Don’t Trust Your SEO Plugin To Optimise Your Website
23 April 2019, Clark Boyd
The SEO landscape is notoriously difficult to navigate.
Google is constantly tweaking its algorithms, with the aim of improving the quality of results for each individual user. For many marketers, it can feel like the goalposts are always moving.
SEO is also big business. There are over 3.5 billion searches on Google every day, with over 90% of traffic going to sites listed on the first page of results.
As such, it is an opportunity no company can afford to ignore.
However, it is challenging to invest with conviction in a marketing channel that can feel nebulous – especially when placed alongside the clear and immediate returns of paid search.
It is therefore understandable that brands want some sense of certainty amidst the flux of organic search.
SEO plugins promise to provide exactly this.
By installing one of these plugins, brands gain access to a list of SEO guidelines that can improve the chances of their content showing up for relevant queries.
As a means of covering the basics, like indexation and meta tags, these plugins are undoubtedly useful.
In essence, the rules-based, fixed, repeatable SEO tasks can often be handled by a software package.
However, a tool is only ever as good as its application.
Furthermore, SEO comprises a variety of sophisticated tactics that simply cannot be handled by a one-size-fits-all approach.
Organic search is so rewarding precisely because it entails a complex mix of strategic, creative, and technical skills. Marketers who expect miracles from a WordPress plugin will be left disappointed.
This article will therefore assess the strengths and weaknesses of SEO plugins, with the aim of guiding marketers towards a better understanding of how to develop a strategy that utilises both technology and SEO expertise.
SEO Plugins: The Main Contenders
Hundreds of SEO plugin options are available for WordPress, the Content Management System (CMS) used by a staggering 33.5% of all websites.
These plugins range from specialist products that can handle image compression and multilingual content, through to a wide variety of “all-in-one” SEO suites.
The most popular of these all-in-one products is undoubtedly Yoast SEO, which launched in 2008. The WordPress website states that Yoast has been installed on over 5 million websites, although Yoast’s own website puts that number at almost 8 million for 2017 alone.
Many users opt for the free version, but a premium option is available at £79 per annum.
Yoast has fulfilled an important role for a huge amount of businesses, as have many similar alternatives. Ensuring that a site’s content is indexed and optimised is a vital step towards gaining organic search visibility.
However, while the statement “no need to be or hire an SEO expert” (screenshot below) might be a great sales tactic, it is also misleading.
There are no shortcuts to success in SEO and, despite what some in the industry may say, technology in isolation will never be the answer.
Marketers also need to bear in mind that if everyone can download the same plugin for free, the playing field becomes very level, very fast.
The checklist approach may help with the rules-based basics, but competitive advantage comes from more than a set of guidelines.
What An SEO Plugin Does Well
- Tasks with set criteria: A plugin can expedite processes that have a clear goal and that follow a set of steps. These would include:
- XML sitemaps
- Meta tag character length
- Image alt attribute completion
- Social media posting
- Guidelines for optimisation: A plugin can keep a blog article on track, by ensuring that it maintains a focus on the target key phrases. This needs to be viewed in context, however, as keyword density is a very outdated way of approaching SEO copywriting.
Duplicate content resolution: Canonical tags can be added and duplicate content analysis is included within some SEO plugins.
Keyword optimisation at scale: It is possible to write rules that will have an impact across the content on a full website, rather than having to make the updates manually at page level.
Internal link suggestion: This is a newer feature that will automatically suggest key phrases that could link out to other pages on the website. In turn, this could help to improve the topical authority of the destination page.
URL optimisation: URLs are very important for search engines and users. A plugin will allow you to add keywords to URLs and create a logical sub-folder structure.
These features are useful for a lot of businesses, but they only earn a site the right to compete. To rank in the top positions, many other factors need to be considered.
4 Essential Areas An SEO Plugin Won’t Cover
Any successful SEO campaign begins with a clear view of what the business is aiming to achieve through this medium.
That insight must inform every component of the campaign, including the use of technologies like SEO plugins.
