For as long as I can remember, WordPress has been pitched as a great content management system for search engine optimization (SEO) and I couldn’t agree more. What role should your theme play in your quest for being optimized for search? Is SEO something that is best handled by the theme or a plugin? I’ve spent years creating and releasing WordPress themes at Organized Themes, so this is something I’ve give a lot of thought and research to.
Advantages Of Theme Based SEO
With SEO optimization taking place in the theme, you can find the tightest integration with your site. Plugins can do a great job of optimizing, but a theme’s own options can generally do it in a much cleaner way. Why? The theme can output your title, meta description and keywords at any point of its choosing. If there is indeed any advantage to having these items as close as possible to the top of your code, a theme is way to do it.
SEO plugins hook into your content using the
wp_head(); code which is where all manner of scripts, stylesheets and other items are placed. Generally that’s included just before the closing of the document head so it’s not as early or as clean in your code. They also replace your document’s title at the appropriate spot, but since WordPress doesn’t have a built in hook for the meta description, plugins can’t take over that role as they do with the title.
Another advantage for themes is that including pre-configured SEO is great for beginners. Everyone who uses WordPress uses a theme. Pre-configuring some basic SEO into the theme allows users who have no knowledge (or desire to know) of SEO to reap the benefits without doing anything extra. To me this is one of the most important reasons why SEO belongs in the theme.
Disadvantages Of Theme Based SEO
The lack of portability of the SEO content is a major concern. If your theme stores all of your meta descriptions, keywords and indexing settings in it’s own database table, then you might not have access to that if you change themes. Most WordPress users, particularly people running blogs, tend to change their themes frequently. Losing your SEO settings could not only mean losing a great deal of work, but you could also lose your place in organic search in a worst case scenario. Nathan Rice of StudioPress has created a plugin that lets you export these settings between several common theme frameworks and plugins.
Another disadvantage is theme updates. People often times edit their theme directly which makes applying any updates that are available, difficult. That’s why using a child theme for modifications is usually the way to go. If you’re unable to utilize an update when it’s available, you may be missing out on important advances in SEO, not to mention new features and security enhancements.
Advantages Of Plugins For SEO
The main advantage is you can use most any theme you’d like to. You’re not limited to sticking with a theme because of its mystical SEO properties. This is a huge advantage for plugins. Need to change your theme? It’s no big deal for your SEO settings.
Users don’t modify plugins as often as they do themes which makes keeping your plugins updated a no-brainer. When there is a new version of your SEO plugin, you just update it as you would your contact form. Simple.
Disadvantages Of Plugins For SEO
As we discussed earlier, you won’t have as tight of integration between your SEO and your site. Your plugin may still do a great job, but it just won’t be as integrated.
Just based on observation, most of the plugins for SEO have considerably more options and settings than themes have. Perhaps that’s helpful to fine tune things, but it can easily degrade into unnecessary features, bloat and confusion.
What’s The Best Solution?
Personally I believe every theme should be set up to include basic SEO so every user can benefit, even if they aren’t aware of its existence. It’s easy to turn the post or page’s excerpt into a meta description for that page. Optimizing titles is a piece of cake too. Setting these things up for your user along with using clean, symantic code and well thought out headings can improve your user’s experience dramatically.
But I think these things should be optional. Very few WordPress themes are created without an options page these days. If you use these techniques, make them easy to turn off, or turn them off automatically in the presence of a SEO plugin, so your end user has flexibility if they want to do something else. This is what I do at Organized Themes and many other theme developers do likewise.
It may surprise some of you, but even as a theme developer, I use WordPress SEO by Yoast to handle the SEO both here and at Organized Themes. I find it helps me think through my titles and descriptions better than handling things on my own. Plus in three months of use at Organized Themes, my search traffic doubled with no other changes.
What’s been your experience with SEO, themes and plugins?