Start Your Blog With The Right SEO Theme
One of the most important questions I get asked daily is “how do I choose a WordPress Theme?” People searching for a theme for their blog usually get impressed by graphics and animation, huge galleries that impress in the first view, sexy fonts and impressive colors.
Many also buy SEO Friendly themes just because they are labeled as this, thinking this is true.
I will never stop saying, do not blindly trust theme authors when they say their theme is SEO friendly. All those are very good things. In the description above there is everything that we usually use to choose the right theme for our website, however those are not the things we should keep in consideration.
What You Will Learn In This Article:
- An overview on what kind of templates exist
- How to evaluate a template for your project
- How to understand if a template is good under the SEO profile
- What you will need to work in the best way possible
Let’s Start With The Right First Step
The first step is really simple. When you work on your blog you should understand what your needs are. The kinds of needs you get are:
- Responsive theme
- SEO basic setup of the theme
- Internal page SEO and strategies
- Code quality for better performance
- Compatibility with plugin
- Readability of the blog
- Animation and special effects
When you choose a template you should see how this template works before choosing the design.
If you want to perform a professional evaluation you should analyze many, many things.
Some of those things you can fix later if you really like the design but you should consider a theme with as little to fix as possible.
Before you buy a theme there is something you should check, because the theme portrays the complete behaviour of your website and Google keeps these things in consideration. You can fix them later but sometimes it costs more to fix them than to choose a good quality theme to begin with.
First Of All Your Theme Must Be Responsive.
It may appear weird that I put this as a first thing to consider, but it doesn’t make sense to do all of the next evaluation without this in place first.
90% of people now read from tablets and phones, most of them find you via social network on mobile devices first.
This happens especially if they became your follower on social networks or rss feeds.
They might switch to a desktop solution to read it later but often this only happens if they are really interested.
And if they can’t read your content, they cannot be interested in what you write.
If your blog is not readable using a mobile you lose a huge part of your possible audience.
Do you still think a responsive design isn’t important?
There are many solutions for implementing a responsive theme with plugins or creating alternative themes/sites, but if you don’t choose a responsive theme you are doubling your work and making it harder for Google to read.
This is something really important and it is clear that Google keeps this seriously in consideration. In this official webmaster guide: https://developers.google.com/webmasters/smartphone-sites/details the responsive design is stated as a recommended configuration.
If you need more convincing, read this article from SEJ about mobile usability and Google webmaster Tools: http://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-webmaster-tools-now-detects-issues-mobile-usability/119368/
You can choose to implement the mobile version later with different HTML configurations and pages or serving a completely different website.
However, even if Google knows how to recognize all of those, the most effective and SEO friendly idea is to have a responsive design. And this also helps your branding because in a responsive design you can maintain your brand design easily.
To Design Or Not To Design?
There are many kinds of designs to choose in WordPress.
You can find simple and free themes or paid and complex templates.
Which is better? In a paid theme you have many advantages like a premium support, usually good documentation and frequent updates.
Quality premium themes also come with PSD files that allow you to design your own graphics with less effort.
However, it is not the free or paid versions that really make the difference and not the high quality design or the ugly old one.
What really makes the difference is the quality of the code and generally in the paid design you can find better-coded themes.
Obviously this happens because when people create a company to sell products they try to do their best to create a better WordPress theme.
Paid themes don’t mean quality however it is easier to find quality among them.
So to make it perfectly clear, if you want to know which one I consider to be the best theme in the market on the SEO side Studiopress is the right choice.
I’m not here to tell you to buy a Studiopress theme.
I want to teach you how to recognize a quality theme and Studiopress is a very good example.
Never Heard About Framework?
Well, I don’t consider Studiopress to have the best designed themes on the market although their code is one of my favorites.
If you choose this kind of theme you should consider making some small graphics and CSS adjustments if you want to make your website more branded.
They use the Genesis framework in a way that makes it the best SEO solution around.
A framework is like a solid base where a developer builds the design, it is a code layer that stands between the final design and WordPress and performs most of the basic functions of the theme.
This doesn’t mean that if a template is based on a framework you should consider it better than a non-framework one.
There are great themes out there not based on a framework, a good example are the Elegant themes and many themes in the Themeforest directory.
But some frameworks are really good and everything is built on them starting from a solid base.
