When I tell people that I am an SEO consultant, one of the most common responses that I get is people saying, “Oh, SEO! I have that on my website, it’s the thing with the green lights, right?” And that’s when I know that those people have the Yoast SEO plugin installed on their site.

However, I always get a little bit concerned when that’s the response, because just getting green lights on your website or installing a plug into your website isn’t necessarily all that you need to do in order to see results. It’s like saying, “Oh, Facebook, I have a Facebook business page!” But having a Facebook page is not enough. It’s not about setting up the page, it’s about the information that you put on it. And the value of the information that you put into the system will determine your results.

So this post is dedicated to making the best use of the Yoast SEO plugin on your WordPress website, and how to make sure that you don’t get lulled into a false sense of security that you’re doing everything you can, when you haven’t taken all the steps.

What is the Yoast SEO Plug-in?

If you have a WordPress website, you’ve probably heard of the Yoast SEO plugin. After all, it’s been downloaded over 200 million times and it’s active on over a million different websites. The Yoast SEO plug in is sort of the default in the SEO space have, you go to the plugin menu and type “SEO” and that’s the first option.

It can be a really great tool to remind you of specific things that you need to do on every page of your website, it will give you a little prompts to say, “Hey, let’s make sure that your keyword is in your SEO title. And oh, you forgot to include a link here. And hey, you don’t have any alt text here. So make sure to include an image with alt text.” It’s a really great little prompting reminder service.

But the Yoast plugin is not a strategy, it is a tool.

There’s a difference between a tool that can follow a certain set of protocols and be a checklist for you to double check your work, and the strategy that will help you get better results.

Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean. When I first started as a web designer, I wrote this blog post about the difference between WordPress & Squarespace, with a metaphor working all the way through the blog post about how WordPress is sort of like Legos, where it has all of these different pieces. And there are blueprints you can follow. But really you could build anything with it. Whereas Squarespace is more like a coloring book, you have the template, but you can decide how it looks at the end of the day, you can make adjustments to the themes that they have, to the way that things are laid out to make it still feel like you but you can’t really call her too much outside the lines. And I wanted to make this example so that way people who were not that tech savvy would understand the difference of how versatile WordPress can be. But if you don’t want the versatility, there is another great option where space can be versatile do me wrong, but compared to WordPress, it doesn’t have nearly as much as much customizable functionality.

After I’d written the blog post, I turned on my Yoast because I know that I should always go into Yoast as I’m getting ready to publish something. And I wanted to make sure that I was doing okay for SEO and it said what’s your target keyword? And I said, Legos. Because I thought, “WordPress is like Legos. And that’s a great keyword!”

iI optimize the entire post for the word Legos — I put the word in the SEO title, in the headlines, in the images, I made sure that the word Legos was everywhere. And Yoast gave a green light, and it made me feel great about the work that I was doing.

But the blog post was not about Legos. It was about WordPress and Squarespace.

I was given this false sense of security that I had done everything right for SEO just because I got the green light.

So before you start stressing out about getting ranked green lights onto all of your pages, there are a few disclaimers I want to put in place:

  1. Not every page on your website needs to be optimized for search. If you have a landing page where you’re driving traffic from social media or from a guest blog post, and you just want us very short page where you can collect email addresses, you don’t need that to show up in Google search results. So don’t feel like you need to get that to a green light in order to have your website pass a magical test doesn’t matter at all, whether your every page on your website is green, or if they’re all red does not matter at all.
  2. Every SEO-focused page should have keywords assigned to it. Once you’ve identified which pages you want to have show up in search results, before you even think about Yoast, it’s time to do some keyword research. Every SEO-friendly page or post on your site could have 3-5 different phrases that you want to rank for! You do not have to select only one specific phrase that you repeat over and over and over and over again. You can choose three or four different phrases that all mean the same thing and optimize the page for variations on that. Make sure that every page that you have on your website (that you want to show up in search results) has some sort of keyword in mind. If you’re not sure what that is think to yourself. If I were looking for this page, what would I go search for.
  3. You don’t need a green light on every page on your website. Even if it’s being optimized for search, you have my full permission to write something that people want to read. That’s the most important consideration — don’t get so stuck on the keywords that the whole thing gets awkward. Writing comes first. Then, once you’ve written something enjoyable to read, you cansneak keywords into specific places. So if you can get yourself to the orange or amber color on specific things, but you feel like you’re getting a little bit stuck about how to get that one phrase into five different places on that blog post. I give you permission to let go of the perfectionism and to write something that people want to read and that you think people will be interested in. Which is more important to your content than just getting those green lights and one more thing:
  4. Yoast does not communicate with Google directly. Some people think you put the focus keyword in Yoast, and then Yoast reports the focus keyword to Google, but that’s not how it works! Yoast is a checklist, it makes sure that your keyword is in specific places. But you can rank very well for a page that has no Yoast information in it at all. Yoast is just reminding you to write your SEO title, and encouraging you to make adjustments to your text. But if you turn off Yoast, you can still absolutely rank for things.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at Yoast!

