How to use the Yoast SEO Plugin to grow your blog
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Yoast is a plugin that helps you with SEO, but what does Yoast actually do? How do you set Yoast up correctly? And how do you use Yoast to increase your page views? Read on to discover how to use the Yoast SEO plugin to grow your blog…
Want to know the best, most reliable way I have found to grow my blog? SEO!
Want to know the best tool to help you with SEO? Yoast!
But oh my goodness Yoast throws up some headaches for many people. There’s a lot to get your head round and a bit of a fear that you might be accidentally messing something up by fiddling with it (which actually is quite possible).
Plus, there’s quite a lot of misinformation floating around on social media (like all you need to do is get the plugin and it will magically do SEO for you – NOT TRUE!!).
So, I have written this short guide to help you learn to use the Yoast plugin to help you get better at SEO and so grow your blog. Please rest assured I have checked all my facts with the Yoast website, which has a fabulous knowledge base which you can access to check anything that isn’t answered in this article.
Just to be clear, this article is a beginners’ guide to Yoast and assumes you have no knowledge and so I have started right from the beginning. If you already have Yoast and know you have it set up correctly, skip to the later sections of this article where I go more into detail about how to actually use Yoast to grow your blog and increase your page views. But first let’s start with the basics…
What is Yoast?
Yoast is a plugin that you can use on self-hosted WordPress blogs to helps you to improve your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).
If you don’t know much about SEO then I suggest you read my Beginner’s guide to SEO first and then come back here to discover more about the Yoast plugin and how to use it.
I believe you can also access the Yoast plugin from the hosted version of WordPress (WordPress.com), but you need to pay for the premium version. I would strongly advise you look into self-hosting your blog rather than upgrading your hosted blog to the premium version. It will serve you better in the long run.
For an explanation of the difference between self-hosted and hosted and how to decide which one is better, check out this post: Hosted vs self-hosted: which is best for your blog?
For help in actually setting up a self-hosted WordPress blog, check out this post: How to start a successful WordPress blog – a step by step guide
How do you get the Yoast SEO plugin?
If you don’t have it already, the first thing to do is to get the Yoast SEO plugin. You get the plugin in the exact same way you get any free plugin: Go to your WordPress dashboard. Hover over PLUGINS on the left-hand side and then select ADD NEW. Type YOAST into the search box in the top right and then INSTALL NOW and ACTIVATE.
How do you set up the Yoast SEO plugin?
Once you have installed and activated the Yoast SEO plugin, you will now see a new section in the black panel on your WordPress dashboard called SEO. Click that to access the settings.
Most of the setup is done for you and so I strongly advise that you don’t touch anything you don’t understand, as you may cause yourself SEO problems by doing so!
However, there are one or two things you SHOULD do to finish the setup process.
The first thing is to navigate to GENERAL => WEBMASTER TOOLS. This is the place where you can verify your site with Google, Bing etc. Yoast make it very easy to do this. For example, with Google, simply click on the ‘Get your Google verification code in Google Search Console’ and then select the html code option and copy and paste the code into the box on the Yoast Plugin. And remember to save changes!
For more detailed instructions on this check out the section below on adding your site to Google Search Console.
The second thing to do is navigate to SOCIAL => ACCOUNTS and fill in the details of all your blog’s social media accounts. This lets search engines know which social profiles are associated with your website. Twitter requires you to put in the actual user name e.g. ebgargano (no @ symbol), all the others require you to put in the full URL e.g. https://instagram.com/productiveblogging Simply fill in all the required information and hit SAVE.
Next you should navigate to SOCIAL => FACEBOOK and ensure the OPEN GRAPH METADATA is set to ENABLED. This will allow Facebook and other social media to display a preview with images and a text excerpt when a link to your site is shared. To create an image for your home page, go to the FRONTPAGE SETTINGS section and add an image, title and description. This will be what appears every time you share your homepage on social media. (Without filling this in you usually either get something really random or nothing at all). Also fill in the DEFAULT SETTINGS with an image that you wish to appear if you share a page on your site that has no images associated with it.
