SEO and Analytics

Optimize Content Like a Pro Using Yoast SEO

July 22, 2020
By Pam Berg

SEO is hard. Let’s not pretend there’s a straightforward way to get your content to rank, or to even understand what Google wants. If you run a small business, you likely don’t have hours to spare each week for your website’s SEO. But there’s good news here! All you need to get started toward a better search position is the Yoast SEO plugin for content optimization – and this awesome guide.

Yoast is extremely easy to use, and gets to work immediately after installation. But blindly applying all of its recommendations doesn’t help your website. I’ll take you through all of the recommendations in the Yoast SEO analysis box, explaining what each one means  – and exactly how it factors into your SEO.

There’s a lot to take in here! I promise you’ll come out the other side feeling more confident about creating SEO-friendly content. If you need to back up a few steps first, read The Small Business Guide to Configure Yoast SEO.

How does Yoast SEO work?

Yoast SEO has two primary functions. It gives each page and post a report card, grading your content on SEO and readability. It also helps you avoid technical SEO pitfalls by automatically optimizing and managing certain aspects of your content based on how you have Yoast configured.

What Yoast does:

  • Analyzes content for basic on-page SEO principles, which are quick wins and a solid foundation to build your content upon
  • Provides technical SEO support for each piece of content through hidden features and default settings, which would normally need to be customized through your site code with the help of a web developer

What Yoast doesn’t do:

  • Provide a native backlink report or complete technical SEO audit
  • Although it links out to handy third-party content analysis tools through the Admin Bar (see my previous article on configuring Yoast SEO for how to set that up), this doesn’t cover many of Google’s 200+ ranking factors; we recommend using a powerful tool like SEMRush to fully analyze your site’s technical SEO health and link structure

Getting a good score from Yoast SEO doesn’t guarantee your content will perform well. Although Yoast can help you improve your content optimization, it can’t stop a competitor from creating better content that outranks you on the same topic. It also can’t give you quality backlinks, a great domain authority, secure site hosting, or a mobile-friendly web design.

But Yoast will boost your finicky technical SEO, and give you the edge on websites with weak SEO (or none at all). It’s a great tool for the small organization without a dedicated SEO specialist. And by regularly using Yoast to review your work, you’ll absorb basic SEO practices and be able to start optimizing your content as you write.

If you need help setting up Yoast SEO on your WordPress site, read this article’s prequel: How to Configure Yoast SEO. If you’ve got all of the settings exactly how you want them, let’s dive into the whole reason you’re here – better content optimization!

How to use Yoast SEO for content optimization

Once installed, the free version of Yoast SEO adds an analysis box to every page and post on your website for which it’s enabled. This box is visible on the backend, where you edit each piece of content.

screenshot showing the Yoast SEO analysis box for content optimization

The Yoast box has three tabs: SEO, Readability, and Social. I’m only going to focus on the SEO and Social tabs, because a) this article is about content optimization, and b) it’s plenty long without getting into the readability assessment (which I don’t find useful).

The SEO tab presents your scores using the familiar green light/red light system.

It also adds high-level Yoast information to the main view of your posts, pages, or any other content types for which it’s enabled. This includes the Yoast SEO score, readability score, number of links to other internal pages, SEO title, and focus keyphrase.

screenshot showing the high level Yoast SEO analysis for a blog post

Before you start chasing down those green lights from Yoast, remember to always put the reader first. Don’t add more exact keywords to your copy if it makes the sentences awkward, and don’t cram keywords into headings where they don’t make sense!

Some content optimization tips from the plugin are also outdated, which I’ll note as we go. SEO tools can’t keep up with Google’s constant algorithm updates, and what works for Google isn’t exactly the same as optimization for other global search engines.

The smartest SEO is producing content that’s relevant, useful, and enjoyable for your target audience to read.

The Yoast SEO Analysis

To get a Yoast SEO analysis, you first need to set your focus keyphrase. This is the search query for which you want this content to rank. Hopefully you’ve done your research, and it’s relevant to your audience.

screenshot showing where to set your focus keyphrase for content optimization

Now you’ll see an overall green, orange, or red score expressed by an emoji face, plus rows of recommendations and comments on your optimization problems, improvements, and ‘good results.’

