WordPress truly is a phenomenal piece of design and engineering prowess. In the time previously required to code a single HTML page in Notepad, you can now install WordPress, download a theme, customize the layout and populate a handful of pages with content. At its heart, WordPress is a very SEO-friendly content management system. But the theme, plugins and configuration options you choose for your website can make short work of that inherent friendliness.
The WordPress theme you use and the configuration options you choose will have a substantial impact on your SEO efforts moving forward. Choosing a theme that is bloated, inflexible or coded without regard for SEO best-practices can effectively kill your site’s potential to rank well in the search results. This post outlines four theme design elements that can have a negative impact on the visitor experience and make it more difficult for search engines to identify, crawl and index your website content.
Landing Page Slider
You’ve seen these little beauties on countless corporate home and product launch pages. “Oh, no”, you say, “That fantastic slider loaded up with flashy stock photography was the main reason I bought this theme!” While they may be easy on the eyes, image sliders often have an adverse effect on both SEO and conversion rate optimization. Many sliders are incapable of displaying the image alt text, titles and captions search engines need to help “read” the image. To make matters worse, the slide titles are sometimes enclosed in h1 tags which lead to multiple h1s on the same page. Having multiple h1 tags on a page clouds the focus of that page and decreases page relevancy in the search results for a given keyword phrase.
Landing page sliders can also decrease user engagement and conversion rates. As more and more visitors are viewing web content on mobile devices, site usability for smaller screens is paramount. That large, slow-loading slider forces your time-starved visitors to scroll down your page to find the content for which they are looking.
Landing page bounce rates can be reduced by simply placing the most important content above-the-fold (the part of the screen visible without scrolling). This is vital if a large portion of your website visitor traffic is arriving on mobile devices with small screens and lower resolutions. The impact of adding a slider to a page can be tested using any of several free or free-to-try A/B testing tools that will allow you to serve up both versions of your page randomly to visitors. You can then compare bounce rates between the two page layouts.
The takeaway: Strongly consider whether or not a landing page slider helps you accomplish your marketing goals and test, test, test!
Header Logo in <h1> Tag
The seemingly minor design practice of wrapping sitewide header logos in h1 tags saves time during theme development and doesn’t impact website usability. But this practice has a deleterious impact on SEO. Next to the title tag, the h1 tag is arguably the most important meta tag on the page. It is analogous to a subheading on a newspaper page. It should relate to and reinforce the meaning of the title and greatly aids in Google’s semantic understanding of the page content. It’s also the first and most prominent, relevant piece of textual content the visitor sees when he/she lands on your page. Enclosing a sitewide header image in an h1 tag sends mixed signals to the search engines and competes with other h1 tags on the same page.
The image below shows a screen clip of a website crawl using the Screaming Frog SEO Spider. This website crawler reads site content much like Googlebot does. Instead of encountering unique, relevant, textual h1 tags for each page, it is confronted with duplicate content that provides no indication of what each page is about. While most human visitors will never see this particular header tag, search engines see it clear as day.
The takeaway: Remove the <h1> tag enclosing your header logo and check that each page has a single unique, relevant h1 tag.
Image Gallery and Portfolio Pages
These pages are designed to visually showcase large numbers of images, products, properties and projects. Images are often tiled on the page and present an easy, visual method for visitors to browse your content.
Sadly, Googlebot and other search spiders are incapable of appreciating the aesthetic beauty and simplicity of these layouts. Search engines have difficulty reading images and rely on factors such as image file name, alt text, title, caption and surrounding contextual information.
Many of these galleries lack some or all the information search spiders need to properly identify and classify the gallery images. In addition, webmasters uploading the images are often unaware that they should be giving each photo a relevant, descriptive name.
As one of the most popular types of plugins, there are many SEO-friendly WordPress gallery plugins capable of preserving user-written file names and outputting image alt text. If you are using a theme that does not output the necessary information, you can often install a third-party WordPress gallery plugin that does. There are a number of premium and free image gallery plugins available for the world’s most popular content management system.
The takeaway: Use an image gallery that supports alt text and use keyword-rich text to name each image.
Too Many Theme Extras
Google has stated before that page load speed affects the user experience and is therefore one of the variables it considers when ranking web pages. There are a variety of free tools that can be used to test page load speed but I find Google’s own testing tool to be one of the best. If your site is loading much more slowly than your competitors’ sites, you may be able to use a caching plugin to improve performance.
The takeaway: Choose a theme that has only the options you need and disable the ones you don’t.
It is often much cheaper and significantly easier to search optimize a website if SEO is considered during the early stages of planning and development. Choosing a WordPress theme that gives humans and search engines what they want can save you hours of development and optimization time in the future. Taking the extra time to read through theme documentation, user comments and third-party reviews can give you a better understanding of how search engine-friendly each theme is. When in doubt, ask the theme developers or hunt for an online community of theme users that may have the answers you need.