To date, there are just under 77 million WordPress sites worldwide. This insanely popular content management system is touted by many as the best available, and for good reason. WordPress enables novice designers and developers to create truly beautiful and functional websites, with easy publication tools and upkeep.

SEO, however, is never “built-in” to any website; it must be planned, properly executed, and meticulously maintained. These days, there are a slew of fantastic SEO tools for WordPress sites, like Yoast and Ultimate SEO. These are extremely valuable in assisting with many long-term SEO techniques.

First, however, you need to build your site with SEO in mind, or all the tricks in the world won’t help your rankings. Below is a list of the top SEO musts for any WordPress website; follow these, and you have a strong and search engine friendly foundation to grow a truly successful online business.

Step 1: URLs

The default URL structure in WordPress is ?p=123 – and this is simply not beneficial for SEO. To change it, click Settings, then Permalinks. The best option is by post name, or /sample-post/.

This is ideal because the title of your page or post should be keyword rich, and therefore crucial for search engines to crawl. Leaving the default numeric structure doesn’t tell search engines anything about your content.

Step 2: Page and Blog Titles

There are few things more important for your WordPress site than the page titles and blog subjects you select. These not only communicate your core focus to search engines, they are the first thing people will see in your search results. These need to be descriptive, concise, and should display your core keywords.

Get even more mileage by changing the order for a blog post from “Blog title / Blog Archive / Keyword rich post title” to “Keyword rich post title / Blog Archive / Blog Title”. Why? Search engines automatically weight the first words of the title, so you want your keywords up front. In addition, people looking at the search listings scan the first words too; these need to be the most compelling parts of your title, lest you lose people (and search engines!) genuinely looking for your content.

Step 3: XML Sitemaps

Most of the top SEO WordPress plugins make creating a XML sitemap an easy and efficient process. These are essential to publish, as they keep search engines updated to any new content you post on your site. Once you launch a sitemap, any additional updates will automatically be propagated to the search feeds.

Step 4: Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are text navigation threads often placed at the top of web pages. They allow users and search engines to follow the site structure related to any given page. Why are they important to SEO? Done properly, they make it easy for users to navigate throughout your site, and in turn, they communicate your site structure to search engines. Both very, very good things.

Breadcrumbs should always start with your homepage, then list the current category, and post name. If a given page is listed in multiple categories, pick the most popular – don’t have duplicates, as this gets too confusing.

Step 5: Pagination

If you have category pages with multiple posts, it can be difficult for search engines to reach all the content. A good rule of thumb is 10 pages or less, or you risk search engines lowering your ranking because they can’t access all your content. Plugins like WP-PageNavi can help you create numeric pagination, which will solve the issue completely.

Step 6: Optimization

Page and image load times are often overlooked as key SEO elements, which is truly a mistake. Page load times may not be the most important factor to a highly ranked WordPress site, but it is absolutely a consideration. If you have images or pages that take too long to load, visitors and search engines alike will not have easy access to your content, and this is obviously not your end goal. With so many excellent optimization tools available now, there’s no reason to slack on load times.

Step 7: Internal Links

It doesn’t take long to amass a healthy collection of older content on your site. To keep it current in the eyes of search engines, link to related posts when you publish new content in the same grouping. There are plenty of plugins that will help you do this by keyword or category, or you can use custom code within your theme.

Step 8: External Links

Millions of WordPress sites use the popular side bar menu, including blogrolls that link to various external sites. If you opt to use this, do so only on your homepage or category page. It’s rarely a good idea to prominently send folks off your site, and from an SEO perspective, if the links aren’t completely relevant to the content on that page, they could hurt your overall rankings.

Step 9: Engage with Your Visitors

Lastly, once you start generating faithful followers, make sure to stay very current on any comments or questions. When users feel you’re actually paying attention to them, their loyalty levels skyrocket. Comments and testimonials are SEO gold these days too, so it’s a bona fide win-win to keep your audience engaged with your content. WordPress makes this very easy to maintain; you’ll want to enable a spam-filtering plugin, at the very least, if not enjoy one of the many comment-focused add-ons too.

What other WordPress SEO questions do you have? Did your best tips make the list?

Digital producer, game designer, Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs, Tina Courtney-Brown has been shaping online businesses since 1996. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, massively multiplayer games, social networks and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, nonprofit director and true cooking diva. Learn more at her personal website, or find her on Facebook and Google+.