If you ask whether you can have the right SEO settings in WordPress without any plugins, my answer is yes. But if you ask whether you should use WordPress without an SEO plugin, my answer is no. Except…
Continue reading as in this article I’m going to give you the only reason why you should use WordPress without SEO plugins. And also I’m going to share with you some tips on how to set up effective WordPress SEO without a dedicated plugin.
The Only Reason Not To Use An SEO Plugin
WordPress is a really SEO-friendly CMS by itself, but it lacks some technical features that are essential for modern SEO. I’ll list these features and some ideas on how to implement them on your WordPress website without a plugin later. And because WordPress lacks these features out of the box, an SEO plugin is highly recommended to bring it up to its full potential.
But there is one situation when I would understand if someone would want to do WordPress SEO without a plugin. And I’m stressing doing WordPress SEO, because obviously you can have a website without an SEO plugin if SEO is not a concern for you. But let’s suppose it is.
The only situation you should implement WordPress SEO without any plugins is when security is critical.
You see, the only downside of WordPress is one of its biggest benefits: it is an open source code, including plugins. Sometimes these codes get malicious changes, other times mistakes in the code can be exploited.
I’m not saying that SEO plugins are harmful. I’m saying that they can have some kind of security risk. Consequently if security is so important for you that you shouldn’t allow your website to bear any risk of 3rd party code, than go ahead and implement SEO in your WordPress website without plugins.
Now that this is cleared, let’s see how.
Critical SEO Functions Missing From WordPress Core
These are the critical functions that should be implemented on every website that aims for good SEO results, but that are also missing from the core WordPress functionality. In other words, you should either use a plugin to have these functionalities or implement them yourself. More on how to do this later.
- HTML title
- Meta description
- Custom structured data markup
- Meta robots settings
- XML Sitemap
- Breadcrumbs with structured data markup
All of these can be implemented as a custom plugin or in your own theme, but they need to be coded in one way or another.
I repeat, these functionalities are essential for good rankings, but they are not part of the WordPress core, need to be coded in one way or another. What this means is that you cannot simply tweak your bare-bone WordPress website without coding to have good SEO results. You can, however, implement these yourself.
HTML title or SEO title is one of the most important ranking factors. It is basically the HTML <title> tag of your website. It’s importance is, in this context, that you should be able to set this tag independently from the page title.
These are the steps that you should implement if you want to use WordPress for SEO without a plugin regarding the HTML title:
- Set a default value, preferably page title + site title. This is done by most themes by default.
- Give the option of changing every individual page’s HTML title by an admin user. The best way to implement this in WordPress is using a custom field for the new title and then display it in the HTML code using the
Most SEOs argue that meta description is not a ranking factor by itself, but as this is what visitors actually see before deciding whether they click on your website or not, it is one of the most important factors to get good results from SEO.
Unfortunately no WordPress core functionality have been implemented for displaying a meta description in the HTML code, and themes usually don’t handle it either. What this means is that you need to implement it yourself, should you use WordPress without an SEO plugin.
The easiest way is again to use a custom field to set the meta description text for any page or post, and simply write that out in the <head> part of your code in the following form:
<meta name="description" content="Here is where your description goes...">
It is important to note though that you cannot use custom fields on taxonomy pages (categories, tags etc.) by default. If you want meta description functionality for those (you should, or simply noindex these pages, see later), than you need to implement a meta description input box in the taxonomy admin pages. Click here to find out how to code meta description functionality in WordPress without using plugins.
Custom Structured Markup
Using structured data the right way is an essential part of successful modern SEO. This is though such a large object that one could write a whole book on it.
It wouldn’t be quite entertaining though as structured data markup is 100% technical, and thankfully the good folks at Google have already gathered everything for us that’s important to know in this field. Check the structured data part in Google Search Central for more information on this.
Meta Robots Settings
This means basically 2 things for effective WordPress SEO without plugin.
- Generating a robots.txt file.
- Add robots meta tags to the source code
The first one is not difficult at all, as you are good to go with a simple txt file uploaded to the root directory on your server. And robots.txt files don’t change that often, so I would say you do this when you launch your website and you can forget about it in most cases.
For the second one our old friend, the custom field comes in handy. It’s basically the same solution that I recommended for the meta description. The only thing you need to pay attention to is that if you have more than one robots meta tags on a page, than you should group these together and write it out as one single line. This is an example for a meta robots tag:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex, nofollow">
You can either read the content part as one custom field, i.e. written in the same form. Or you can use different custom fields for different robots directives (e.g. index, follow etc.) and then create one line of HTML code from all of these.
Sometimes you can hear that you don’t actually need an XML sitemap for good rankings. This can be true, as having an XML sitemap is not a ranking factor by itself. But it is so much easier to tell Google what content you have on your website or to notify it whenever a new post goes live if you do have a dynamic XML sitemap functionality.
For this, you should query your WordPress database for all of your contents, and then create a sitemap using Google’s recommendations. Don’t forget to add the sitemap to Google Search Console though!
Breadcrumbs With Structured Data Markup
I would say this is the one functionality that, if missing from your website, you can still get quite good SEO results. But it can definitely help for your SERP appearance, hence click through rates and also user experience. And all of these can be quite beneficial for your SEO results.
In order to implement breadcrumbs correctly, you need to take care of two things at the same time:
- Display the breadcrumbs on your website, preferably below the title of each page.
- Do this accordingly to the breadcrumbs structured data markup.
Keywords And WordPress SEO Without Plugin
People inexperienced in SEO often think that the option of entering your target keyword in an SEO plugin is somewhat related to your future rankings. Or even that this is a signal in itself to Google (or other search engines), telling them which keywords you want to rank for.
This is not true at all. Search engines don’t care about your target keywords, they will decide independently which keywords they want your content to rank for. The only reason you can enter a target keyword in most WordPress SEO plugins is because of their analyzer functionality. This way these plugins can give you an assessment of the content with some suggestions.
This is useful for you, the user, but it has nothing to do with Google. It is a simple recommendation of what would be ideal on a page. These suggestions can be good, or they can be useless. I have content ranking on position #1 that my WordPress SEO plugin considers red flagged and suggests me to change almost everything in it. Also you can have millions of green lights in your SEO plugin and still not ranking.
But SEO suggestions in these plugins can be useful sometimes, I admit. Especially for beginners in SEO. If you want that functionality in a WordPress website without a plugin, I would say you would need to work quite a lot. Having such an analyzer function is definitely a huge piece of code and requires a lot of experience not only in coding but in SEO as well.
On-Site SEO Is Also About Content
Please note that everything we have talked about in this article falls into the category of on-site SEO. That is, tweaks and changes that you do on your website in order to rank.
And even if there are a lot of technical aspects to on-site SEO, at the end of the day it all comes down to your content. You can have the best settings, whether with or without a plugin, but if your content is not good, you are not going to have great rankings.
On the other hand, even if your technical SEO settings are poor, or at least not optimal, but your content is great, search engines will reward you with some good rankings. What counts as good content is another story though, a good idea for a new article.