There are thousands of WordPress themes available for free and at low cost. That’s great! But how do you know if it’s going to help or hinder you in search engines? If you are shopping for a WordPress theme, chances are that you need to focus on your content, not on learning how to become a WordPress developer and WordPress SEO expert. These are all best practices for WordPress theme development too!
Before you begin looking at themes
It’s a good idea to sit down with paper and pencil and map out the content that you need to get onto your website. Draw boxes, make arrows, erase it and do it over until you’re clear on what you need from a theme and what your most important content is.
If you don’t do this beforehand, it’s likely that you’ll be drawn to something shiny that you then try to squeeze your content into … and that is the path to compromise. However, we’re just talking about the SEO-i-ness of themes here so I’ll leave the greater topic of how to prepare for choosing a theme for another time.
Here is a quick checklist to evaluate SEO friendliness of that theme you’ve just gotten attached to:
Page Load time:
Every WordPress theme should have a live demo available. You can run a website speed test at GTmetrix or WebPageTest or PingDom. These will tell you how well the theme is put together and make some suggestions for improvement.
Many of these metrics are dependent upon how you set up your website and your webhosting so do keep in mind that if the theme scores poorly, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, it just means you’ll need to do some extra work to improve it.
You may be interested in using a webhost that specializes in WordPress performance and security — if so check out WP Engine for WordPress hosting. They specialize in hosting fast and secure WordPress sites and that’s all they do.
Proper script loading, clean headers:
The theme should accommodate the type of content you plan to publish. Content should be structured logically. Navigational menus should be marked up as nav items, lists should be list items, articles should have headers and paragraphs. Headers should be in order in the source code h1, h2, h3, h4 …
The theme should look good and be usable on mobile devices. This data from Google Mobile shows that nearly 50% mobile site visitors call or visit a business after looking it up on their mobile device. That’s a lot of potential customers and a much higher conversion rate than even the best of websites have.
If you are a local business, you really can’t afford a website that isn’t both mobile friendly and optimized for local search. If you’re not yet convinced of the importance of mobile, here is a nice collection of 2012 mobile statistics
HTML 5/CSS 3/JQuery:
Search engines are building their indices with sites that provide more descriptive structures around their data. Take a look at schema.org to get an idea of what I mean. Address, phone number, type of business, granular information about your business hours, products, and product options, contact information, authorship, and much more …. are all examples of types of content that search engines are trying to understand so they can present that information to searchers.
I highly recommend hiring someone to do this work as it can get a little involved. However, it’s nice for general types of content like contact information, address, and so forth to already be marked up in the theme.
Over the past year, Google have updated image search algorithms quite a bit and I believe that image optimization is growing in importance to organic SEO. Out of the box, WordPress supports much of the image optimization that Google images is looking for: Each image in WordPress has it’s own “attachment” page which provides a canonical url for images. As well, you can create a template for image attachment pages to include metadata about images, short and long descriptions, titles, relations, meaningful filenames. If this isn’t supported by a theme, then you should really consider adding it.
Make sure that the theme is compatible with your target browsers. Some users of the new WordPress default theme, TwentyTwelve, were perturbed when they noticed that TwentyTwelve doesn’t serve the desktop version of the website to IE 8 and older … instead it serves up the mobile layout to IE 8 and older.
Chances are that future WordPress themes will follow this lead. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want something else for older browsers, you need to know how much work you’ll put into updating the theme. If it’s already a child theme, you may have to decide between getting creative with a grandchild theme or forking the theme you’ve just purchased and losing out on letting someone else handle update maintenance.
No theme should be dependent upon 3rd party plugins to function. Neither you, nor the theme developer has control over whether those plugins will continue to be maintained or developed.
Widget Ready Areas:
You will need to be able to include custom content in your sidebar or in widgetized content areas.
Social Media Integration:
It’s a nice idea for a theme to already support some kind of social media integration, but there are plenty of plugins for this too (check out rtsocial for nice lightweight social media integration).
I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that folks using themes with social media built into the theme find themselves limited when a new social media favorite comes along and it’s not easy to add it to the theme. It may be best to stick to plugins.
ok! well those are a few things to look at. If you really want to save time and money, you might want to work with a WordPress developer who can help you articulate your requirements for a theme and then help you review candidates. Consultants aren’t always custom code cowboys, sometimes they’re useful as advisers too.