SEO plugins such as Yoast and Rank Math help WordPress sites rank, but what happens when they don’t? There’s more to SEO than simply installing a plugin.

The other week, a friend and fellow tech journalist posted about their recent frustrations with Google, after enduring more than 40 days of one of the longest and most difficult Google Core Updates in memory (or System Updates; I’ve given up working out what Google officially calls them).

He said:

“Has Google hit sites (especially local journalism sites) that use standard SEO measuring tools like Yoast SEO and Rank Math SEO? Either way, it’s replaced relevant Search results with junk, overseas content, incorrect content, duplicate listings and commercial partner content in its place. Is it now toxic to use Rank Math? Is Yoast any better?”

It’s an interesting question, largely because so many web publishers use tools such as Yoast, Rank Math and even All-in-one-SEO, because of the platform they rely on: WordPress.

WordPress is big

According to W3 Techs, WordPress accounts for 43.3 percent of all websites. It’s a staggering amount by any measure, and one that likely places WordPress as the chief content management system (CMS). Developers and publishers don’t have to use WordPress, of course; there are other CMSes out there, or they can always elect to build their own bespoke platforms. Alternatively, they can even code websites directly. But a CMS makes life easier by storing editable chunks of content in a database, while supplying you with the tools to access and edit the content more easily. 

The popularity of CMSes like WordPress is largely down to what is familiarly called the WYSIWYG interface (What You See Is What You Get), which makes editing and maintaining a website simple enough for almost anyone without having to learn code.

This article is scheduled to be published on May 27, 2024 – which is coincidentally  WordPress’s 21st birthday. WordPress is now old enough to drink in the US, making it one of the oldest content management systems around – and in that time, it has grown in leaps and bounds.

It’s free, customisable and downright excellent.

WordPress is widely used not only by small publishers, but also businesses aplenty, right up to major enterprises. The Sydney Morning Herald uses it. News Ltd’s uses it. TechCrunch, Time Magazine, CNN, Wired, Vogue, Variety and plenty of others all use it.

WordPress and SEO

Managing and optimising the SEO of your website isn’t a core capability of the WordPress package. But there are plenty of plugins that can provide you with the necessary tools. While these plugins may appear similar on the surface, under the hood, they go about the job in their own different ways. 

Yoast likely leads the pack, but Rank Math is solid, and there are others I’ve missed, too.

At its most simple, a WordPress SEO plugin adds the formatting and additional code elements to your web pages and content that SEO practitioners consider to be best practice – making life a little bit easier for you. 

It typically adds the OpenGraph data and protocols to your code. It may add some structured data. It can analyse your page to see if your intended target phrase or keyword is clearly signposted to the search engines. And it can provide ways to help you index and control the content balance that you submit to Google.

But SEO plugins are not the be-all and end-all for a site’s push to have great SEO, despite what many might believe. Unfortunately, I’ve heard the same line several times from clients:

“I have Yoast installed. My SEO is fine.”

Okay, but there’s more to it than that. The tool formats your pages, but it doesn’t understand what your specific situation needs. It doesn’t understand your website.

The tool doesn’t understand what you’re doing wrong, or conversely, what else you need to do to put things right.

Simply put, are you sending the right signals to Google?

Repeat after me: An SEO plugin is not a silver bullet. It is not the responsibility of the tool to look for other components that will improve your ranking, nor will it necessarily be able to explain what Google is doing at any one time. That last one changes all the time, and sometimes an SEO practitioner wonders whether Google even knows what it is doing collectively, given so many systems are being merged.

How to do SEO on WordPress well

Every site is different. A good approach to SEO is to work out what your site could do better to improve the right signals, which in turn improves your ranking chances.

It’s not as simple as “install a tool and move on”. That’s too basic.

Instead, consider the following questions a handy checklist to assess whether your website’s SEO is solid, whether you use WordPress or not:

  • Is your content written well? 
  • Does your content have a clear purpose or intent? 
  • Is the title clear and relevant to the content?
  • If you have an SEO plugin installed or something handling your SEO, is the title and description written differently than the standard title and description?
  • Does your content include links, both internally and externally, as part of a strategy consistently applied through the entire site?

If you can answer all of these questions comfortably, you’re on the path to effective SEO without relying wholly on a plugin. 

However, if you’re struggling with SEO, placing the burden of fixing it solely on an SEO plugin isn’t likely to get you very far. You need to ask yourself, “What else are you doing?”.

If the answer is nothing, it’s time to talk to an SEO professional. The plugin isn’t your problem, nor is it the solution. Your SEO woes are likely down to something else – perhaps even Google itself. But you’ll probably need an expert to help you work that out.