How to use the Yoast SEO Plugin

Let me show you how to use this super powerful tool. So here we are behind the scenes of my website, I’m giving you guys kind of a sneak peek of how this all works.

How to install the Yoast plugin

The first thing that you need to do is you can come on over is to install the plugin. In your WordPress dashboard, click on plug-ins then add new. You can just type in “SEO” and the first one that shows up is the Yoast SEO plugin; click to install it, activate it.

Yoast SEO in the Plugin Marketplace

As soon as it’s activated, you’ll see an addition to your sidebar that says SEO.

Yoast general sitewide settings

On that left sidebar click “SEO” to check out your general settings. I like to start this process by coming down to search appearance and making some decisions about how I want my website content to look in Google search results. So if I have the name of my website automatically being added to the end of a blog post, what do I want as the default?

Choosing a title separator

Personally I like a “pipe,” which is the name for the up-down | symbol — I like this because it takes up very little vertical space so you might be able to squeeze more characters into your SEO title! — but depending on your brand voice, you may prefer dots, colons, em dashes or en dashes. (Finally all those university punctuation classes pay off!) That will set the sitewide default settings; if you want to make changes to specific blog posts or pages, you can edit those details on specific pages.

Organization/company name

Your organization name is the part that shows up automatically as the default at the end of all your blog posts; for example, mine is “Love At First Search | SEO Training and Services.” When I have a shorter blog post title or don’t set a specific title, that will show up at the end of all my pages. Sometimes it gets cut off (the max length for an SEO title is ~67 characters) but Google indexes past the truncation (usually about 80 pages), so it can be a good way to get your brand name, specialty, or location into an extra spot on Google.

Content types

Depending on how you organize your content, you can choose which content types you want to show in the search results.

Take a look at your WordPress organization practices. If you write pages and posts, make sure those are set to be indexed. If you have a Portfolio, you’ll also see an option to show individual projects, and if you’re running WooCommerce, you’ll also see options for products.

This site has all four options, and because I’m running all these different content types, I’m turning them ALL to visible:

Media: Although Yoast suggests setting URLs to attachments, I respectfully disagree. I suggest turning off the Media attachment URLs, because I like my images to compliment the content, and when the default setting is to open in another window, I think it can be really distracting if you accidentally click!

You can still optimize those images for SEO, but if you create a whole ‘nother page for them it could compete against the post they’re in.

Taxonomies (aka categories & tags): Depending on how you use categories and tags, you may want these on (if you want people to see long pages of the posts in a certain category) or you may want to turn them off (if you have specific posts you use as cornerstone content for each category.)

Personally I suggest using Categories but not Tags, so for all my content types (posts, projects & products) I have categories on but tags turned off.

Archives (author & date): If you have multiple people posting on your site and you want people to find everything that a certain author writes, leave this on. If you’re the only one writing for your site, then turn this off because it would just be a list of your whole blog, not really necessary.

And if you have time-sensitive blogs, you may want to keep your date archives enabled so that people can find that post from May 2015 … but since I focus exclusively on evergreen content, I disable this on my site:

Optimizing a specific page or post with Yoast

When you have a specific page open, that’s when an SEO plug-in can really show it’s usefulness.

Once you have your post written in a way that people actually want to read it, load it into WordPress, then head up to the little “Y” above the publish button to take a look at Yoast’s suggestions. The right sidebar will fill up with ideas of ways to optimize your post.

First things first: For your Focus Keyphrase, choose a very simple keyword. The shorter and simpler you make it, the easier it will be to use variations of the term in multiple phrases without Yoast freaking out.

As soon as that focus keyword is entered, click on “SEO Analysis” and you’ll see little colored bullets show up:

This checklist will give you advice about making adjustments to the page, and as you update the post, the suggestions will change in real time.