Navigate to the SOCIAL => TWITTER section and ensure the TWITTER CARD META DATA is enabled and you have selected your default card type as SUMMARY WITH LARGE IMAGE.
The SOCIAL => PINTEREST section is where you can verify your website with Pinterest. Just click the confirm your site with Pinterest link and you will be taked to the CLAIM YOUR WEBSITE area of Pinterest. Enter your website URL and click on CLAIM WEBSITE. Select the ADD HTML TAG option. Copy the tag and paste it into the box on the Yoast Pinterest tab.
That’s it for now!
If you have more time, head over to my post on how to set up the Yoast SEO plugin PROPERLY for a step by step guide to how to set up every section the Yoast plugin for maximum SEO benefit!
How do you use Yoast to optimize individual blog posts?
Yoast does lots of helpful things in the background to optimize your blog for search engines. But the main part where you get involved is in using Yoast to help you optimize each blog post.
Once you have installed the Yoast plugin, you will notice you get a box that looks like this at the end of each post.
Once you have written your post you should come down here and start checking things and filling things in.
The first thing to do is fill in the FOCUS KEYPHRASE section. This is your keyword or keyword phrase (it can, and usually should be, more than one word). This will help Yoast help you to ensure your post is optimized for that keyword/keyword phrase. If you don’t know much about keywords, head over to my Beginner’s guide to keyword research to discover more about keywords.
The next thing to note is that Yoast will give you a GOOGLE PREVIEW. This is how your site will most likely look in search engine results.
The first thing you can change is the SEO TITLE. Don’t do this unless there is a really good reason why you want the title that appears in search engine results to be different to the title which appears at the top of your post. If you decide you actually want to change the title of your post, do this in the normal way in the title section of the blog post editing screen.
Something you might want to change is the SLUG – the post specific part of your URL (NB only do this if your post is not yet published or you will break all the links to your post). You don’t have to change it, but you might want to if you feel it is to long or too short. One thing you should always do is, where possible, ensure your focus keyword phrase is in your URL.
Next, we have the META DESCRIPTION. You do want to change this to ensure your keyword phrase is in the meta description and that the meta description is enticing searchers on search engines to click through. Otherwise, by default, it will usually pull the first line or two of your post which may not always work well as a meta description.
Now close your snippet editor by clicking the CLOSE SNIPPET EDITOR button.
Now comes the most important part. The SEO analysis. This part of the Yoast plugin helps you to ensure your post is optimized for SEO. Don’t worry about making every light go green. Just aim to do as much as you can do to get a green light overall.
Just occasionally it may not make sense to do everything possible to get a green light overall either. In that case I would always prioritize making my post suitable for my readers over getting a green light. Remember the green lights are simply helpful suggestions as to how you could improve your SEO, you can ignore them if you feel that it would not be beneficial to your post to follow them.
OK, so what sort of things does it look for?
It will highlight where the focus keyword appears and where you still need to put it. The main areas it will suggest you should put your focus keyphrase are: the URL, the title, the first paragraph, the meta description, at least one subheading and alt descriptions of your photos/graphics. Do check your keyphrase is in all of those places and change things if necessary (though not your URL if it the post has already been published).
It will also highlight if you have used the keyphrase enough times within your post. This is usually an easy thing to fix, simply go back through and add your keyphrase in a few extra times – but keep it natural. It’s better to not get a green light for this part than make your post sound weird!!
And finally, it will highlight if you have used this keyphrase before. You should have a different keyphrase phrase for each blog post.
READ MORE >>> A beginner’s guide to keyword research for bloggers
READ MORE >>> Keyword research step by step (plus FREE keyword research calculator!)
READ MORE >>> FREE KEYWORD RESEARCH TRAINING
It will check to see if your post is over 300 words. For most of us, that’s not a problem. But if you are prone to writing very short blog posts that’s something you may need to look at.