Often, this will involve discussion about the overall objectives for the business, with the aim of then delivering on these goals through organic search.
Aiming for “more traffic” is insufficient; what type of traffic does the business want to attract, and what action do you want the visitors to take when they do arrive on site?
Some of the resources used at this stage typically include:
- Audience behaviour research
- Keyword trends
- Paid search performance data
- Competitor analysis
- Search results page review (to assess user intent for key queries)
An SEO plugin can then be viewed through the lens of this analysis. The tool can help deliver on the strategy, but it will certainly not devise the strategy.
A surprising number of publications use an SEO plugin as a factor in their editorial process.
In particular, the traffic light system in Yoast is used to assess whether a page has been sufficiently “optimised” before it goes live.
The author can insert one key phrase in the free version and Yoast will highlight whether the phrase is present in a variety of important SEO elements, like the body copy, meta description, and the URL.
The restrictions of this approach seem self-evident, given the sophistication of Google’s natural language processing algorithms. In addition, SEO is about more than just keyword-optimised text, with multimedia results on the rise for a wide range of search queries.
Of course, a simple system like this does at least provide some stability in an otherwise uncertain arena.
Stability does not necessarily translate to effectiveness, however.
Good storytelling is fundamental to blog performance. A skilled writer and an SEO expert will go a long way towards creating content that ranks well through search.
By following the traffic light optimisation system, we move closer to creating the type of routine blog article that already clogs up inboxes today.
That is not inevitable, but it is more likely if we buy into the “No need for an SEO expert” narrative that some plugins promote.
Focus on creating content that the audience genuinely wants to read or watch. The marketing will take care of itself if there is value in what you create.
Some aspects of technical SEO can be covered by a plugin. Redirects can be set up through these tools, for example, although they will require assistance from someone with SEO experience.
However, the technical side of SEO is so significant that it requires more attention and knowledge than a plugin can provide. There is a persuasive case for saying that technical SEO is the most important aspect of any campaign, in fact.
As Google’s Gary Illyes put it on his recent Reddit AMA session:
There are many ways to achieve this.
For example, by looking at log file activity it is possible to see which user agents access your content every day. That provides invaluable insight into how search engines view your pages and can provide direction on how to remove any blockages.
Viewed through an SEO plugin, however, many of these critical issues will remain unresolved. There is no replacement for a seasoned SEO expert when it comes to the technical side of strategy.
Backlinks remain a crucial differentiating factor in SEO rankings. The annual Stone Temple research report finds that in 2019, both quantity and quality of backlinks have a strong correlation with high SEO rankings.
In particular, gaining links from authoritative, relevant sites can provide a performance boost.
The rationale behind this is simple; if a reputable site chooses to link to your content, they are in essence providing a vote of confidence in what you have produced. They are willing to run the risk that their reader will leave their site and go to yours, but are willing to do so because of the value your content can provide.
This system has been open to manipulation in the past, but now it is essential to earn these links based on the quality of your content. The days of buying links are, thankfully, long gone for 99% of marketers.
There are no set guidelines for how to attract these links, but it is safe to say that originality, comprehensiveness, and topic authority tend to correlate well with the number of links earned.
Buzzsumo produced an interesting analysis of the content that earns links on Medium, including the finding that 75% of articles receive either 1 or 0 links. That is a lot of effort from a lot of authors for minimal SEO gain. Of course, links are certainly not everything when it comes to content creation but, as part of an SEO strategy, they remain highly valuable.
Once more, we see a central SEO concern that is not catered to by an all-in-one SEO plugin.
In Summary: The Role Of SEO Plugins
There is one constant that has always defined SEO. Search engines want to serve the most relevant, helpful content to answer the user’s query. If the user is satisfied, they are more likely to use that same search engine again.
Blogging can be an excellent way to tap into this. After all, the best blogs create a connection between the author and the audience through storytelling.
A tool can facilitate that connection, but it cannot create it.
For rules-based guidance through a checklist approach, an SEO plugin has a role to play. For variable, strategic, creative tasks, there really is no replacement for a skilled SEO expert.