Optimizing your website to be pleasing to both humans and robots is a complex endeavor. The best way to approach it is to break down your efforts across the 4 pillars of SEO – technical SEO, on-page SEO, content, and off-page SEO.
These foundations allow you to better organize your optimization process. This way you can ensure that you are not missing any important details when building your strategy.
Search engine optimization, a.k.a. SEO, is the fast lane towards building a digital presence, and online success.
Second only to directly typing out the website’s domain, organic search is the main source of traffic for businesses. This makes it the centerpiece of digital marketing and something that every company that wants to make it should care about.
Furthermore, by approaching the website optimization process systematically, you can build a comprehensive SEO checklist and keep up with your chores.
In this article, we’ll explain each of the 4 pillars of SEO and provide insights on how to best design your strategy.
Read on to find out!
How Search Works in a Nutshell
Before we delve into the specifics that define the 4 pillars of SEO, let’s first establish how search engines work. This will make the importance and standing of each element more evident and will allow us to put them into proper context.
To be able to deliver relevant content that matches the user’s query, search engines have bots (also called spiders, crawlers, and robots). Their task is to visit (crawl) all the pages that they can find on the internet.
Once they encounter a page, the bots check the content on it (including text, images, video, audio, etc.), and try to understand what it is about. The information is added to an index.
This database is similar to a library’s index where all the headlines are listed, together with information about the author, content, etc. However, Google’s index is a bit more complex.
First, a user keys a query into the search engine. Then, the search algorithm (the program that connects the user’s end and the index database) tries to identify the pages that best match their intent. The most relevant results with the best quality content are delivered as links in the search engine result pages (SERPs).
However, modern search engines don’t only assess the quality and relevance of the content. They also take into account the technical aspects of the website. That’s because they don’t want to just provide answers, they want to deliver a great user experience.
All in all, by covering all the 4 pillars of SEO, you make sure you take into account three important factors. First, keep in mind that search robots can discover and understand your pages. Also, they deem you competent enough on the topic to show your content to the user. Last but not least, don’t forget that when a user lands on your website, they find exactly what they need.
The 4 Pillars of SEO
With that being said, let’s deconstruct each of the 4 pillars of SEO – technical SEO, on-page SEO, content, and off-page SEO.
1. Technical SEO: Makes Your Discoverable
Technical SEO makes it easier for search engine bots to discover, crawl, and index your pages. As a result, they show the results to the users that are most likely to click on them.
Furthermore, some aspects of this type of optimization improve the overall page experience of your website.
Search engines care about UX because they want users to be happy with the results they see in the SERPs. Make sure your website lives up to the basic technical requirements and the 4 pillars of SEO overall. Otherwise, the algorithm may overlook your pages in favor of others that deliver a better experience to users.
Modern CMS systems such as WordPress automatically take care of a lot of the issues regarding technical SEO, and have plugins that help you address the rest. However, if your website is large and has hundreds or thousands of pages, it’s a safe bet that it needs additional optimization.
When taking care of technical SEO, consider the following factors:
The bots should have access to all of the pages you want them to crawl. If there are pages that you don’t want to be added to the index, you should list them in a robots.txt file. The bots may still crawl these pages, but they will not index them and show them in search results.
These can be service pages, pages with little, or low-quality content, duplicates, private pages, etc.
Also, large websites with more than 10K pages may reach the limits of their crawl budget and need to pay special attention to it.
The best way to make sure the bots find and index all the pages you want them to is to create a sitemap. This is a list of the URLs of the pages, including information about the number of images on them and the date when the page was last modified/updated.
For WordPress websites, a sitemap can be generated by an SEO plugin, such as Yoast.
Nowadays, the majority of content is consumed on mobile devices, as a result, search engines strive to provide users with pages that will look good on screens of all shapes and sizes.
In fact, Google has switched to mobile-first indexing. This means that, while websites that are desktop-only may not fall out of the search engine’s index, they are unlikely to be shown to users on mobile devices. This can, potentially, affect their overall ranking in a negative way.
There are different approaches to consider when making your website mobile-friendly, which one you choose depends on your needs.
Search engines favor websites that are quick and easy to access. Speed is among the most important page experience signals and for a reason.
Online users tend to have little patience for slow-loading websites and are likely to move on to the next link in the SERPs if the one they click on is taking too long to load. Therefore, when the algorithm decides what pages to provide the user, it’ll prioritize the faster ones.
In line with this, you should also optimize your core web vitals, a group of page experience signals that show the loading speed, interactivity, and visual stability of a page.
Website structure, also known as website information architecture, is the organization of pages on your website – the homepage, top-level pages, subpages, and so on.
There are different types of structures, but the flatter and easier to follow it is, the better search engines will find their way around your website.