Yoast will check for both internal and outbound links. Ideally you should have both. You should certainly ensure you always include some internal links (i.e. a link to another post or page on your site) to try and keep visitors on your site for longer. This is very important for SEO
Remember, you don’t need to do absolutely everything on this section of the Yoast plugin. Just aim to do as many of these things as possible and to get a green traffic light OVERALL.
One important point to note: every now and again Yoast can be a little bit buggy and sometimes you can do everything correctly, but it still shows up as a red or orange light. Don’t worry. What counts is whether you have done it or not, not if you have a green light. In this case, just check it’s done and ignore the lights.
Below the SEO ANALYSIS, you will see a section that says CORNERSTONE CONTENT. Click on this section and you will see a toggle which allows you to mark a post as cornerstone content. Should you toggle this on? You can, but ONLY IF what you have written is, in fact, cornerstone content. Cornerstone content is essentially your most important posts, the ones you really want to rank for on search engines. Your most comprehensive and authoritative content. The 4 or 5 posts you would ideally like someone to read when they first visit your website.
But that’s not all, to flag up to Google that something is cornerstone content you need to ensure your cornerstone content has lots of internal links pointing at it. Google sees the posts which have the most internal links pointing towards them as the most important content on your website. So you need to make sure your cornerstone posts get the most internal links.
This is such an important part of SEO strategy that the Yoast SEO plugin includes an option to indicate whether or not an article is cornerstone content.
If you flag the post as ‘cornerstone’, using the checkbox, then the Yoast plugin will make additional checks on the internal posts that link to that article and give you extra suggestions about how to improve the visibility of this content in search engines. Essentially what this means is that the criteria for getting green lights becomes stricter… for example the minimum word count becomes 900 words, not 300 words.
READ MORE >>> How to use cornerstone content to increase blog traffic
You will notice there is also a READABILITY tab next to the SEO analysis tab. This section analyses how SEO friendly your blog post is from a readability point of view.
Please bear in mind three facts. 1) It is a computer that is checking your readability, not a real person. 2) It is just a guide. It gives you some helpful pointers, but by slavishly following them you could make your content LESS readable not more readable. 3) It’s a one size fits all tool. But readability is obviously going to be variable depending on your audience.
Readability will mean something very different depending on whether your blog audience is: teenagers / academics / sleep deprived parents / adults with learning difficulties / English students / very niche with a topic that contains lots of jargon and complex phrases….
The idea is that Yoast gives you some pointers to help you make your text more readable. The fact is that I studied languages at university and beyond and taught English to high level language students for many years and I often disagree with his section of Yoast. So, don’t be afraid to leave this section orange or even red if you feel you text IS perfectly readable to your intended audience.
It does, however, give you some ideas to think about such as:
- Have you used enough subheadings?
- Are any of your sentences/paragraphs too long and wordy?
- Have you begun your sentences with the same word too many times?
- Have you used the passive voice too much?
- Have you used plenty of transition words (and, but, because, consequently, probably etc.)?
But really don’t be afraid to ignore an individual red light (or even have a red light overall) if you feel that your text is already easy to read for your intended audience. If you find yourself getting a lot of red lights every time, though, it might be worth looking into this a bit more, or getting a friend to read it and see if you need to make some changes to your style.
READ MORE >>> How to use the Yoast SEO plugin to optimize a blog post
READ MORE >>> How to get a good readability score in Yoast
How do you use Yoast SEO sitemaps?
The other great feature of Yoast is sitemaps. When you install the Yoast plugin, it will automatically create a sitemap of your site. You can submit this to Google Search Console in order to ensure it has an accurate sitemap of your website and can index it correctly. Better still, this sitemap is automatically updated as you add, remove or change your content.
First go to the Yoast SEO plugin and double check you have sitemaps enabled. You can check that by going to GENERAL => FEATURES and scrolling down until you find XML sitemaps. Ensure this is set to ON.
