One of the plugins we suggest in 7 Free Must-Have WordPress Plugins is Yoast SEO. Yoast has a ton of great features to help you get your search engine optimization on track. It also makes it much easier to manage and add things that normally require messing around with code, like preventing pages being indexed by Google.
Yoast also has some features that rate you based on a series of traffic lights, with green being good, orange being okay, and red being room for improvement.
(Side note: This blog post is a shorter version of a lesson in our affordable search engine optimization course, Navigating SEO! If you want to learn everything you need to know to DIY your own search engine optimization, check it out!)
The covetable green lights can be an endless source of frustration for bloggers. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Yoast just ranks you using a series of automated rules. And those rules are based on an educated guess of what Google uses to rank sites. It doesn’t directly or necessarily correlate, and Google is far more advanced than Yoast.
Green lights are an indicator you’re on the right track, but you don’t want to do things that don’t make sense just to please Yoast, or spend hours working on readibility if your post is already easy to read.
Getting an orange or red light doesn’t mean your SEO is bad, or that you won’t rank as well in Google. In fact, several of them don’t really matter; they aren’t all equal. Here’s what’s important and what’s not.
Readability – Readability in Yoast is one of the things people get most hung up on, as it’s easy to score red or orange and hard to fix. If your content is easy to read and your spelling and grammar are good, skip this light altogether. There’s no need to change your style or wording to satisfy Yoast’s automated rule: just stick to being you.
Flesch Reading Ease – Yoast draws on a standardised system to check how easy your content is to read. This can be a good indicator of whether your content is easy to understand and skim, but it does depend on the topic, and the level of complexity your audience expects. Write for your own audience and what suits your niche. You can likely skip this light altogether.
Not enough content – Yoast checks that you have at least 50 characters of content on the page. This is a bit of a weird check, because you want a lot more text than that to avoid thin content. If you have a red light on this, it’s more likely that Yoast isn’t picking up your content rather than because your page is too short. Google is far more likely to see and assess the correct amount of content than Yoast is.
Transition words – According to Yoast, these are words like ‘most importantly’, ‘because’, ‘therefore’, or ‘besides’ which can make reading easier and hold your readers’ attention. These have no direct effect on SEO, there’s no proof they help, and so this check can be ignored.
Passive voice – Passive voice is when you describe something in a detached way. For example, you could say “I fixed my website,” (active) or “My website got fixed,” (passive). Or “My friend is a great cook,” vs. “The great cooking was the responsibility of my friend.” Generally, passive voice doesn’t sound as strong or convincing, takes more effort to understand, and generally requires a greater attention span. While it isn’t a direct SEO factor, passive voice is worth keeping an eye on to ensure your content is easy to read. But, this light can usually be skipped over.
Consecutive sentences – This is a check to see if you start a sentence with the same word three times in a row. While you should aim to keep your text varied so it doesn’t become boring, Google isn’t going to see it as a problem if this happens! As long as you aren’t keyword stuffing, you’re fine. This light isn’t important.
Subheading distribution – This looks at whether you use <h2> and other subheadings in your page content. Subheadings are a significant factor within your on-page content, and a good way to incorporate your keywords while making your pages more user-friendly by breaking up the text. Ideally you want to get green for this light.
Paragraph length – Yoast checks to see if any of your paragraphs are more than 150 words long, as lengthy paragraphs can be difficult to read and your users’ attention may wander. Although shorter paragraphs can be easier to read, especially for mobile users, paragraph length isn’t a direct SEO factor.
Sentence length – Similarly to paragraph length, shorter sentences are usually easier to read. But your content topics and audience are also important things to consider. If you struggle with English (or your chosen language for writing content), this may be a useful guide for you. But sentence length isn’t a direct SEO factor, so don’t worry about it.
Internal links – Links to other relevant, high-quality pages/posts on your website can give them a small SEO boost. Internal linking is a great habit to get into, especially if you use silos. Linking between posts not only helps your visitors navigate and can help to reduce bounce rate, it’s great for your on-page SEO too, so this light is important.
Meta description length – This is a check to see if you’ve set a meta description (which you can do from the Yoast box in your post/page editor, and how long your meta description is. While meta descriptions aren’t as significant as they used to be, it’s good practice to set one and have it around 100-150 characters in length.
Text length – Yoast recommends having at least 300 words on the page. While this isn’t always practical (for example on a Contact page), longer content means you’re less likely to keyword stuff and gives you more opportunity to provide valuable information and keep your visitor engaged longer. Content length and quality are significant on-page factors, so it’s worth spending time on this.
Image ALT attributes – Adding ALT attributes to your image helps people with visual impairments and search engines understand what your images are about. ALT attributes should be added to all your images, so you want a green light on this.
Keyphrase in title – This checks that the keyword/phrase you entered in the focus keyword box can also be found at the beginning of your title. Have your primary keyword at the beginning of the title if possible. If it just doesn’t work, having your main keyword somewhere in your title is better than nothing!
Keyphrase in slug – You won’t get a green light on this if your full keyword doesn’t appear in your page/post slug. Your URL is a great place to add a keyword and it helps indicate to your visitors that your post is what they’re looking for, so you want a green light on this.
Outbound links – If you link out to external websites from your page or post, this will give you a green light on this check. This check doesn’t test for follow/nofollow. Websites naturally link to other websites, so linking out to authoritative (and preferably relevant!) sources is a positive in showing that you’re not being manipulative. But only link out if it makes sense; don’t do it for the sake of getting a green light!
Keyphrase in introduction – This is a check to see if your focus keyword/phrase is found at the beginning of your page/post. It’s a good idea to include your main keyword in your introductory paragraph, and this is a quick fix so worth doing.
Keyphrase length – Yoast checks to see if your main keyword/phrase is 4 words or under. Proper keyword research (see SEO For Bloggers) will dictate how long your main keyword is. Many are 4 words or under, but not all of them are, so you don’t want to restrict yourself to this. A red light on this one is totally fine.
Keyphrase density – Yoast checks to see how many times your main keyword/phrase appears on your page. Keyword density is a bit of a contentious factor with SEOs, with some swearing by studies that show a correlation between better rankings and specific keyword densities, and others arguing you should just write naturally. If you know you lean toward keyword stuffing, a quick density check can help point you in the right direction. However, if you feel like you’ve already sprinkled your keywords in naturally, there’s no point rewriting your post or page to adhere to an arbitrary percentage. This one is a “use your best judgement, but don’t spend too much time on it!” situation.
Previously used keyphrase – This checks your other pages to see if you’ve used this primary keyword before. This check is a bit flawed, because you may have used it as a secondary keyword, so if you’re working in a narrow niche, you may want to keep your own spreadsheet of all the keywords you use and/or rank for just in case. Having multiple pages based around the same main keyword can cause you to compete with – and therefore cannibalize – yourself. Ideally you want each main keyword to be different for each post and page. If you’ve already used it somewhere else, it may be better to update the old one and shift the focus of your new one.
Keyphrase in subheading – This checks to see if your main keyword can be found in your subheading. This is important, as subheadings are a good factor for on-page optimization. It’s worth adding your main keyword if it’s not present already.
SEO title width – This checks that your title isn’t too long; usually up to 60-70 characters is recommended. Your title is an important on-page factor, and should contain your main keyword and an incentive to click through (as long as it doesn’t overpromise and underdeliver!). Having too long a title can stop people clicking through as it can be confusing or rambly.
And that’s a quick run-down of the lights you need to focus on, and the ones you don’t! Hopefully this post helps you with where to spend your time, and things to skip over in favor of creating and promoting your content instead.
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