Copy Optimizations

Yoast SEO is obsessed with keywords! There are multiple analysis results based on your keyphrase, which is why we’re starting there. Keywords used to be a huge deal in SEO. You were meant to use the exact keywords for which you wanted to rank, over and over again.

Search engines are smarter now. Keywords still have value, but Google understands natural language and synonyms. It’s a good practice to include variations on your target keywords in any page or post.

This also means that you should use the Yoast SEO keyword recommendations as guidelines, because they’re hinged on keywords having more weight as a ranking factor.

Here are insights into Yoast’s copy recommendations, what they mean, and how much they impact SEO:

1. Keyword in SEO Title

Using Yoast, you can have up to three different titles for any page or post. There’s the one that appears on your website, which is what you named the page. Then you can configure an SEO title – one containing your keyphrase – in the Yoast SEO box by clicking ‘Edit Snippet’.

screenshot showing a customized SEO title and slug

You can also set a custom social media title, but we’ll get to that under the Yoast Social tab.

Do you need a custom SEO title? Only if your regular title is clever, punny, or otherwise unclear on the topic. What works among other blog post titles on your own site might not stand out in search results, or tell a search engine what your content is about.

It also helps searchers choose to read it over other results. If the title, which is the biggest text in the search results, doesn’t reflect their query, you can lose out on clicks. Clicks lead to on-page behaviours that also impact your ranking.

The SEO experts at Moz recommend placing the keyphrase at the start of the title. Search engines appear to favour titles with front-loaded keywords, and people viewing search results often scan just a couple of the words in each title.

2. SEO Title Width

Yoast will help you ensure that your SEO title is the ideal length to be viewed in search results on both mobile and desktop devices. You can see in the image above that the SEO title has a green bar beneath it. If the title was too short or too long, the bar would be red.

Yoast deems the maximum length to be 68 characters, and the minimum to be 47. Moz recommends that you keep SEO titles between 50-60 characters, since some characters are wider than others.

Too-long or short titles aren’t any kind of SEO penalty, but clear titles that are fully displayed are more likely to earn clicks (and we know that interactions after that click do impact ranking). The last part of a title over 60 characters will likely get cut off on various devices – another argument for putting the query-matching keywords up front!

3. Keyphrase in Slug

The ‘Edit Snippet’ box is where you can also customize your slug (the last portion of your URL). A customized slug is another part of helping everyone understand what your content is about.

If your slug looks weird in the search results, for example if it’s a string of numbers or too long, it might not get clicked. You stand to rank better if it’s concise, features your keyphrase up front, and describes the content topic to readers and search engines.

4. Keyphrase Placement

Yoast wants you to put your keyphrase into the first paragraph, ideally in the first sentence.

screenshot showing the yoast seo results for keyphrase in introduction

A long, rambling introduction could tell search engines that your content doesn’t match the topic as well as a competitor’s. Having your keyphrase at the start of your copy also (surprise!) impacts the user experience.

If someone clicks through to your content from search results relating to that phrase, seeing it right away on the page will encourage them to keep reading. This action, and the potential others their continued reading may trigger, will send valuable behavioural signals that the content did indeed match that query.

5. Keyphrase Length

Single keywords are often broad, generic, and not at all helpful. Yoast will give you a green light if the keyphrase you chose is two or more words – which is still kinda broad. Here’s a better way to use this recommendation: keyphrase length is a strong indicator of how your text relates to search intent.

Let’s look at the keyword ‘shoes’. Please don’t ever use ‘shoes’ as a focus keyword, even if you own a shoe store! There are lots of possible search intents relating to shoes: buying shoes, fitting shoes, repairing shoes, researching brands or types of shoes, shopping shoes by gender, shoes by intended use, shoes for unique needs… There are over 1.5 million search results for the word ‘shoes’, so that word is truly useless.