Adding your website to Google Search Console
Next, if you haven’t already added your website to Google Search Console, please follow these steps first. If these steps fail, please check Google’s official directions here for the most up to date steps. (If you have already added all 4 versions of your website to Google Search Console you can skip this part.)
Sign in to Google Search Console, using your usual google account and click ADD A PROPERTY. Type in your website URL in its 4 variations:
Each time, it will ask you to verify your website. Select the HTML option and copy the code. Paste this code into the Yoast plugin in GENERAL => WEBMASTER TOOLS in the GOOGLE VERIFICATION CODE section and save changes. (You only need to do this for the first variation.)
Now go back to the Google search console and click verify. You will need to do this for each of the 4 variations of your URL.
Adding your sitemap to Google Search Console
Now you are ready to add your sitemap.
- On your Google Search Console home page, select your website URL (any of the 4 versions).
- In the left sidebar, click INDEX => SITEMAPS
- Type in sitemap_index.xml where it says ‘enter sitemap URL’.
- Click SUBMIT
- Click REFRESH THE PAGE and you should now see your sitemap
- Repeat for each of the 4 variations of your URL
READ MORE >>> How to use Google Search Console to grow your blog traffic
Well done! By doing all the steps above, you are well on your way to improving your SEO. However, Yoast is only one part of SEO. To find out what else you should be doing head over to my Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
SEO Jargon Buster
Want to understand SEO better but confused by the terminology? Then you need my SEO Jargon Buster!
- How to set up the Yoast SEO plugin PROPERLY
- The 10 essential elements of a successful blog post
- 12 things you MUST do before you hit publish on your blog post
- How to get your website on the first page of Google
- Is Yoast SEO Premium worth paying for?
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I can see I’ll be coming back to this post for tips time and time again! I’ve had the Yoast plug in for a while and it is a huge help. I’m in the process of going through all of my old posts and making sure they are green for both readability and SEO. Since I have been doing this I have definitely seen improvements with my blog. I didn’t know about the cornerstone stuff though. I am quite lucky that my husband is quite into the google stuff etc so he does a lot of that for me!x
Aw, thanks Cat! So pleased you found it useful. Oh you are so lucky that your hubby can help you out with this too!! Eb x
Thanks Eb. I knew I’d pick up something from this post. And I did. I’ve never used ‘cornerstone content’ before as I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. Now I do and will go back and review. Do you know if you should only ever have 4-5 posts with this ticked or can you use it for any that are appropriate?
Thanks Choclette! So pleased you found it useful. I think the answer is any that apply, but it is unlikely there would be much more than half a dozen. This is content you will be constantly linking back to in your posts – real cornerstone pieces of your blog, it’s unlikely you’d have lots and lots of pieces of content like that. Eb x
Great post Eb, very to the point and easy to follow. I’ve actually fixed a few things thanks to this post. Pinned!
Yay! So pleased you found it helpful. Eb 🙂
Super helpful and informative Eb! I have just gone and added 3 more variations of my blog’s url to search console as all I had was https one!!! You live and learn, you read your blog and learn too! Another thing is the cornerstone content, I had no idea what it was all about and now I do. THANK YOU! 🙂 x
Aw, thanks Jo! So pleased you are finding my blog useful. 😀 Eb x
A very helpful post and I’ve implemented some of the suggestions to my Yoast plugin. Unfortunately I can’t seem to add the meta tag for Google verification as I keep getting an error message – any ideas?
So pleased you found this helpful. Strange that you can’t add the meta tag. I’ve never had a problem with that before and I’m not sure what that could be – perhaps contact Yoast for help? Eb x
Ok wicked, so Yoast isn’t as scary as I first thought then – hopefully!
Quick question about the site mapping… Is this something that I shouldn’t worry about until my site is actually live or might as well i do it now? I havn’t read your search console post yet as i was going to leave that until a little later so I don’t have that all set up yet…
Yay! So pleased you are finding less scary than you first thought 😀 Re: sitemaps – DEFINITELY wait until your site is live before submitting one! Eb x