If the base is well made, all the developers work will be easier and they will need to pay less attention to many aspects, like the SEO in this case, and concentrate on the appearance.
When a framework is well done and you need to adapt your website to SEO changes, you just need to update your framework.
This will allow you to perform any update without the need to rebuild your design each time.
Also it makes it easier to code a child theme to control your personal graphics adjustment without ever affect the core.
One of the most annoying things when you set up your branded website is to receive a template update that forces you to re-design your entire website again.
What Makes A Framework So Great?
Genesis has many great features from the simple things to the ones that we should learn to keep in consideration when we evaluate a theme.
However, if you want to evaluate a Framework or a theme itself you should also pay attention to the possibility of extending it with new features if you need.
To do this first you must consider what the future of your website will be.
Who is your audience and what pages and page templates you should create.
Schema.org – The Next Step To Be More Effective
We just mentioned Schema.org and structured data.
They are special codes used by your theme to communicate with search engines using special information.
There are also many plugins in the market like AuthorHreview that implement a review page in your theme with micro formats as Genesis does.
You can also find good shop plugins that do it too.
So micro formats are important but not mandatory in a theme, depending on which kind of website we want to create.
They are used by the four major search engines: Google, Bing, Yandex and Yahoo. And not only this, they can also be useful for some Social Platforms, for example Pinterest who declared implementation of it for their Rich Pins.
Rich snippets allow search engines to create a “special configuration” on the SERP like the ones you can see here in the image below.
There are many rich snippets and more are coming so I am sure you understand that they need to be in place.
SEO Theme Evaluation – How To Buy The Right WordPress Theme.
Now that we have seen some basics it is time to explore in more depth how to evaluate a theme performing a more professional analysis.
I have chosen as my framework VafPress from Themeforest, “] not Genesis.
In some sense I have chosen the appearance and the animation and not the SEO.
However, VafPress is also a good framework and it is simple to arrange with respect to some SEO needs.
In order to know how to perform such analysis we need to get a different level of knowledge to evaluate a theme or a framework and we also need some free tools.
What Do We Want From A Theme On The SEO Side?
First we should do a code evaluation.
In this article I don’t expect you to speak with professional developers, we will perform some basic research so I don’t expect you to discover framework hacks to get around the core function.
Also I won’t be going over many basic SEO aspects that we will cover, just the installation of the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin.
The WordPress SEO plugin sets all the basic things itself, like the canonicalization of a page or a post, titles, Meta descriptions and taxonomies.
These are the things that you should use and you will learn how to do that using this plugin.
You need to install the plugin and it will add some new functions to your admin panel.
It is already setup for this basic operation after the install.
It also adds tabs under your post and page editor that you can use for page SEO purposes.
If the theme or the framework on which the theme is based has all those fields already in place I would recommend keeping it in consideration.
You should also check if it is fully compatibles with the Yoast Plugin.
To do that you just need to do perform a simple search on Google like this: “Name of the framework” Yoast WordPress SEO compatibility issue.
Yoast is a famous plugin, so performing a search like this, including the name of the theme, allows you to understand if someone has reported issues.
Generally WordPress SEO by Yoast doesn’t have compatibility issues with themes, but the last thing you would do is to buy a theme that cannot work with the plugin.
Once you have checked this what we will search are some specific things to evaluate, like the code quality, theme weight and performance.
If you have already read my post about how to choose the best WordPress Hosting you probably understand that speed is an important factor for Google and for customer experience.
If you choose hosting like WpEngine and Siteground (the two I consider to be the best shared hosting for WordPress) you will start with a cached hosting and you have many speed options ready on the server side.
For this reason you should set up a website that helps you to improve this power and not decrease it.
Now it is time to do it seriously.
If you have access to a demo online of the Theme, or the theme itself, you should check the HTML markup validator via the http://validator.w3.org/
Most developers don’t keep it seriously in consideration but it can reveal if the developer has put some effort into coding the theme or if there are too many errors. It is very useful, especially when you are using free themes.
Sometimes you can find some small errors or “imperfections” and this is common also for great frameworks and high quality themes. But sometimes there are hundreds of serious issues and you can see it with this tool.
Online Theme Checker
If you already own the theme or you can have access to the files somehow there is a useful tool online to check the quality of a theme all in one: http://themecheck.org/
It is based on the official plugin used by the WordPress coders that I will show you below.
