Content-driven membership sites are faced with a unique set of issues when tackling SEO for members-only content. This article will dive into best practices for membership site technical SEO—the things you can control with the structure and content in your website.

We’ll talk about how locking content restricts the ability for a search engine to crawl and index the full content. So, how can you structure your private content to get the most search traffic possible?

Banner image for A Technical SEO Guide for Membership Sites

SEO Optimization Built Into WordPress

WordPress is, out-of-the-box, one of the most search-friendly platforms you can use as the basis for your website. Since your membership site is being built on WordPress, you’ll inherit all of the built-in SEO benefits of using this platform.

You can enhance your site’s SEO with tools that help you manage and create search-friendly content. Additional WordPress plugins like Yoast SEO or All in One SEO Pack function seamlessly with PMPro—no technical skills or advanced integration required.

Technical SEO Pre-Publish Checklist

At PMPro, we are starting to use a pre-publish technical SEO checklist for all of the content we create. This list helps us make sure posts are search friendly before broadcast. It is much more time consuming to have to go back through old content and “get it up to standards.” Anyone beginning their content creation journey should take time to prioritize SEO from the start.

I’ve read several basic guides on technical SEO, but I found this WordCamp US 2019 presentation on Technical SEO by Pam Aungst to be a great primer on the topic. In the talk, Pam covers many areas of technical SEO so be sure to watch the entire presentation. These are the major takeaways we at PMPro have in our checklist:

  • Permalinks and Slugs: The URL of your page.
    • Use keywords and important terms in your permalinks.
    • Try to keep total URL length around 75 and definitely under 120 characters—the shorter the better.
    • Balance the length against making the slug topic- and keyword-relevant.
    • Avoid underscores and funky parameters. Hyphens are the only non-alpanumeric character you should be using.
    • If you are just starting out, set your WordPress “Permalinks” to “Post name” under General > Permalinks. If you have an existing site and this is not your default setting, making this change will have redirect implications. Do some research before making the switch.
  • Meta Title: The title in the <title> tag for the single page; used in the Google search result.
    • Do not set a meta title longer than 60 characters. The actual post’s title can be longer for display on your site, so you’ll need to use your SEO plugin to adjust the meta title specifically.
    • Meta titles should contain, but not overuse, carefully chosen and searched “keywords”.
    • Use the most important keywords early in the meta title.
    • Make sure every title is unique—don’t duplicate titles from other pages on your site.
    • Leave out any ancillary information like your site name or company name—Google knows it’s you.
  • Meta Description: The description in the <meta name="description"> tag or open graph tag for the single page; used in the Google search result.
    • The optimal length of your meta description is 150 to 170 characters.
    • Try to use letters and numbers only (avoid using non-alphanumeric characters)
    • Make the description unique from all other page descriptions on the site.
    • Think “What is the one sentence that would compel a search result to get clicked on?”
    • Make sure it contains the page’s primary key phrase.
    • Note that if your article is protected for members-only, this description and the optional “excerpt” is all that a search engine can crawl. Try to summarize and highlight as much info as you can.
  • Images:
    • Before uploading, resize screenshots and other graphics to a maximum 1200px wide.
    • Save the optimized image with a file name that also describes it (instead of “screenshot-23-03-2020.png”, try “kim-typing-seo-guide.png”)
    • Make sure every image has an accurate “alt” attribute that accurately describes the image. One image per post should include the focus keywords in the “alt” tag if it makes sense and accurately describes the image.
    • Always set the post’s featured image. This is used when the post is shared on social networks. Avoid using a transparent .png or .gif as the featured image. This can display poorly when shared socially.
    • Page speed can have an impact on SEO, so try compress your image files as much as possible to reduce total page weight.
  • Tags:
    • Properly tag content with any appropriate terms. We use “tags” in our site to dynamically connect content with related documentation. If you don’t have a need for tags, you can leave them out.
  • Headings:
    • Respect the hierarchy: use ‘h1’ for the title, ‘h2’ and then ‘h3’ for primary and secondary content headings. Avoid using anything higher than ‘h3’ in a sidebar or footer widget.
    • For every heading in the post, try to incorporate some of the focus keywords for the post.
  • Content Length:
    • For very long content and when helpful, create a “table of contents” type section at the start of the article that links to anchors in the content.
    • Total post content length should reach a minimum of 300 words.

There is a lot of continued reading if you want to keep exploring these concepts and more. This guide from Yoast SEO dives into the criteria their plugin uses to assess post content. Understanding what each assessed area means will help you to decide whether the improvement is worthwhile and possible. The goal isn’t to get a “green light” everywhere, but rather to use their assessments as a helpful guide.

Protected Content and SEO

Most membership sites want to restrict access to members-only content. Paid Memberships Pro can protect any content for members-only, whether the content is restricted for a specific level or for any level of membership. It’s important to note that protected content is not only hidden from a human visitor, but also from a search engine or search bot.

For this reason, many sites choose to show an excerpt of their content to non-members.

This article covers post excerpts and content filters in more detail, but the basic rule is that you can set the “Show Excerpts to Non-Members?” advanced setting to allow a search engine/search bot to crawl and index your private content. This way your site can still rank for keyword searches in the excerpt, allowing you to attract new members or preserve search engine traffic for an existing website or blog.

You can check this setting on the Memberships > Settings > Advanced > Content Settings page in the WordPress admin.

Using Limit Post Views for SEO

If you are concerned about the SEO implications of search bots being unable to crawl your restricted content, you are not alone. Some sites, most notably the New York Times, allow a limited number of post views by visitors (and a search crawler / bot counts as a visitor, too).

You can use the Limit Post Views Add On with PMPro and set post views for non-members to 1 on the  Memberships > Limit Post Views settings page. Search crawlers like the Google Bot will be able to access every post on your site and create a full index. Nice.

Bonus Tip: Content Audits and Low Performing Content

You may have heard of the SEO “Content Audit.” Before you dive into a full audit with an SEO professional, considering doing some content pruning on your own.

Yes, Google likes to see an active publishing schedule and lots of pages on your site—the more pages, the more content Google can index and “understand” about you. The flip side is that irrelevant and inactive content can have a negative impact on your site’s search performance.

If you have announcements, such as events that have come and gone, or a post about a sale that is no longer active, consider updating the content or use a 301 redirect to point it to a better page.

The Ahrefs SEO WordPress Plugin offers a built-in content audit. While there are API limits to using their free plugin without a paid account on their site, it is definitely worth a try. The tool identifies underperforming content and recommends either deleting or redirecting the link to an updated, more perennial/evergreen post or page. The tool may identify content for deletion that you want to keep—which is totally OK. You’ll know by doing a post-by-post analysis what underperforming content must stay, and what can go.

Bring yourself up to speed with membership website SEO basics and beyond in our companion guide featuring insights from SEO specialist Lindsay Halsey of Pathfinder SEO. Then, check out these other guides on SEO:

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