Complex website structures can, potentially, confuse both the bots and your visitors and make them give up on trying to find what they are looking for.
2. On-Page SEO: Makes Your Pages Understandable
On-page SEO is the second of the 4 pillars of SEO. While technical SEO focuses mostly on the design and backend of your website, on-page SEO (also referred to as on-site SEO) deals with the content of the individual pages.
By implementing this type of optimization, you increase the chances of the bots understanding what your pages are about. As a result, they can better index them, appearing in the SERPs as more relevant queries that users are more likely to click on.
As you can see, it’s kind of a chain reaction, and it all depends on how well the search engine understands your page.
Modern algorithms are way better at natural language processing than they used to be. Hence, it’s easier for them to make connections between the content on your page and the user’s intent.
However, they are still machines with limited resources.
The more additional information you can provide – organized and presented in a way that they can read – the better they’ll understand your pages.
That’s the idea of on-page SEO.
Here are the main factors to take into account when optimizing your pages:
The page should have a relevant title that is up to 70 characters. Also, make sure you optimize it with the main keywords you are targeting. If your title doesn’t correspond to the content on the page, the algorithm may generate a different one to display in the SERPs.
However, it’s a safe bet that you, as a human, can create a more compelling title, so avoid click-bait and think of something that is both engaging and accurate.
The URL slug is the part of the link after the main domain and the category that is unique to each page on your website.
For example, in the URL https://devrix.com/tutorial/create-pillar-page/ “create-pillar-page” is the slug.
It’s best to avoid generic slugs that include only numbers and symbols, or are too general and consist of one or two words.
Descriptive URLs that feature the main keywords and parts of the headline are good for both SEO and UX.
Meta descriptions are a short summary of the content of the page that shows up in the SERPs under the page title and the link. The character limit here is 155.
If you don’t provide a description yourself, the search engine will generate an automatic one. It’s usually, the first 155 characters of the content on the page.
However, unique meta descriptions that make sense and include a call to action provide a better UX, and, as a result, improve SEO.
Breaking down the content on the page with H-tags provides better structure and readability. This makes it easier to understand not only by bots but by your visitors as well.
Search engines recognize these subheadings (as well as bullets and numbering). Among other things, bots can use H-tags to create special results such as featured snippets.
Keywords allow you to better match your content with the user’s query and intent.
The main keywords that the page targets should be used in the headline, the subheadings, the meta description, the URL, and distributed across the text.
However, don’t overuse them because keyword stuffing not only sounds unnatural and is annoying, but it can cause a Google penalty.
Diversify the search terms you use with synonyms, keyword variations, and related keywords on relevant subtopics. This shows the bots that you are exploring different aspects of the topic and providing comprehensive information.
Image Alt Text
Alt text is used to describe the content of images.
In SEO, it has more than one benefit. It improves accessibility which shows you are providing a good user experience. On top of that, allows the bots to better understand what’s on your image.
In addition, in case there’s an issue with rendering the image, instead of blank space, the page may display the alt text and the image file name.
Internal links are very important in SEO. They strengthen your website structure. Also, internal links help the bots better understand the hierarchy and connection between your pages.
Furthermore, they distribute link equity. This means that the pages with high authority boost the less important ones that are linked to them.
Also, it’s not a secret that links and anchor text helps the bots “read” the pages better. This way they understand what your content is about, as well as discover new pages on your website.
When choosing the anchor text for internal links, optimize it with the main keyword of the target page. Alternatively, make it resemble a call to action that will help the user understand what to expect if they click.
Structured data and schema markup are among the most valuable assets in SEO.
Simply put, by marking up your pages, you provide search engines with organized information about the most important data they need to know about a page.
This minimizes the risk of the bots misunderstanding the purpose of the page and the content on it.
However, there’s more. The search algorithm uses structured data to create rich snippets. They are search results with additional information, images, review stars, prices, and other details that apply to the page.
These types of SERP links are highly clickable and can boost your traffic and engagement.
3. Content: Shows the Value You Provide
Regardless of how well you optimize your pages and the technical aspects of your website, high-quality content remains the most essential part of your efforts.
After all, the purpose of search engines is to provide users with the content they are looking for.
Over the years, Google’s content criteria have evolved together with its algorithm. Nowadays, it’s safe to say that if your page is of poor quality, sooner or later it will drop out of the SERPs.
However, quality is a complex notion.
Here’s what to take into account to meet both Google’s and the audience’s standards:
Simply put, the content’s author and/or publisher needs to be a verified expert in their field with high authority, credibility, and respectability in the industry.
Furthermore, the website where the content is published has to provide transparent information on who’s behind it (be it a person, or company), and have a positive online reputation.
All this adds up to ensure that the information on the page is accurate, credible, and useful.
