If you’ve been around WordPress long enough, you have probably heard people recommending certain WordPress themes because they are “SEO friendly.” The question, though, is what SEO friendly actually means. More to the point how is an SEO friendly theme different from a theme with SEO options? Let’s look at some of the differences between an SEO friendly theme and a theme with SEO options, and explain why WordPress themes really shouldn’t have SEO options at all.
What are themes for?
The basic purpose of a WordPress theme is to provide you with an easy way to choose the layout of your site. Themes are ready templates that allow you to pick a format for your blog that is best suited to your tastes and your blog’s purpose. Simply put: they make your blog look good, so that your readers can interact with your site smoothly and easily. There are several factors that influence the construction of a good theme. First there’s the basic aesthetics – the layout, color scheme, etc. – of how the theme looks. Second is the user interface (UI), which determines how your users navigate and interact with your site. Underneath all that, though, is the code. A good theme has nice, clean code that is semantic and follows basic web standards.
That kind of theme is “SEO friendly.” When we recommend a theme as being SEO friendly, that is what we mean. Some people, however, think that SEO friendly means that a theme has SEO options like breadcrumbs, meta tags, and other features. While those things will improve your site’s on-page SEO, they are not required for an SEO friendly theme.
Why do developers/designers include SEO options?
There are two main reasons developers and designers of themes include SEO options in their themes. First of all, it’s a little bit of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Most bloggers understand the importance of SEO, so themes that have SEO options – however effective or ineffective they may actually be – have become something of a standard among WordPress themes. Simply put, if your competitors are putting SEO options in their themes, then you should do the same.
Secondly, and consequently, it’s a bit of a marketing gimmick. Theme designers know that themes with SEO options are popular with users, and so they throw them in. Unfortunately, they sometimes wind up putting all their energy into working SEO options into a theme instead of focusing on making the theme itself the best it can possibly be.
What’s wrong with SEO Options, anyway?
The simple answer is that your WordPress theme isn’t the right place to incorporate SEO options. There are a number of major problems with including SEO options in a WordPress theme. In fact, it’s such a bad idea that theme designers actually do significant disservice to their users by including them. This is especially true in the case of beginning users. If you are depending on a theme for your SEO settings, then switching themes becomes a major undertaking. If you fail to migrate your SEO settings from one theme to another correctly, you run the risk of losing all the SEO data from your older posts.
The simple fact of the matter is that SEO options are clearly within the purview of plugin developers. Theme developers do their users a disservice and trespass on the territory of plugin developers when they bundle SEO options into their themes. More to the point, however good the SEO options of a theme may be, they simply cannot be as complete and robust as you would expect from a decent plugin like Yoast’s WordPress SEO, which has been downloaded over 1 million times. If a theme were to include a more well-rounded set of SEO options – things like nofollow tags, redirections, sitemaps, indexation, etc. – then the theme would quickly become bloated with features that are far beyond the purpose of a WordPress theme.
That’s not to say that companies that design themes should stay out of the SEO business entirely, of course. But if they want to do SEO options and don’t feel like supporting Yoast’s WordPress SEO, they should make their own plugins instead of trying to make their themes do too much.
All things being equal, though, the best course of action for theme makers who want to incorporate SEO would be to build Theme/Plugin Dependencies into their themes.
What do you think? Should theme designers stay out of the SEO business?