Ever hear people recommending themes because they are “SEO Friendly”? Yes, we have recommended quite a few themes on this blog labeling it “SEO Friendly”. But what does “SEO Friendly” really mean and what some people think it means? In this article we will share our opinion on why WordPress themes should NOT have SEO options and why they do.
What is a Purpose of a Theme? To make things look good (organized and clean), so people can use the site easily. How do you make a theme organized and clean? Aside from all the user-interface (UI) and visual elements, you need to have clean code. The code should be semantic and must follow the web standards. A theme that does that is a “SEO Friendly” theme. This is what we look at when we say a specific theme is SEO friendly.
Now some people think that in order for a theme to be “SEO Friendly”, it must have other features such as Breadcrumbs, SEO Options, etc. But that is NOT true. Sure it will improve your on-page SEO, if you have the meta tags, breadcrumbs, etc. However, this is not required for a theme to be SEO friendly.
So why do theme designers/developers do it? Well it is a marketing gimmick. Instead of focusing their energy on producing the best possible theme they can, they bundle the theme with a small set of SEO Options. It is also to keep up with the industry and competitors.
Why WordPress themes should not have SEO options? By having SEO options, these companies do extreme disservice to their users (specially beginners). Because if the user ever decides to switch their themes, they risk losing all the SEO Data for older posts if they don’t transfer the SEO settings properly. SEO options is clearly in the plugin territory that theme developers should avoid trespassing. Mainly because their SEO options would never be as complete as a plugin like AIOSEO (used by over 2 million sites). Options like nofollow tags, redirections, no-index, sitemaps, and indexation would make a theme bloated.
If a theme company does not want to support an excellent plugin like AIOSEO, they should tackle this issue with their own plugin (not their themes).
Most well-known companies understand the importance plugins like AIOSEO, so they automatically de-register their SEO options when those plugins are active. However, it would make it so much simpler if they don’t have to do that at all.
Update: As brought up in the comment, it would be much better if theme authors simply use Theme/Plugin dependencies. Here is a great article by Otto talking about Theme/Plugin Dependencies.
What are your thoughts?
Jon Schear says
You have to consider that if the theme provides SEO options, they may transfer the data if you export via the tools.
Great Article! I have created SEO friendly themes, themes that are designed correctly in the first place. Customers often get confused about SEO Readyness for these themes. We try to use the Yoast plugin for these clients but not for the reasons listed above. It was a great point to bring up that it would be hard to migrate these settings to a Plugin later on and that would have a great and negative impact on a clients current SEO rankings. Kudos!
Johnny G says
I am currently using a theme from Elegant Themes. As we know, EG has its own built in SEO. I plan on using SEO by yoast. I was wondering, would the SEO from the theme conflict or in any way negatively affect the SEO by yoast plugin or my SEO in general?
WPBeginner Support says
Earlier, we wrote about why themes should not have SEO options, please take a look.
Ahmad Magddi says
You are wrong
While searching for ‘must have’ theme features, I came across this very useful post. I completely agree that functionality should (mostly) be provided by plugins. This approach nicely falls into the category less = more.
I will certainly use this information while developing my first theme. An I will also use the information provided by Otto about plugin dependency. Thanks for providing that link.
Now I only have to find the most suitable plugins for the functions I want to make available in my theme.
Steph M says
I have the Standard theme installed on my site. It came with an SEO option, but I could not edit the title so I installed All in One SEO. However, ever since I did that my Google Authorship snippet has not been showing up in Google. Is all in one seo getting rid of my google authorship? When I view page source it is there. But it does not show up in the search, see:
It even works in the rich snippet tester:
Editorial Staff says
Google results will vary from user to user. It might not show you the authorship, but it might show it to someone else. They get to decide when it is useful. Since it works in the rich snippets, then you know it is setup correctly. Now the ball is in Google’s court.
Is there any way to put yoasts breadcrumbs at sidebar ? Also, if it is mandatory to show breadcrumbs on site ? Breadcrumbs are fitting perfectly to my theme.
Editorial Staff says
You should be able to output the breadcrumbs anywhere in your design. No it is not mandatory to show them.
John K says
I’m going to play devil’s advocate and point out that the same argument can be made against SEO plugins that was used here against themes with SEO options:
…if the user ever decides to switch their *plugins*, they risk losing all the SEO Data for older posts if they don’t transfer the SEO settings properly.
If all SEO plugins, or a substantial number, had settings that easily transfer between plugins, there wouldn’t be a problem, but try transferring settings between Greg’s High Performance SEO and something else, as an example.
Editorial Staff says
Its always nice to play devil’s advocate. This issue dives into a much a larger issue of “theme functioanlity” vs “plugin functionality”. Most will agree that SEO in terms of storing data should be in the plugins.
We particularly do not see a reason to switch from our recommended plugin: WordPress SEO by Yoast to any other SEO plugin. Yoast’s SEO plugin provides the same functionality if not do things better than the rest.
Themes are “designs” which you will most likely change more often.