It will also give some advice about your content tags, like:

  • checking the length of your SEO title and meta description, so they don’t get cut off in Google search results for being too long
  • key phrase density — aka how frequently the phrase shows up within the document — so that it doesn’t look to Google like you’re “keyword stuffing” by saying the same phrase on repeat too much!

Yoast will also give you tips about your links, specifically:

  • suggesting that you include outbound links to other sites around the internet)
  • adding inbound links to other pages or posts on your site
  • and the words you use to link (like not using your key phrase in your anchor text to another page).

All of these suggestions are really great SEO advice! In fact, I include all of them in my SEO blog post checklist. But remember that no checklist can make up for choosing the wrong keyword, so make sure to start all of this with a solid round of keyword research as part of a thoughtful content strategy.

Yoast Readability Analysis

Yoast also makes suggestions about how to make it easier for your visitors to read your blog post.

Yoast uses the Flesch reading score to let you know the “grade level” difficulty of your writing, with higher scores being easier to read. They say that 90+ is understood by a 5th grader, 60-70 are at the 8th grade level, and 0-30 are college-level.

Inclusivity disclaimer: These “reading levels” are assessed for North American educated white males, who may have different experiences that your audience.

The key things you can do to make your blog easier to read:

  • shorten your sentences (run-ons are hard)
  • use more common, easier words when possible (like Mark Twain says, “don’t use a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do”

But also: recognize what YOUR audience needs, and what your writing style sounds like … even if it means not getting the green light.

I write about some pretty complex topics here so I often don’t get a green light the Readability test, since SEO can be a little heavy on the jargon! I still try to stick to the “explain things simply and use short sentences/paragraphs” rule, but sometimes I need to explain things that push me out of the “easy-to-read” level.

And I also really like to write sentences in parallels, meaning that I frequently use the same phrases to start multiple consecutive sentences … and I get penalized for this style choice. But I’m not going to stop writing the way that I love, because I think it’s way more fun to read when I set up a joke the right way.

In other words: Know your audience — if you have a lot of non-native speakers, don’t fill your blog up with idioms that don’t translate into other languages. Write for how THEY want to read, not just some rules that Yoast gives you.

And before we wrap this up, I have one question that comes up for me all the time. I want to answer it really quickly here, especially because I’m frugal and don’t want you to spend money on tools that you don’t need.

Is Yoast Premium worth it?

And the answer is “No, you probably don’t need it.”

And here’s why. There are four things that are included in the Yoast premium variation of the plugin:

  1. Synonyms: The way that I teach keyword research is that you should have multiple variations of different keywords that you include in various places. Yoast doesn’t really like that structure, because it’s much harder to check for them and make sure that they’re in all those places on your content. But if you take my permission that you don’t need to be a green light, you don’t need to feed different synonyms to Yoast to fit into your checklist. You can just write what you want to write with those keyword variations. And you don’t need to tell Yoast what those synonyms are. Again, Yoast does not ever report back to Google and tell them what those keywords are. That’s just for your use internally. So you don’t need the related keywords or the synonyms function that comes with Yoast premium.
  2. Internal links: The free version of Yoast will remind you to add internal links to other posts you’ve already written; Premium will give you some suggestions of posts that might be related. But you might not need that either. You probably know what you were talking about that you’ve previously talked about. And if you’re just thinking about this as a way to think about your internal linking structure, I would rather use plugin like LinkWhisper, instead of having Yoast to try to do everything.
  3. Automatic 301 Redirection: if you move your blog post, or you change the slug, which is the part that comes after your domain where it’s located, Yoast premium will automatically set up that redirect it will say, “Oh, the page used to be here and now it’s here.” But you can do that yourself with another plugin. There are plenty of plugins out there called 301 redirection or redirection or pretty links; find a free redirection tool and you can do it yourself and some of those will automatically do it for you without needing to pay like 100 bucks a year.
  4. Keyword variations: In this case, Yoast can double-check similar words and include them into your keyword checklist; so if you use the word lawyer & legal, they’d recognize that’s a similar keyword, and will count it towards your “green light” score. But I’m telling you: You don’t need someone else’s permission to do that. You don’t need need someone else to do extra work to give you those green light validations your good writer, write the way that your people want to read. And that will help Google find you.

So there you go, I just saved your 90 bucks. You’re welcome.

So there is my review of the Yoast SEO plugin! It is a very powerful tool that you can use to make sure that your keywords are in all the right places. And as long as you have a solid keyword research strategy in place when you’re going into it, it can be very helpful to have those reminder tips.

If you want a copy of my blog post SEO checklist, grab the free SEO Starter Kit: