WordPress and Yoast: how to manage the traffic lights

Do you really need to spend time and energy turning all your Yoast lights green?

WordPress is ubiquitous as a website platform. It’s what we use for our own website and so do many of our clients and web design partners.

The main reason for this is that it’s an “open source” platform which means that anyone can develop templates, apps and plug-ins for it.

And it’s why there’s such a dizzying array of both free and paid apps and plug-ins to choose from. For example, ways to monitor your website traffic, manage your images, embed videos, take client bookings, etc.

One of the most popular free WordPress plug-ins in Yoast SEO, which allows you to manage some elements of your site’s SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).

Yoast has become so popular that it is synonymous with WordPress website design, and there’s even an annual YoastCon! Many website designers add the free version of Yoast automatically without needing to be asked.

But just having Yoast as a plug-in doesn’t mean your SEO is sorted. You need to update the relevant information within the Yoast menu for each page on your site.

What are the Yoast SEO “traffic lights”?

If you’ve ever taken a close look at how Yoast works in WordPress, you’ll notice that it uses a “traffic light” or coloured bullet system to tell you how well each page on your site scores for SEO (according to them).

The implication being that a red light equals “terrible”, and a green light equals “great”.

Human beings are naturally competitive. Our instincts may tell us that we need to strive to make sure that all those lights are green, don’t we?

The short answer is: no, you don’t.

You’ll notice earlier that I said Yoast “allows you to manage some elements of your SEO”. Note the emphasis on the word “some”. In our opinion, Yoast is useful for adding basic SEO inputs to your page set-up, but it is not the be-all and end-all of SEO.

There’s far more to good SEO than the Yoast menu implies.  Even Yoast themselves admit that pursuing the 100% green light objective isn’t where you should place your SEO efforts!

Here’s the longer answer as to why you need to stop wearing yourself out chasing green Yoast lights.

How to apply Yoast SEO effectively

Achieving a high organic ranking in Google depends on lots of factors and just having a row of green Yoast lights doesn’t mean your content is guaranteed to rank.

The problem is that Yoast is always slightly behind the curve when it comes to the Google search algorithm. So becoming a slave to the green lights and believing that all your SEO is taken care of is misguided.

The Yoast system is partly predicated on allocating a focus keyword for each page (one per page in the free version, several additional synonyms per page in the paid version). As a minimum Yoast expects to see this keyword in your:

  • main headline
  • sub-heading
  • first paragraph of copy
  • page meta title
  • page meta description
  • image Alt Tags

What’s more, Yoast doesn’t like it if you use the same focus keyword on more than one page. Which is annoying since it may be perfectly logical for your website content and target audience to re-use a keyword in several pages on your site.

So getting a green Yoast light is based on having your unique focus keyword in all the “right” places on ONE page. Therefore, the temptation may be to change your focus keyword or increase the frequency of a keyword to get a green light.

Or to revise your headings and page metas (see next section) so that they no longer make any sense, which will impact your CTR (Click Through Rate).

But unless you follow the Yoast rules to the letter that traffic light is never going to be green. Fewer keywords in the page content could even earn you a red light! And that’s perfectly acceptable because search engines like Google don’t care about keyword density.

Google cares more about quality content and a good user experience. So your Yoast-based focus keyword has no direct impact on your search engine ranking.

Using the Yoast SEO interface for metas

One thing that Yoast SEO is very handy for is composing your page meta titles and descriptions.

Metas are what potential site visitors see in search engine page results so it’s important to get them right. You can treat them as a “mini advert” for your business so they need to include the main reasons why someone should click on your link.

The Yoast menu gives you the opportunity to directly type in the meta page titles and page descriptions on screen. The most useful aspect is that you get an immediate preview of how they’ll appear in search results, both on a desktop and on mobile.

The metas section also uses a “traffic light” theme, this time shown as a moving line that cycles through the red-amber-green colour sequence as you type.

Yoast also scores a web page on readability, which is something that you should spend time on.

Don’t write for Yoast, write for human beings

Yoast SEO isn’t a “magic wand” for SEO or a substitute for it. Its main purpose is to provide a handy menu and a few features to guide you through some helpful techniques that will contribute to your SEO management. Having an amber or even a red Yoast light is fine – it’s merely an indication, not a necessity.

So, don’t obsess over Yoast’s green lights. Our advice is to focus on creating great, readable and useful content that answers your customers’ questions and clearly demonstrates your expertise with the problems you solve.

Then make sure your page metas support the page content so that your site visitors get a useful preview. And so long as that Yoast traffic light is anything but greyed-out (which means you have no SEO on that page at all), you’ll be fine.


24th June 2021

Angie McAllister

Thanks so much for this blog Helen, I have totally been obsessing over turning those traffic lights green. I will now stop!

What do you think?

Your email will not be published. ProCopywriters members: log in before commenting so your comment links to your profile.

Become a member

Join ProCopywriters

Connect with peers, develop your skills and extend your reach on our blog.

Become a member
Learn online

Online workshops

Every month we get an expert, an author or a professional trainer to deliver a one-hour presentation on copywriting, marketing or digital media.

Browse events