John K says
If it was guaranteed that Yoast’s plugin never consumes excessive resources like All In One SEO, then I would gladly install it in every site.
Editorial Staff says
Do you have an alternative “ideal” solution? Picking out of themes vs. plugin, plugins will win this functionality debate every time in our opinion.
I agree with you.
I’ve been experience with google analytic that i put in my theme. Suddenly when i change my theme, my google analytic not work.
BUT, integrated SEO in StudioPress themes are very easy and intuitive to use (and work well) and CAN be transferred if required.
Editorial Staff says
It is NOT a complete solution for first. It doesn’t provide sitemaps and numerous other solutions that Yoast’s plugin provide. Second, yes while the data can be transferred, it is not a best way of doing things. It adds extra work for users. The entire goal of any theme company should be to make things easier for users. Not require them to jump hoops if god forbid they ever want to switch to another theme.
Nathan Rice says
At this point, removing them would be worse for users than leaving them in.
Editorial Staff says
You have to take an initiative at one time or another. Perhaps leave it in for existing users, but hide it from new users unless they activate a new plugin. You can leave it in Genesis core and slowly phase it out. Similar way WordPress is dealing with the link manager.
I am myself shifting to yoast or any 3rd party plugin from genesis to preserve the freedom to change theme in future
Interesting article Indeed.
Christopher Geary says
Really great post.. I’ve often wondered where do you draw the line with theme functionality? You could quite easily create a theme which supports, well, everything (to an extent). I guess its a question of drawing the line between content & design. Anything that serves up some kind of content (like SEO data) should be provided via a plugin, and everything else could potentially be provided as additional theme settings to just enhance the design.
But again, very nice article. Time to share with the folks on twitter
Shaun Hinklein says
A lot of people I know after reading something like this –
“They’re not transferable? Oh crap oh crap oh crap . . . “
Chris Burbridge says
This is an excellent conversation. As far as marketing and business, a wise marketer told me: “Sell them what they want; then give them what they need.”
If you don’t sell people what they want, you don’t have a market. So if they want “SEO magic,” then perhaps you should sell them something that appears to answer that need, but at the SAME time, if you don’t give them what they NEED, you’re letting them down. So, perhaps you can educate them towards the real SEO principles they need.
Here’s a marketing idea: “*** ALL OUR PLUGINS Are 100% Compatible with Yoast for SEO—The #1 SEO Plugin on the Market ***. Each includes a 3-page Getting Started with SEO PDF, specifically geared to get you up and running with REAL SEO strategies, tuned to our themes and the Yoast SEO plugin.”
Part of what I see here, is that ARCHITECTURALLY, it makes a lot of sense to separate themes and plugins. But to the consumer, they want the simplest solution to their problem, and theme developers are not always providing this. For example, there’s a recipe theme that includes specific post types for Recipe Types, Cuisines, Ingredients, etc., and a page to allow visitors to submit recipes.
Now I know that’s not conceptually pure to us, but it’s a darn nice idea for them, because it’s an out-of-the-box solution. I think you need to do both—provide architecturally sound products, but also PACKAGE them in a way that makes sense for end users.
Chris Burbridge says
Oops—I meant to say “*** All Our THEMES Are 100% Compatible with Yoast for SEO”…
Completely agree. Infact I am using genesis which is so called ” SEO Friendly” but I migrated to Yoast SEO because I do not want to be stuck with one theme.
Rahul Tilloo says
Really some valid points in their. Headway does this well, their theme automatically switches off SEO options after recognizing that you are using SEO Plugins. Don’t know about other premium themes.
@Rahul Tilloo Well other well-known ones do that too… the point in this article that we are making is that it still causes inconvenience to users if they want to switch away from Headway or Genesis … and they used the Headway SEO options… because now they have to use the SEO Data Transporter to transfer the data to a plugin or a new theme….
I would like to think it means that they put in proper placement of H1 and H2 tags, provide breadcrumbs, and validated XHTML. But…all that should be done already, correct?
I agree, it should be left to the plugins.
@newwpthemesnet Yes, I think the themes should have the proper semantics (which include H1, H2 etc. Breadcrumbs can be provided by a theme if needed. But the theme should account for popular plugins such as BreadCrumb NavXT or Yoast… both are fairly powerful and bring a lot to the table.
I previously made use of the SEO options in Headway and Genesis but have since migrated to WordPress SEO by Yoast for the same reasons you outlined in the article.
However I think that SEO options are sufficient for newbies who would otherwise be confused with all the options that a powerful plugin like WordPress SEO offers.
I’m not sure how to reconcile the 2 positions though. I currently recommend newbies use themes from well-established companies like WooThemes, StudioPress etc so that if they ever outgrow their SEO needs that can upgrade to WP SEO and use the SEO Data Transporter plugin to migrate their data.
“if the user ever decides to switch their themes, they risk losing all the SEO Data for older posts if they don’ttransfer the SEO settings properly.”This alone is why I will be using a plugin for all future installs as the developer of the theme I use hasn’t released an upgrade path for their new release (which was over 6 months ago). So not only do I have to redesign my entire site with their new release, nor can simply activate it and carry over my SEO settings!
