and self-regulating. Not at all. It’s only as good as you make it.

    1. Court says:

      Very true Lee. WordPress is a superior platform because of what you can make it do – not because of how it is ‘out of the box’.

  6. Robert says:

    Great article, and very helpful. I already use the All-in-One SEO plugin, and it’s fantastic. Ever since I started using it, I’ve seen an increase in traffic from search engines.

    1. John Esberg says:

      So speaking from the angle of metrics, what kind of changes have you found? Any numbers?

  7. Etienne Teo says:

    I will not deny WP is surely better than Blogger in many ways, i hope they can improve in their comment system and also giving us a cause of Plugins we can add. :mrgreen:

  8. Dr J says:

    Right off the bat your claims are false.

    Start with your site’s H1 tag. You want the H1 tags of your site to do two things for you:

    Target your site’s main keyword with every page. My site’s main keyword is β€˜internet marketing’ and it shows up in the H1 section of all of my pages.

    When I view the source of this page there is no tag at all. Period. None and especially not one containing “internet marketing”

    1. Court says:

      If you read the post Dr J you’ll find that John didn’t write this post. I guest blogged this post and you can find my site here:

      All of the internet marketing talk applies to my site, not John’s.

      1. Court, you’ll find that a large number of the people that comment here don’t actually pay attention to the post, not to mention who actually wrote it. They just want to up their comment count.

        1. Court says:

          Lol that’s funny man. I like how the first thing the post says is that someone else wrote it. πŸ™‚

        2. Dr J says:

          I am not concerned with my comment count here on John’s site as this is only my second time posting here.

          I did read the article in its entirety.

      2. Dr J says:

        I apologize Court.

        While I did read the full article and was aware that it was guest written, I didn’t put 2 and 2 together when I was viewing the source.

        My apologies

  9. Sava says:

    You are right about and tags.
    So … for your page title … for the title of the posts … but you forgot to mention also the importance of
    I use in all my posts and it really helps. My usual top 10 positions in google are on the keywords of my tags from my blog.
    Now … Etienne … I suggest you use wordpress as is. Just remember to create static links from your options menu. The best in my opinion are the date based static links.
    This works for me … but I stronly suggest you try everything and see what brings you the best results. Remember to use Google Webmaster tools to see what’s happening with your websites.

    Oh yeah … you could also get the recent comments plugin to show your visitors what has been happening recently on your blog.

    1. Court says:

      Yeah Sava there are a lot of different things that you can do with WordPress to better the SEO of your site. I agree with what you said – keep in mind that this article is about modifying your theme itself. Everything in the sidebar can be done with widgets and does not require changes to the theme itself. πŸ˜‰

      1. Sava says:

        I don’t use widgets for the sidebar … it’s very hard to edit the widgets …. and if you just use html in the sidebar you can edit everything to suite your taste

  10. Robert says:

    Blogger seems to be pretty far behind.

  11. Fei says:

    I’m new in blogging and don’t have any blog on WordPress, can i apply your suggestion on blogger? Thanks.

    1. Court says:

      Unfortunately Fei most of this advice won’t work on Blogger!

  12. eBusinessGuy says:

    Great post! I just went and edited my css and theme to correct the h2 & h3 tags. By default my theme had the Category and other headings as h2 tags and the post titles as h3.

    Not anymore! Thanks for the tips!

    1. Court says:

      Very nice! Most themes are set up that way. It makes it easier for the designer but if you think about it, what is more important – the sidebar headings or the post title? It’s obviously the post title. πŸ™‚

  13. Tyler Ingram says:

    There are some great suggestions there. Since I created my own wordpress theme (from my previous custom blog when I went to wordpress) I’ll have to look at changing my H2 tags on the sidebar etc and move them around.

    Never though about it actually and if the search engines do look for those tags, it would be definitely worth the time and effort to change the theme to reflect those. Besides you can create a or tags to mimic the H2 tags πŸ™‚

    1. Court says:

      Very true Tyler. The headings can easily be set up using divs instead of heading tags. If you understand the programming I would probably do it that way.

  14. It’s good to hear you suggest using excerpts instead of nofollow on duplicate content pages. It’s what I have been doing, for the reason you mentioned, but I never found someone to back me up.

    1. Court says:

      Using nofollow or noindex doesn’t make sense to me Stephan. You want your site to be as large as possible so it sounds like you were for sure on the right track.

      1. DeboHobo says:

        I just recently installed the ‘No Follow Free’ plugin will this help to SEO my WP blog?

    2. It does not make sense to noindex categories, but i would definitively do that with archives as they are completely worthless (from my point of view). Aside that, every indexed page of your site, which links back to your homepage with your desired keywords as it ages it will give more weight.

      I like some of the points of this articles, and some other points can be slightly improved (I hate bashing but if it can help others why not). You can eliminate duplicate content up to 99% if you care really by using the Optional Excerpt feature (which is built in wordpress). Here is a post I wrote on eliminating duplicate content.

  15. This is a right on target post. I’ve been all up in the guts of WordPress trying to get it working better. My problem hasn’t been a lack of search engine handshaking but Adsense matching. My Adsense is so laughably off-target 75% of the time that I’m constantly emailing Google and having them come look. So it’s got to be something in the way the themes emphasizing the wrong things.

    1. Court says:

      Hey Dave! You may have already thought of this, but have you tried Google section targeting? You place the following tag before the section you want Adsense to match to (if they don’t show up for some reason, feel free to contact me for the tags):

      You then place this tag after the section you want them to match to:

      If you used the tags before and after your post title in your theme you might get the best matching, as long as you use your keywords in your post titles. If you usually don’t, you could just put these tags before and after your posts.