Rather than try to rank for ‘shoes’, a longer and more specific keyphrase like ‘running shoes for shin splints’ will not only increase your chances of ranking well, but also of hooking the exact person who needs your content. And if your content marketing is working, that page or post is part of a bigger plan to earn a conversion.

6. Keyphrase Density

This is one of the outdated Yoast SEO recommendations, ranking your copy based on how many times the exact keyphrase is used. The desired number adjusts based on copy length.

screenshot showing yoast results for weak keyphrase density

Remember, search engines are smarter than ever before. Google has said that 15-20% of its daily searches have never been searched before. People also tend to use more relaxed phrasing, especially with voice search. If you only focus on stuffing your copy with 10 uses of your keyphrase, you could actually send low quality signals.

I suggest using this score to remind yourself about the importance of phrasing within the copy. Check that you do have the exact keyphrase at least a few times in prominent places, and that you’ve also included common variations. Think like your customer, and choose the words they would type into Google.

7. Keyphrase in Meta Description

Just like the keyphrase in the slug and title, this recommendation is more about earning clicks by clearly describing your content. Google doesn’t use keywords in your meta description as a ranking factor, but other search engines like Bing and Yahoo (powered by Bing) do put weight into your meta description content.

The meta description is the copy that appears in the search results below your title and URL.

example of a meta description for Forge and Smith

If a potential customer is shown 7-10 Google search results on page one, and you’re somewhere in the middle, a super engaging meta description can make or break that search for you. Think of it as your only opportunity to convince someone to read your content – because it is!

If you don’t create a custom meta description using the Yoast SEO snippet box, Google will pull an excerpt from the first copy from your page. This could be a great intro that you’ve written, but it could also be random text from literally anywhere on the page.

example of a website with no custom meta description, so the result is several run-on and awkwardly parsed sentences

example of a website with no custom meta description, so the result is a list of years that was pulled from their homepage and makes no sense

Be warned that Google will still sometimes overwrite meta descriptions you’ve created using Yoast or another method. This is “to better help users understand why a particular page is relevant to what they searched for”, according to Search Engine Journal. Google will choose a snippet of text from your page that better matches the query.

8. Meta Description Length

This score and logic is exactly the same as for SEO title width. Yoast will give you a green or red bar based on the length of your meta description.

screenshot showing the green bar under a meta description with an ideal length (the description for this blog post)

You won’t get into SEO trouble if your meta description is too short or long, but most people won’t be able to read it. If it’s fewer than 50 characters, there’s a chance you didn’t really explain what your content is about and why people should click. That’s a wasted opportunity.

9. Previously Used Keyphrase

This content optimization tip is straightforward: have you used this same keyphrase before? If so, you’re essentially competing with yourself for a top-10 spot in the search results. This is called ‘keyword cannibalization’.

Google rarely shows two results from the same website in the top 10 results, unless it’s for your actual business name. Creating lots of content on the exact same topic is giving Google the opportunity to pick one of your pages to display, and to bury the others where no one clicks.

That’s why keyphrase length is actually useful to keep in mind – you’re less likely to write multiple pieces of content targeting a longer phrase than two words.

For example, this article is about content optimization. It’s an aspect of digital strategy, and digital strategy is a service we offer at Forge and Smith. So instead of writing countless articles about the high-level service, I write about the various aspects a potential customer might need help with.

10. Keyword in Headings/Subheadings

Yoast SEO wants you to feature your keyphrase in 30-75% of your subheadings, which are those using H2 or H3 styling. If 75% of your headings feature a 4-word keyphrase, it’s going to look ridiculous to your readers. But there is value to using your keyphrase in some headings.

Readers scan headings and subheadings to understand your content. Headings make copy, especially long articles, more reader-friendly by creating a natural structure. Bonus points if you use a Table of Contents plugin so that keeners can click right to the section they want to read!

Google checks whether you use headings, heading structure, and the words in your headings to assess both the quality of your content and what it’s about.