I find it good, especially for finding security issues but I would prefer to install the official plugin and check it using that.
Let’s Get Our Hands Dirty And do It Like A Pro
A simple check you can perform is to read comments and reviews, search on Google and check the author profile.
Don’t pay attention to the positive comments, they are not useful for our purpose. Instead you should read code issues.
If someone reports a minor issue especially when there are updates, this is common.
But if someone reports major bugs, security issues, compatibility problems with well-known plugins, maybe it is time to move on.
Check The Theme From Inside:
If you own the theme you can use the official WordPress developers testing plugin to check if the theme is completely up to date and is using latest technology.
You can download and install this plugin: https://wordpress.org/plugins/theme-check/
The plugin performs some automated checks on the code so it will send you a list of major and minor issues that usually a manual review won’t reveal.
It helps you check if your theme respects the latest specs with the themes review standards: http://codex.wordpress.org/Theme_Review
And also you can check if it respects the WordPress guidelines: https://make.wordpress.org/themes/handbook/guidelines/
If you want to deep more into what a coder must follow to perform a good theme testing here are the complete theme testing guidelines: http://codex.wordpress.org/Theme_Development#Theme_Testing_Process
If you have access to the files and you have a basic idea how to do it you can review the files hierarchy: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
You don’t need to search for specific issues however it will help you to understand how the theme is made.
After checking some themes and working on them you will understand better what you are searching for. Generally speaking I prefer themes where it is not so complicated to search for a template and there are not many nested items.
I would especially avoid too many CSS import and nested page templates in my selection.
Checking The Code
It may seem obvious for the most, but this is the basic SEO check that many templates don’t pass.
- Check the tag <title>. It should be inside the <head> tags. The theme should use a unique title for each page and the title must be the title of the page and not the name of the blog.
- Like the title tag also the metatag description should be inside the head section.
- Does the theme have a Breadcrumb option and a pagination system for archive and homepage? If the answer is yes, I would prefer it.
Numbers 1 and 2 are easy to resolve with the SEO by Yoast plugin.
Breadcrumbs and pagination are not so easy if you don’t have some code knowledge, so it is better to have them already in the theme.
To have a better design I would recommend searching for themes that already have the social button in place where possible.
Headings are the most common mistake you can find on a theme.
It is simple but I have found many great themes without this knowledge.
A theme should have a clear use of H1 – H2 and H3. Most themes use them randomly just for design purpose, but this is wrong.
Here we can discuss the SEO strategy and it will be an endless discussion.
There are some best practices you should respect and each page or post should have. Use only one H1 title per post and on each page.
I would not use H2 or H3 in the sidebar where possible but use them inside the text area.
In this way you have more control over headings in a page. All the headings have a meaning for search engines and if you use them for common sentences like “Related Posts” or “Most viewed” they become not useful for SEO purposes.
Later we will see an example of a theme using headings in the wrong way and I will show you how to check all those things fast with Website Auditor, a suite to perform such SEO analysis.
Also if you install caching plugin like the famous W3 Total Cache they have this option included.
However, a plugin can produce unexpected behavior on the site so not all themes support it.
How To Check All These Things At Once?
We will finish with the two and most important checks. The first check you should do is a GTMetrix Test to understand speed code and weight of the theme. And the second is to use the Website Auditor from the SEO power suite in the Free Version.
GT Metrics, What To Check To Understand A Theme?
It is uncommon that people use this tool to check a theme; I however found it very useful.
The most interesting thing is that they don’t use it to check a theme before, they use it to test the speed of the website after.
To improve the website speed often developers try to reduce the weight of the theme. So why don’t they choose a lightweight theme?
After you perform a test, which is very easy to do, you will get a real list of reported issues from the website.
GT-Metrix will track what slows your website from on-page factors, to server factors.
We will not be interested in the Server or “Writing Style” factor, but to all those factors that are indicative of the theme structure.
In some sense there is no right level of performance we are searching for but if you compare more themes, it will become clear which are better. You just need to insert the URL to test and press GO!
Once the test is ready it will appear a window like this one:
Comparing different analysis you will easily understand which theme brings better HTML / CSS quality and which has fewer server requests and light pages. We will search for:
- Advice in the metatag that makes you think that there is a wrong behavior in the theme.