Good job getting this info out there — most folks I work with never think about these ramifications! They see the theme has “SEO” and that’s all they think about…
I always explain the variables and choices on which SEO options to use — but maybe if theme developers included a bit more explanation as to why you would choose a theme with/without these options based on your experience and goals, they would also be helping to educate instead of just always selling. Then customers can make an educated choice.
Which in of itself would be a value added benefit of choosing one of their products.
SEO options should be leaved to plugins. When we have so powerful tools like All in one SEO pack and YOAST SEO plugin, SEO options integrated into theme, can just make more confusion… In my opinion, they are unnecessary…
Always been a fan of this SEO importer plugin , but sometimes it doesn’t show anything done by it.
Great points. In the grand scheme of things, plugins and themes *should* be separate by nature, but often times themes are getting increasingly bloated due to competition between theme authors or because some theme authors feel the exact opposite. Does anybody have any ideas on how to merge themes and plugin functionality together, but unobtrusively?
Totally agreed with you. Plugin and Themes are separate. It is definitely a “marketing gimmick”. How do you stand out? By bloating it with more features when you shouldn’t. I think that theme authors are doing it to keep up with competition. If they seriously think from a “user stand point”, then they would realize the inconvenience. As for the theme/plugin dependencies otto42 has written a very cool article about it. http://wpbeg.in/JtxqCh
@wpbeginner Wow, how have I never found that Otto article? I thought I tapped my Google-fu to its limits and couldn’t find anything about this. Thanks!
That’s a great point you’ve made. We highly respect WordPress SEO by Yoast and All In One SEO pack, but we’ve included SEO Options in our theme (with Sitemap Generator, SEO Options per Individual Pages, etc.) because – our idea is that users shouldn’t install additional plugins for every functionality that they need. Theme’s SEO options are automatically disabled if external SEO plugins are active so users can have a choice between choosing internal or external SEO options.
@WPFortress You can’t possibly put everything into a theme. There is a reason why plugins are available. It is this vary mindset that is causing this huge issue. Everyone wants to bloat the theme with tons of widgets, hundreds of options… It makes it that much harder for a new user to understand WordPress. They like the theme how it looks (it should be simple install and activate) to make the theme look like the demo. Except it doesn’t. They have to go through a bunch of settings to just get close to what the demo of the theme look like. Options are a great thing to have, but within reasons. Changing themes should not be as big of a hassle that it is now becoming (with all these options). If you think there is an important feature that you want to provide (i.e tabbers, slideshow, etc), perhaps going on a similar route as WooDojo makes more sense. Where you create a mega plugin with widgets that the user can activate. So it can actually work with other themes should the user decide to switch. The whole point is to “keep the very important features” such as SEO data be the same through out theme changes. I think this comes down to the fact that companies do not want to promote other companies or other developers. But we should. Specialize in what you do best (and be damn sure that you are the best in that). Collaborate with complimentary products, and see how you two can partner up. This will save you a lot of time which you can use to do what you do best “produce more great looking, well-coded themes”.
@wpbeginner I agree, thank you. If everything is bloated with 1000 options, advanced users may know what they are, but what about beginners? We’ve spent 9+ months in development of a theme looking back from user’s point of view. The main problem with themes are that either they aren’t working when you’ve activated them, without you having to setup 100+ options, like you said. We looked back differently on this – we’ve implemented a “Import Content” feature that imports sample content (not just posts & pages) completely so theme looks like the demo site (with *all* content). This includes options (they are pre-populated), so user can change only the thing he needs (and behind every option there’s a complete description of what that option does, and where it appears). Not to mention 90+ page web & PDF documentation with FAQ base Regarding other companies and developers.. I’m glad that you mentioned this. People should work together. We’ve included every plugin that we used in Theme Credits, including a personal note to the developers and backlinks to their websites. Main problem here is that most of other compaines won’t join forces together. We want to do that so we can grow together and make something that people actually want to use.
@WPFortress Just to be clear, I’m not pointing fingers at you. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and I respect the choices that you guys have made.I understand that a lot of companies have “Import Content” feature for their themes along with documentation and FAQs. My point is that people should NOT have to read a 90+ page web & PDF documentation to USE a THEME. I haven’t seen the codes for your theme nor have used any of your themes. So I don’t know how they are working. All I’m saying is if you are copying hard codes of plugins in your themes and giving them credit, then that is not the way to do it (specially not for big features). It is much better to use theme/plugin dependency so the user have the ability to upgrade that plugin when the plugin author updates.
@wpbeginner Yes, of course – I understand your opionion. And everyone should follow that guidelines, not just us. Thank you for your great post!
I totally agree with this post. I know a lot of Theme developers follow strict web standards when they sell it they can label it as SEO friendly. I would definitely recommend using a plugin by Yoast when optimising your WordPress blog.
Great post man
@acurry Glad you like it