Yoast SEO is a free plugin (there’s also Yoast SEO Premium) that’s really a must for every WordPress website. As soon as you install it, it can improve your website’s SEO by helping to optimize every blog post that you create.
Both Yoast SEO Premium and the free version of the plugin focus on content analysis, which consists of two distinct parts (found in two tabs): readability analysis and SEO analysis. Yoast is perhaps most well-known for the SEO analysis tab but their newer readability analysis tab can be just as useful for ranking on the search engine results page (SERP).
First, we’ll focus on Yoast’s SEO analysis tool and how to get Yoast’s stoplight progress tool to go green—a sign that your content is perfectly optimized!
Yoast SEO Analysis
Yoast’s SEO analysis functionality is made up of three parts: the area where you’ll enter your focus keyword, the SEO checks, and the snippet editor.
In the focus keyword area of Yoast, you’ll enter a focus keyword and Yoast checks for the presence of your focus keyword in many different parts of your post:
- Meta title (you can set a different page title if you’d like)
- URL or post slug
- The article’s written content
- Meta description
- Image ALT tags
Though Yoast SEO Premium and free help you optimize for a specific focus keyword, neither will tell you whether or not the keyword you’ve chosen is realistic when it comes to actually ranking. Certainly, you can plug in any old keyword and Yoast will let you know if you’re using it optimally or not—but unless you’ve done some keyword research, you’re playing with fire.
To find a focus keyword, there are several tools, both paid and free, where you can execute keyword research. Google Keyword Planner is a top free option, though it’s limited—it’s actually an Adwords (PPC) tool. Ahrefs, SEMRush, and Pathfinder SEO offer paid keyword research tools that can help you get a little more exact with your efforts.
When plugging in certain long-tail keywords (essentially, keywords made up of more than one word), you may be alerted to the presence of a stop word. Stop words are usually excess words or questions.
For example, “how to open a restaurant”, might be changed to “open a restaurant” with Yoast’s guidance. You can argue for using keywords either way—sometimes exact match is the way to go, though Google is getting smarter with understanding the gist of content even without stop words.
The SEO checks section is the part where you’ll see the different colored bullets Yoast assigns to indicate how optimized your content is.
Here’s how it all breaks down:
- Gray means that Yoast does not have any information on the page to analyze—so you’ll see this before you start typing.
- Red and orange indicate that improvements need to be made in order to rank for a given keyword, with red symbolizing the most urgent improvements.
- Green means you’re good to go! You’ve followed all onsite SEO best practices for your target keyword.
While executing an SEO analysis for a given page, the Yoast SEO Premium or free plugin:
- Checks for the presence of links and images
- Counts the number of words you’ve entered
- Checks for keyword density and frequency of use with regards to the focus keyword. It also does this for other pages on your website and displays a warning if you’re competing with yourself for a given target keyword.
The snippet editor allows you to edit your post meta information: specifically the meta title and meta description. It shows you what the search result will look like on Google. You can also edit the post slug here.
The meta description is a short text describing the main idea of the post. Some post authors do not customize their meta descriptions—so what usually displays, as a result, is the first few lines of text in the post.
It’s important to note that this isn’t ideal. Unless the first 1-2 lines of your post are especially compelling, failing to customize the meta description is lazy and you’ll pay for it with a lower click-through rate from search.
Yoast SEO Premium and free’s newest feature is readability analysis, which checks for several readability factors including:
- Sentence length
- Paragraph length
- Use of subheadings
- Presence of passive voice
- Presence of transition words
- Flesch reading score
The Flesch reading score measures textual difficulty, or how easy or difficult a given text is to read. The highest scores (90-100) represent the texts that are easiest to read and indicates that the text can be understood by an average 11-year old student. A Flesch reading score of 60-70 is considered as the norm for web copy.
If you’re already using a grammar/spelling tool like Grammarly, you probably won’t have to deal with too many orange/red bullets with Yoast’s readability analysis tool. If grammar and spelling aren’t a strength of yours, Yoast’s readability analysis will help you to systematically improve your writing without a degree in English or photographic memory of the AP Style guide.
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The Deal with Yoast & Green Bullets
Here’s the thing: Yoast’s green bullets may indicate content that is optimized for onsite SEO but it does not guarantee that a post will rank for your target keyword. If this weren’t true, then all content that used Yoast would rank based on optimizing for the green bullet!
Instead, there may be a few reasons why you aren't ranking though you're constantly producing SEO-optimized content:
- Too much competition: If you’re trying to rank for short-tail keywords (generally, 1-2 words), try a long-tail keyword strategy instead. Optimize your content to be more specific and based on the queries people actually search for. Once you rank for long-tail keywords, chances are good that you’ll be able to rank for other short-tail keywords as well.
- Technical issues: Once installed, Yoast usually takes care of basic SEO technical issues but there are times when certain themes prevent Google from indexing your website or you may have installed other plugins that interfere with how Yoast works. Furthermore, your WordPress website may have extensive technical issues (not mobile-responsive, not quick to load, hard to navigate, etc.) that get in the way of all ranking efforts.
- Internal linking structure: Even if your content is optimized, you may still not be able to rank because your website’s linking structure is not clear (and search engines cannot crawl it properly). You can try to remedy this through the use of cornerstone content, which are a few foundational posts that give visitors and website crawlers an idea of what your site is really about—establishing a niche that Google can use to optimize search results in the future.
Tips to Optimize Your Blog Posts
First of all, internalize the fact that content comes first before SEO, meaning that you should create content for people rather than machines. There’s a reason why the readability tab is listed first on Yoast: you have to optimize your text for readability and only then can you successfully complete the SEO checks.
Pro tip: Focus on the content first so you don't get tempted to do things like change your focus keyword just to get a green bullet.
Once you’ve written awesome content that your target audience will enjoy, use Yoast to guide your remaining optimization efforts:
- Choose a focus keyword.
- Write a meta description.
- Edit the post slug so it includes your focus keyword.
- Check your readability score.
- Make content adjustments based on the readability bullets: change passive voices to active, write more than 300 words, use headings and subheadings, and shorten paragraphs and sentences whenever possible.
- Check for green bullets, and make some minor adjustments, like adding more focus keywords in the post. As a general rule, try to use your search terms in about 1-2% of your text.
- Fill out the post’s social data, which is similar to filling out meta data. This shows what will populate when sharing to social sites—so optimization is just as important here, if for different reasons.
Final Thoughts: How to Use Yoast SEO Premium (or Free): Getting to Green
Yoast SEO Premium or free are both excellent SEO plugins. A WordPress website doesn’t feel complete without Yoast!
Yoast makes onsite SEO easy enough for beginners to handle on their own thanks to a stoplight system that clearly spells out where improvements can be made—or if you’ve done everything possible to ensure that your post ranks for a given keyword. It can also handle some of your website’s technical SEO aspects with minimal intervention on your part.
Of course, a tight focus on Yoast’s suggestions, without considering the final user, is a mistake. Though Yoast can point out a number of potential SEO issues, you sometimes have to take suggestions with a grain of salt.
Maddy Osman creates engaging content with SEO best practices for marketing thought leaders and agencies that have their hands full with clients and projects. Learn more about her process and experience on her website, www.The-Blogsmith.com and read her latest articles on Twitter: @MaddyOsman.