  • Long articles with no headings are a poor user experience, which can result in a lower ranking
  • Google likes a solid heading structure that uses clear phrasing to describe what each section is about; this is better for the reader, so it’s better for your SEO

If your page is super short, such as a Contact page or one part of a checkout process, don’t stress about headings!

11. Text Length

Speaking of short content – this is another of Yoast’s tips to take with a grain of salt.

If your text has 300+ words, Yoast will give you a green light. This is based on the premise that longer content ranks better. If you search ‘ideal content length for SEO’, you’ll find lots of articles that state anywhere from 1200-1900 words will rank best.

Here’s the thing: content length should come from the topic and intent of the page, not from an SEO blog.

If you’re writing a thorough how-to guide, like my post on ‘How To Pick The Best Social Media Platform For Your Business’, then yes. You definitely want to get into it and give the reader as much information as possible. But if it’s a standard web page, 300 words might be way too much. A Contact page should quickly serve up an address, phone, email, or contact form.

Other Optimizations

There are also a handful of content optimization tips from Yoast that have nothing to do with your copy. These ones are all actually super important.

12. Outbound and Internal Links

Links are one of the few SEO practices that has stood the test of time.

Quality inbound or ‘backlinks’ to your site, or to a specific piece of content, give it huge authority. The Yoast SEO analysis box doesn’t look at your inbound links, but you can see them in the Yoast admin bar (I know, so many places to check!), if you’ve connected Google Search Console. Learn more about that in Part 1: How to Configure Yoast SEO.

What Yoast SEO does check are your outbound and internal links.

Outbound links don’t directly impact your SEO. What they do is point to other sources that search engines will crawl, which adds another layer of understanding about your content. They’re like the many bibliographies you had to create in school – they tell your reader and Google that you can back up your facts from legit sources, like this:

screenshot showing a bullet list that uses links to cite sources

Internal links are about content relationships. Menu links and contextual links (linking from one page to another relevant one) help search engines understand both your content and your site structure.

Internal linking also prevents orphaned content – pages and posts with no links pointing to them from anywhere on your site. More links to content tend to indicate quality and relevance, while few or no links tell Google it’s less important.

13. Image ALT Attributes

Image ALT text is where you describe what’s happening in an image. There’s no SEO penalty for not having ALT text, but Google does favour sites that have it.

This is because ALT text is what a screen reader would narrate to a person with vision impairment. ALT text is for accessibility.

screenshot showing content optimization by adding image ALT text to a photo

Yoast will give you a red light if you don’t include ALT text, and an orange light if your ALT text doesn’t include your keyphrase. But creating a good experience for the person on the receiving end of that text is way more important than appeasing Yoast.

Use the ALT text to explain the image and its context. If the keywords fit, that’s great – but don’t put them there to get a green light.

The Yoast Social Tab

With the free version of Yoast, the social media tab lets you add custom titles, meta descriptions, and images to appear when your content is shared on Facebook or Twitter.

screenshot showing a custom image set in the yoast social tab

This is technically part of your content optimization, because you want to earn clicks and shares on social media as well as from search results to improve your brand awareness. A shorter description with a clear CTA, or a social-friendly title, could improve your click-through rate.

Optimizing images in this case is simply about correctly sizing them for each platform. Yoast Premium will show you an image preview to ensure you got it right, but it’s easy to just bookmark a social media image size guide and configure custom social sharing images using the free version.

Some SEO experts also believe that an influx of quality social media traffic can improve your ranking through the higher volume and on-page engagement.

Don’t forget that Tweets can rank for searches and be displayed in search results, and your social media profiles do play a part in your SEO as far as your business name, details, and reviews! Learn more about social media SEO.

I hope you learned something new and helpful about content optimization, whether you plan to use Yoast SEO or not. Remember to always put your reader first, and SEO second. A high quality piece of content on a niche topic is always a win.

Pam Berg

Pam has backgrounds in journalism, computer forensics, and public libraries, which add up to the perfect mindset for digital strategy. She's been a professional content writer for over 20 years, and working with clients in SEO and analytics for 8 years. Her Instagram feed is equal parts horses, waffles, and drag performers.

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