    2. Sava says:

      Google has something for your problem but I am not sure just how well it works as I never used it… never had your issue.

      make sure your post(s) are between this tags.

      I suggest you insert right after your header and . before the sidebar.

      This way Google will know where to look for keywords.
      Hope this helps

      1. Sava says:

        Sorry but it looks like the tags didn’t show up here as they are html comments.

        Here are the tags:

  16. Having the keyword in the tag has a negative ranking correlation.

  17. Pete says:

    Very nice post, concise and to the point without sacrificing any juicy details such as howtos and explanations. Great job.

  18. Sha says:

    This is probably the best guest blog post I’ve read in a long time. I knew these things, but it’s still excellent information for those that had little or no idea.

  19. Wade says:

    Man, I always am like 30+ comments in! I check JC twice a day and still rarely make within the first 10 comments.

    Great review, I always love reading information on SEO and WordPress. Thank you very much!

  20. juniord says:

    Thanks for the tips i will try your suggestions right now.

  21. Hannah says:

    This is definitely one of the best blog posts in a long time… very useful, thank you for writing (and John for posting) it!

  22. JOHNMVP.COM says:

    Nice blog post, John. What happened to the pull away on the top right of your site? Did you give up on that idea? Thanks for the tips in this post. I recently opened up a baseball blog and need all the eye attention I can get when people visit. I also heard you do reviews, what do those run at?

  23. JOHNMVP.COM says:

    I don’t think my comments are posting.. TEST TEST

  24. Great article there, very useful information that I enjoyed reading. πŸ™‚

    Carl –

  25. Bill says:

    Awesome. FINALLY a guest post on John Chow that is worth reading. Hopefully this becomes a habit instead of that other crap that keeps getting guest posted.

    Nice Job Court.

    Dr J…you get the numbnut of the day award. 😈

  26. Neil Duckett says:

    All in one SEO for WordPress plugin is a must.

  27. POYTSPOT says:

    this is great. I’ve been using all-in-one-SEO before I started blogging and it turns out great.

    1. Sava says:

      I really think you should try things on your own as well. Always try improving … don’t do things as everybody does … like using a plugin which is used by thousands probably.

  28. Simon Lau says:

    Great tips here. I’ll need to implement these once 2.5 is released.

  29. Karl says:

    THanks. This was a great article. My wordpress theme was supposedly customed designed with SEO in mind. I moved up in Google pretty quickly on my primary keywords. But reading this makes me want to check into it a little more. Thanks for the great article.

  30. Great article, this was a big help.

  31. cajuns says:

    All In One takes care of almost all of this. Enough said.

  32. Auw, I really have to make some changes to mine. Thanks for the tips.

  33. Suleman says:

    Excellent post, I never knew some of these secrets, I’ll implement them in my codes πŸ™‚
    Thanks! πŸ˜‰

  34. Although nothing beats quality one-way links.

  35. Chetan says:

    Court, is there any way how i can contact you for having my blog theme seo checked?

    Btw you really have some great knowledge in wordpress seo for themes, most people suck at which. Thanks for the article.

    1. Court says:

      Yeah why don’t you shoot me a message through the contact page on my site. πŸ™‚

      1. Chetan says:

        Thanks much πŸ™‚
        Would do the same!

  36. trigatch4 says:

    You should have just said, “download the All In One SEO pack.” Everything else is fluff.

    1. Pete says:

      Fluff = overloading the page with keywords.

      Not really black-hat, but definitely not so innocent. And it probably works. You decide whether it’s ethical πŸ™‚

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  38. Blaine says:

    Opps doubled up there, feel free to delete … my bad.
    Quick note though, Im not to big on the all-in-one seo pack, its a great plugin but I am lazy and it requires a lot configuration in comparison to other plugins. I perfer add-meta, it does a really great job and it’s automatic, I love it. I expanded on this post over at my blog, but let me say great job Court! Hmm .. more shameless self promotion I am sure Mr Chow will drag me out back and make me shit my pants .. great video BTW.

  39. Great article Court! I agree with you and others that, All-in-one SEO is a must-have plugin.

    1. Syed Balkhi says:

      Yes All-In SEO is a must have plugin … and alot of people need to learn how to customize it because people just install it and let the default version run.

  40. lucy says:

    I like you a lot but I was looking for internet marketing in google and your site is not even in the #50 rank. πŸ™„

  41. johnd says:

    I have been recommending WordPress to my clients as being google-bot friendly. Your post is a wake-up call. Next week I’ll start optimizing their sites using your tips. Thanks!
    Take the 7 day challenge. Make more money from your website!

    1. Its not “friendly” it just has some nice built in features like permalinks and there are easy and free seo plugins for it.

  42. Bill Stevens says:

    Thanks Court. This came at a perfect time as I’m creating a WordPress theme for the first time and I keep reading about making themes SEO-worthy. Of course the next question I had was, what makes a WordPress theme SEO’d? Not in general terms either, I’m looking for details upon details. This has helped tremendously. Thanx!!

  43. Syed Balkhi says:

    I can’t believe you missed on the fact how so many designers put the sidebar before the content … when they have the sidebar on the left hand side.

    Yes I agree tags and others are a thing that needs to be worked on with.

  44. I agree but all this so greek for a novice user

  45. Chris says:

    “Multiple use/poor use of the H1 tag. H1 tags are only meant to be used once on each page. Also, many themes don’t use keywords in the H1, even though that would provide a search benefit.”

    uhm, no. just, no. Read the W3 spec before you make such nonsense claims.

  46. Tony says:

    Thanks for this.
    I’m just starting with WordPress. Still struggling with setting up theme to look the way I want. This SEO stuff will come next.

  47. Lisa Page says:

    Great tips. Do you know if this will work with wordpress 2.5? I just upgraded yesterday.

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