The content should be relevant to the user’s query. This means that when you optimize for certain keywords, you need to provide information that matches them and is useful to the users who search them.
As mentioned, the content also needs to be aligned with the headline, otherwise, it will be considered misleading.
More often than not, search engines favor long-form content. That’s because, if written well, it provides more relevant information to the user and helps them find everything they need in one place.
Therefore, when creating your content, you should explore the related subtopics. This is so you can include all the information that may help the user better understand the topic.
By mentioning related topics and subtopics, you also make it easier for search engines to understand what the content is about.
That’s because the search algorithm relies on the Knowledge Graph – a database of entities with basic information about them and how they are related to each other.
For example, if you talk about Waterloo and mention trains and travel, the algorithm will understand that you are talking about Waterloo Station and not the Battle of Waterloo.
More often than not, the freshness of content is related to its accuracy and credibility.
That’s why, when showing search results, Google strives to provide the newest relevant pages.
This means that even if you publish evergreen content, you should occasionally revisit and update it with more recent information.
Pages that feature diverse content including text, graphics, images, tables, videos, audio, etc. are more engaging to users, and, as a result, contribute to better SEO.
However, make sure not to overburden the page. This can affect its loading speed. All the multimedia content you add should be there because it adds value and may be useful to the visitor.
Call to Action
Call-to-action buttons may seem a little out of place in this list, but they are actually quite relevant.
They invite (or push) the user to take the next steps on their journey on your website, and, therefore, result in users clicking on more of your links, and spending more time on your website.
The more engaged the user is, the better impression this leaves the bots.
We already mentioned mobile-friendliness when we talked about technical SEO. However, optimizing your page layouts and making your content more mobile-friendly are not entirely the same thing.
All in all, to be eye-pleasing and easy to read on a small screen, your content should have enough white space, short sentences and paragraphs, a lot of subheadings and bullets, and simple enough vocabulary.
You can read more on the topic in our dedicated article: 10 Tips and Ideas to Make Your Content More Mobile-Friendly
4. Off-Page SEO: Proves Your Authority
Last but not least among the 4 pillars of SEO, it’s off-page SEO. Off-page SEO, or off-site SEO, refers to the outside factors that affect your presence in the SERPs, i.e. everything that is not on your own website but matters about your standing with search engines.
Backlinks are crucial for SEO, in fact, they are often quoted as the most important factor that determines your success in the SERPs.
The reason for this is that these are links from other websites toward yours and Google views them as the highest form of recommendation.
Why? They signify that a third party considers your content to be so valuable that it wants its readers to see it.
The more backlinks a page has, the higher its authority becomes.
However, although quantity never hurts, the quality and relevance of these links is what really matters.
Furthermore, links from websites with high authority are far more valuable than those from unpopular or low-quality domains. High-authority links transfer what is known as link equity (or the more colloquial “link juice”) and can boost the authority of your own pages.
This means that when building backlinks, you should always focus on those that will contribute to your page’s presence. Avoid opportunities that just waste time and resources on every link you can get your hands on.
Online reputation is crucial for SEO. What people say about you can be the difference between making and breaking it.
Reviews on third-party websites and platforms are the backbone of your digital reputation. Although you can’t control what people say about you, you should always strive to answer all reviews – good and bad.
By engaging with people who left a negative opinion about your business, you can try to make amends and fix their impression of you. As a result, they could change their minds. Even if they don’t, it shows good manners. It can also affect the way other people see you – as someone who cares about the quality of their services.
If you are a local business and your audience is concentrated in a limited area, optimizing your Google My Business profile can greatly contribute to your overall SEO.
There you can not only feature a link to your website, your address, and a map with your physical location, but you can provide images, answer questions, and add relevant information.
As mentioned, reviews are also an important feature.
In addition, you should strive to get featured in local directories. The backlinks from these are not very valuable. However, your presence in these listings can boost your reputation and credibility, bringing in significant traffic.
Building profiles on all social media networks can affect your credibility. Even if you are not active on one of the popular platforms, do your best. Create a profile there and leave a message to potential customers. This way they can find you on other channels where you are more active.
Why do this? Search engines take profiles on third-party platforms as proof of your existence and credibility. Together with your brick-and-mortar address, phone number, email address, and other personal information, social media platforms confirm that you are a real entity.
The 4 pillars of SEO define a framework that allows businesses to address search engine optimization strategically and make the most of it.
Each pillar consists of a group of factors. If implemented properly, they strengthen the whole structure and increase the website’s chance of success.
When optimizing your content, keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of SEO is to ensure that search engines understand what your pages are about, and are able to assess their quality. This way, they will show them to the right kind of users who are more likely to enjoy your content.
As a result, you will benefit from organic traffic and your business will thrive online.
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