4 Things You Can Do With WordPress in 2021 That You Couldn’t Do Before

WordPress has entered 2021 stronger than before, beating competitor CMS systems and increasing its market share to an astounding 65%.

It’s never been easier to optimise your site’s performance, rank high on search engines, prioritise user experience, and improve overall security than with the latest versions of WordPress CMS.

Here are our top 4 things that you can do with WordPress in 2021 that you couldn’t do before.

#1Improve SEO With Built-In XML Sitemaps

Sitemaps are the backbone of internet searches. Through these digital channels, spiders crawl your pages, retrieving content for hungry readers. A sitemap is your website’s roadmap, its blazing beacon that lets search engines know that it’s there. Sitemaps are, quite simply, the lifeblood of good SEO.

Sitemaps are usually handled by a plugin, and while this has many advantages, these plugins also come with their own set of drawbacks:

  • Plugins have a limited number of elements that you can optimise on your site
  • Code bloat is common, and forces excessive numbers of unnecessary processes
  • Sitemap plugins could also result in slower site speed and compromised security
  • You have zero influence over how your website or its content are structured

Luckily enough, the newest version of WordPress resolves all of these issues with its built-in XML sitemap functionality. With extensible code and the ability to accommodate 100,000,000 web pages, this new feature could dramatically improve your SERP rankings. Here’s a little bit more about the key features of WordPress’ new sitemap functionality, and what they mean for SEO:

Extensible Code For Customisation Options

From an SEO perspective, the extensible features offered by the new XML sitemap functionality could mean better discoverability on search engines. This is because the added control you have over the structure of your site and how it’s indexed leads to a sitemap that’s highly optimised for the likes of Google. This is essential if you want web crawlers to search your site more effectively. Here are some of the extensible features that are included:

  • Sitemaps in 5.5 are customisable, offering the ability to add functionality to the code
  • Filters can be used to configure sitemap behaviour, e.g. to add custom sitemaps
  • A huge range of hooks can also be added in order to improve or change functionality
  • You control the structure, e.g. which object types and subtypes are to be included

Sitemap Index

An astounding part of this new feature is the sheer number of sitemaps and entries that it’s able to hold:

The sitemap index can hold up to 50,000 sitemaps. Pascal Birchler – WordPress Core Team

By having the option to essentially create an unlimited number of sitemaps, which can in turn accommodate an incredible number of entries, WordPress is giving you the tools to efficiently categorise the content on your website. Having a sitemap that’s well organised like this is critical if you want to ensure that every page is crawled and indexed.

So, let’s take a look at how WordPress built-in sitemap functionality resolves the downfalls of sitemap plugins:

  • It allows you to optimise an unlimited number of elements on your website
  • Because it’s built into the core, the code is robust and runs efficiently
  • Speed and security are improved because you’ll be relying on less plugins
  • You have 100% control over how your site and its content are organised

All of this makes it that much easier to optimise your sitemaps. An optimised sitemap means a higher SERP ranking, and that means more organic traffic – and who doesn’t want that?

#2Auto-Update Your Themes and Plugins

Part of the WordPress developers’ pledge was to improve site security, and introducing an auto-update feature for themes and plugins is one way they achieved this.

Gone are the days of trawling through the plugin library, updating every single one manually. Now, with the press of a button, you can set installations to update automatically. There are a few advantages this brings:

  • The auto-update feature means that your site will always run off the latest code
  • This has a direct impact on things like site speed, performance, and security
  • If you don’t update your plugins, they can become incompatible with WordPress’ core
  • Usually, issues with outdated themes or plugins are resolved in the updated versions

Sure, auto-updating themes and plugins will save you a lot of time, but its first and foremost benefit is security. This is especially important when you consider that over 70% of WordPress installations have vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. A lot of the time, these vulnerable installations are plugins with out-of-date code. All a hacker has to do in that scenario is use an automated tool to identify the weak points, and then boom, all your hard work goes down the drain.

Now that WordPress has an automatic update functionality for its plugins and themes, the risk of being hacked through a vulnerable installation is dramatically lower, meaning that you can essentially forget about a plugin as soon as you’ve installed it. It’s always nice to have one less thing to worry about, so here’s how you can enable the auto-update feature:

  1. When you go to the plugin library, you’ll notice a new column that says ‘enable auto-updates.’
  2. Simply select this for all of the plugins you’re installing on your site.
  3. To auto-update your website’s theme, first select it from the Appearance > Theme page.
  4. The option to enable auto-updates will appear in the theme overview popup.

What Do Auto-Updates Mean For Rogue Plugins?

You might be wondering what the new auto-update feature means for rogue plugins, since this is the most common route hackers use to overpower websites. Rogue plugins often include malicious backdoors, which can give intruders access to all of your files, or malvertising, which can spread malware to your users.

These nasty pieces of code are intentionally obfuscated and often fly under the radar disguised as PHP. So, if WordPress can now automatically update installations, what’s to say that any malicious plugin won’t also get updated and cause further damage to your site?

Well, don’t worry, because there’s a resolutive feature that WordPress developers decided to leave unannounced:

  • A flag has been added to the code to act as a kind of digital gatekeeper
  • Called ‘disable_autoupdate,’ this literally flags malicious plugins to the WordPress site
  • The auto-update feature can then be remotely disabled for the flagged plugin

In order for this to work, WordPress was given the functionality to essentially schedule when a given plugin will auto-update, according to how many bugs are identified or flagged. This means that plugins and themes will be auto-updated within 24 hours, instead of immediately, giving the flag time to work.

