The problem with off-the-shelf WordPress themes and SEO

by Jon Henshaw, Raven Tools

One of the best things about WordPress is that you can get a great looking website without doing too much work.

WordPress makes this happen with a feature they call Themes. Themes control the overall look and feel of your site. You don’t have to change any of the core WordPress code to use them. Plus, most WordPress software updates don’t affect the themes. Just press a button to upgrade to the latest version of WordPress, and you’re done!

sponsor raven toolsThe ease of use and popularity of theming abilities helped create an entire market that focuses exclusively on making and selling WordPress themes.

At one time, WordPress theme makers didn’t concern themselves with search engine optimization (SEO). They would use Flash, table based layouts and other coding methods that interfered with a search engine’s ability to fully comprehend a page’s content.

Today, almost every reputable theme provider touts its themes as SEO friendly. In reality, most are just SEO friendlier.

The Top 4 SEO issues with off-the-shelf WordPress themes are:

  1. Self-Promotion: Many themes include a hard-coded footer link back to their site. Those links are usually unrelated to the website using the theme and can be seen as unnatural (spammy) links by Google’s algorithm. Other themes include additional elements that aren’t as obvious to the site owner, and they only exist to serve the interests of the theme maker.
  2. Too Much Code: To make the theme do the cool looking things that got you to buy it, theme makers often include large JavaScript libraries. Depending on the theme, this can adversely affect the speed and load time of the site. Search engine algorithms devalue websites that are slow to load.
  3. Lack of Focus: Search engine algorithms consider the context of the content on your page. The more focused the experience, the better. Therefore, themes that use three columns and/or enable the display of a multitude of widgets and navigation items are not optimized for SEO (or a good user experience). Website navigation should be limited and focused, and the main content should be at the forefront — preferably in a one column layout. Everything else is a distraction and could dilute the context you’re trying to communicate to search engine algorithms.
  4. Cookie Cutter: There’s a very good chance that a theme — even a theme that passes all of the items on an SEO checklist — is being used by spammers. While this may not affect your site’s ability to perform well in search results, it may affect the first impression and trust level of first time visitors. That’s especially true if they subconsciously identify your theme design with the spammy sites they’ve visited.

Ultimately, the most SEO-friendly WordPress theme is a custom theme. Not only can you control the code, design and focus of your website, your website won’t have spammy looking links by default.

Also, you can take steps to improve the SEO of your website. For example, when writing the HTML, you can label your content with microdata. This microdata is invisible to humans but helps search engine machines determine whether they’re looking at a movie review, a recipe, an event and much more.

The best place to start with a custom theme is with a starter (a.k.a. barebone, blank or naked) theme. The start theme that I recommend is Roots, which incorporates Bootstrap, Boilerplate and Grunt. Bootstrap gives you a mobile ready framework; Boilerplate provides modern HTML5 code; and Grunt minifies and concatenates the CSS and JavaScript for faster loading times.

In my experience, custom themes almost always outperform off-the-shelf themes when it comes to search engine visibility and organic traffic. And while it’s true that creating your own theme can take significantly more time than using an off-the-shelf theme, the long-term SEO benefits often make it well worth it.

Note: This is one in a series of guest posts from our local sponsors. Jon Henshaw is a founder and chief product officer at Raven Tools. He will be speaking in Track 1 at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 3. His talk is delightfully called “How to SEO the crap out of WordPress.”