- Read about CSS. Too many @import increases the load time and this is a coding style.
- Pay attention on how good the CSS minimization is. There are free plugins helping with this but a good SEO theme should already have good work on it.
- Check also the page Size and the number of requests your website performs. Each time a request is made it is because the code is asking the server for a resource. Many developers don’t perform this kind of check so their theme needs to communicate with the server too many times. This behavior slows your website in a way you cannot control.
Check image advice only if you understand that they refer to the theme design image and not the post images. It is also important to investigate how a theme reduces and presents images. Sometimes developers can insert thumbnails that appear small but it is a HTML resizing and not a real small image, this means that to show a small image the browser must load a huge image wasting valuable server resources.
Page Size And Requests
Those parameters are important but they need to be read in the right way. Obviously a page full of images and animation cost more in terms of code. For this reason you should keep it in mind that a better-designed page is heavier than a non-designed one.
Sliders and images cost in terms of quality but by comparing two similar designs you can determine which one costs less in terms of byte and server requests. And the fewer the better.
Here is an example of a server request performed by some design themes in the Themeforest Directory:
As you can see in this example it is quite clear which theme has the lightweight page and the fewer server requests. It is also clear how the other parameters are working.
All this data comes from GTMetrix analysis. Finally, you should give a general overview to the issue reported and try to understand which ones are theme issues and which ones are from the CMS and the server.
A Real SEO Analysis – Website Auditor.
We will use a tool that is part of the SEO Power Suite bundle.
This suite is amazing for those who want to improve their SEO on site.
They are the developers of Buzzbundle so if you know Buzzbundle you already know how great the suite can be. We will use only one tool from the suite, the free version for this purpose.
The tool is website auditor. As GT Metrix, Website Auditor is not made to analyze a theme but to perform much more specific SEO analysis.
Website Auditor performs a complete SEO and quality analysis on your website, from the quality of the code, to the SEO score of your writing. It will drive us step by step to set up a better SEO on our website in general.
It gives us a lot of advice on how to set up a better website. You will love it. For this analysis we will only use few options dedicated to test how the theme renders our pages.
In particular we want to analyze how the theme is set up in term of code quality and headings.
If we are testing the website on a production server we can also compare our website performance with the one of our competitors.
To do this we don’t necessarily need to use Auditor, we can check it straight in the page code if you know how to do it, however Auditor gives us a fast overview in just one page.
In order to understand how to do it, I will show you a page that doesn’t reflect the best practices for SEO.
Working With Website Auditor
Performing this last test is simple. You just need to download it and install it, it is an SEO tool for PC and Mac.
Once the software is installed and running you just need to set up a new project giving it the website URL you want to test.
Once you are ready press Next and you will be on a new window, you should set up to analyze only the code and template performance like this:
Hit next again and you have two other windows where you will just need to hit next and leave them as they are. At this point Auditor will test your page.
Once the page is tested you need to go under “Content Analysis” à “Page elements” In this case you will see that the H1 is completely missing.
Notice that they will use the H2 to H6 just to format the text on the bottom of the template. As you see, in these headings there are the “About Author” – “No comments” – “Give a Reply” etc.
None of those are meant to be headings and for an SEO purpose I would recommend using one H1 for the title of the page and from H2 to H6 only for subtitles inside the article where possible.
If you want to do a bit more digging to understand how your competitor used headings and performed their SEO setup, you just need to click on reports.
Once you are on the report interface you need to choose from the drop down menu on the upper right the Page Optimization Report.
Once you have done it the software will ask you for a page to analyze and for a keyword to perform the test. Here you can give a keyword that is in your title for testing purposes, or if you are testing in your website and you already know which keyword you want to rank a specific page you are testing, use this keyword.
Once the analysis is ready you will see a report like this below, a complete analysis of your website and a comparison with your competitor step by step. It is quite self-explanatory and it will give you a good overview on how to improve your theme and your entire website.
In this article I have tried to give you a fast overview of what you can check to choose a theme for your website properly.
There are many other things you should check to be sure you are buying the best theme for your project. However, with this analysis you will be sure you are not damaging your websites performance. If you liked this small tutorial, don’t forget to subscribe to receive more amazing articles like this one directly to your inbox.