#3Climb The SERPs Thanks To PHP Compatibility Scanning

The era of PHP 7.2 is almost over, this version will no longer be supported by its developers, meaning that there will be no more security checks, updates, or bug fixes.

PHP 7.4 is the latest version used in WordPress. But, in the previous versions of WordPress, migrating a site over to updated versions of this script language led to a host of problems, namely broken plugins and pages that wouldn’t load correctly.

If you’ve ever had to update your PHP, then this will sound hauntingly familiar – but don’t worry, while there are urgent calls for sites to upgrade to PHP 7.4, the latest WordPress updates mean that you’ll never have to experience these trials and tribulations again. Introducing automated PHP compatibility scanning, another exciting functionality in WordPress that’s bringing site developers to their knees in thanks.

Why PHP is important is said right there in the message that keeps popping up on your dashboard, telling you that a PHP update is required: “Newer versions are both faster and more secure.” But what are the SEO benefits of using up-to-date PHP exactly?

  • Newer versions of PHP have much higher performance levels (see the graph below)
  • They can handle more concurrent users, and thereby more requests per second
  • As a result, your server will be better equipped at handling increased traffic
  • This can lead to better site speed, which Google considers in its rankings

WordPress

In a nutshell, updated PHP means better SEO because Google recognises and rewards optimised site performance. So why should you care about automated compatibility scanning?

With the update, WordPress now automatically tests each supported branch of PHP to ensure that they run without errors. They do this using Travis, their Continuous Integration system, which detects potential PHP issues when edits are being made to each WordPress version. What this means is:

  • Any PHP incompatibilities that crop up will be inspected as soon as they occur
  • Sites will never rely on outdated PHP, and should run more efficiently because of this
  • Site security will be improved because newer PHP versions are regularly checked

What’s even better is that this functionality doesn’t start and end with 5.5. According to WordPress developers, in the future, when their PHP version changes, Travis CI will automatically generate errors and warnings for WordPress’ project files, meaning that every PHP version should have improved compatibility with every WordPress version going forward.

To round this all off, updating your PHP to 7.4 is essential if you want a higher-performing website. With automated compatibility scanning, as well as default sitemap functionality, it’s easier than ever to improve your website’s SERP rankings. If you’re a Marketing Manager, make sure your developers are on the ball with this so that your site doesn’t fall behind!

#4Optimise Your Site With Lazy Image Loading

If you want to optimise your site’s performance, lazy image loading is probably the easiest way to do it. This is when only above-the-fold content is loaded on a webpage, while content that’s below the fold gets rendered as the user scrolls towards it. It’s a great way to improve site speed, and while it isn’t a new concept, the fact that it’s now part of the core in WordPress makes it easier to implement than ever.

The lazy loading attribute has only been a recent introduction in HTML5. Previously, users had to rely on plugins to enable this technique – but, as we’ve already touched on, this increases security risks because you’re running more code. Now, with the native HTML loading attribute, lazy loading is a default setting in WordPress.

  • The lazy loading attribute will be automatically added to images or videos that have specified widths and heights
  • For images that lack these attributes, WordPress will retrospectively add them to all img tags
  • With content optimised for lazy loading, browsers will only download or preload content that’s immediately visible

The efficacy of this optimisation technique is proven in how it enhances user experience:

  • Cumulative layout shift (CLS): Because only a portion of a page’s images and videos will be rendered, the risk of CLS is dramatically reduced. This is when a webpage’s elements shift suddenly as they are downloaded. The more images and videos a browser has to download, the more likely your layout is to shift for the user.
  • Supported by major browsers: More than 70% of the world’s browsers can now support lazy loading thanks to it being a part of the HTML standard. This means that more users will benefit from quicker site speeds.
  • Critical rendering path (CRP): Everything a browser has to do to render site content is known as the critical rendering path, and it can be optimised to improve rendering time and site speed. Rather than getting rid of or reorganising all of your high-res assets, which would negatively impact UX, you can instead use lazy loading to improve CRP as it reduces the number of assets that need loading in the first place.

But the crème de la crème of this new feature is how much it can speed up page load times, which we all know is a major factor that Google considers in SERP rankings.

How Lazy Loading Improves Site Speed

Inefficient web pages can be a heavy burden – literally. If your site isn’t properly optimised, it can lead to heavy page weights that take up too much bandwidth and, ultimately, too much time. As a result, your visitors are likely to bounce before their browsers have had a chance to load your content.

Page weight, or page bloat is determined by how many pieces of media are on a webpage. The higher the number of bytes being sent and processed, the heavier and slower a page will be. This is why lazy image loading in the WordPress core is so beneficial. Pages will now lazy load by default, and this kills more than two birds with one stone: it improves site speed, optimises user experience and the critical rendering path, boosts SERP rankings, reduces security risks, avoids CLS, works with pre-existing lazy load plugins… and, finally, makes your life a lot easier.

In short, WordPress has made quite the entrance into 2021. While there will always be room for improvements, the features introduced offer an unprecedented range of SEO and security benefits that you’ll be itching to make use of.

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