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4 Pillars of SEO

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching site owners, freelancers, and agencies how to get found on Google via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.

We are excited to work together to grow your website traffic from Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Before we dive into strategy and action items, it is important to have a foundational understanding of search engine optimization (SEO).

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. It is the art and science of getting your website found in the free or organic space of Google, Yahoo, and Bing. The objective is to increase sales, generate leads, and improve brand awareness.

How does Google Work?

To understand SEO, you first need to understand how search engines work. Search engines use computer programs called web crawlers, spiders, or bots to crawl the web. When they find a new page, they add it to an index. We think of the index as being similar to an old-fashioned Rolodex.

A person then searches on Google, Yahoo, or Bing. The search is known as a search query or more simply, a query. The search engines use an algorithm to determine which pages get pulled from the index and displayed in the search engine results.

An algorithm is nothing more than a process or set of rules to be followed when solving a problem. In SEO the problems are the search queries and the answers are the web pages in search engine results. The algorithms are the computer programs in between that pair the two.

The goal of the search engines is to provide the best possible webpage for each search (also known as a search query or query). Notice how we say webpage, not website. Search engines don’t display entire websites. Instead, they display individual webpages.

The algorithms that calculate search engine rank are complex, ever-evolving and secret. That can make SEO feel overwhelming. Don’t let it. Google’s mission stays the same “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” By taking a holistic SEO strategy, you ensure that the pages on your website help Google fulfill its mission today and tomorrow.

Four Pillars of SEO

Let’s break SEO into parts — the four pillars of SEO. We consider the four pillars of SEO to be scaffolding that helps anchor action items under the umbrella of a holistic strategy.

The four pillars of SEO include technical SEO, content, on-site optimization, and off-site SEO.

Technical SEO


On-Site SEO

Off-Site SEO

Pillar 1 – Technical SEO

The first pillar is technical SEO. Why? In order for the search engines to show your web pages in the search results, they first need to find, crawl and index them.

As we learned above, Google, Yahoo, and Bing use spiders to crawl the internet and collect information about the webpages they come across. There are files and directives (snippets of code) in your website that give search engine spiders instructions for how they would like to be crawled and indexed.

robots.txt file tells the search engines where not to go. Most of the time, you want to allow the search engines to crawl all of your web content. Sometimes, you’ll use the robots.txt file to keep the crawlers out of sections of your website which may have duplicate, thin, or private content you don’t want appearing in search results. For now, all you need to know is that the robots.txt file tells spiders “No, don’t go there. Don’t index these webpages.”

An XML sitemap is the opposite of the robots.txt file. It provides the search engines with a list of all of the pages on your website that you do want to be crawled, indexed, and shown in search results. Think of it as your website’s resume. It contains the high-level information that is needed to get the conversation started such as when a web page was last updated and its relative priority compared to other pages.

There are also meta directives in the form of code snippets that live in the header of each webpage. These directives aren’t visible to website visitors. Instead, they provide search engines bots page by page instruction on how to index the content on a page.

We include securityresponsiveness (mobile-friendly) and speed within technical SEO. These three key technical factors impact usability.

It should come as no surprise that the search engines like websites that are served via secure HTTPS connections.

And, with over 60% of searches coming from mobile devices, it’s essential that your website displays well on all devices – desktops, tablets, and mobile phones.

Lastly, speed matters. It doesn’t matter how great the content on a page is if it loads slowly. People are quick to leave a page that loads slowly (more than 2 seconds) and in turn, they’ll be frustrated with Google for sending them there. Hence why the search engines reward high-speed sites.

The last element of technical SEO is site structure. The search engines need to understand the relative priority of pages on your website and how your site fits together. You can think of structure as being a pyramid with your homepage on the top and your main navigation in the layer below. Each layer below those top two is an increasingly less important collection of webpages. Our goal is an equilateral pyramid. We don’t want our website to be too wide or too tall.

Technical SEO can seem overwhelming at first. However, if you break it down into these component parts and understand the why behind each one, then, it becomes digestible. And, it becomes much easier to carry out the tactics that will improve technical SEO.

Pillar 2 – Content & User Experience

With technical SEO in place, the search engines can find and index our web pages. What they find on each page is the content.

Content has been the backbone of SEO since its inception. It includes text, images, video, tables, PDFs and much more. The search engines extract meaning from each webpage based on the content on the page.

There are five factors to keep in mind as it relates to content and SEO:

  • Quality – Unique, well-written content that provides visitors with great value is a must.
  • Keywords – Content needs to include the phrases you want to gain exposure for in the search results. Cluster related keywords together and use synonyms to provide greater context.
  • Recency – Fresh, new content is popular with search engines. Often, the most frequently updated content on a website is your blog.
  • Type – Depending on the topic of the page, you will want to integrate a meaningful combination of text, images, video and more to ensure the page is dynamic, visually appealing, and engaging.
  • Relevancy – How well the content on your website matches to search queries is content relevancy. The more relevant, the more likely your web page will perform well in the search results.

You can have great content on your site, but if users have a hard time finding and interacting with it, search engines are going to notice. When it comes to user experience, you can make visitors and search engines happy by addressing the following:

  • Navigation – Your site has a logical information flow that makes it easy for users to find the content they are looking for.
  • Look – Your site is presented in a simple and visually appealing manner that conveys trust, authority, and the spirit of your brand.
  • Feel – People enjoy how they interact with your site and how your site interacts with them in return.
  • Usability – The site is easy to use and functions in a uniform way that aligns with visitor expectations.

Now that you know the role that content plays in SEO, let’s take a look at how you can improve other elements of your website to appeal more to search engines and visitors.

Pillar 3 – On-Site SEO

The word “optimization” is overused and vague in search engine marketing. What does it mean to “optimize” your website? It could mean many things – speed up its performance, improve usability, or insert keywords into the copy.

The primary on-site elements that need to be “optimized,” or improved, for users and search engines include:

Page titles and meta descriptions are tags in the header of each webpage. The search engines use these to craft the snippets of information you see on the search engines results page. Page titles influence rank and a person’s likelihood of clicking on the listing (click-through rates). Meta description tags only influence click-through rates.

H1 – H6 tags standardize the format of headers and break up your content into easy-to-read parts. The search engines recognize these tags as being the header of a page or a section of content.

Alternative text on images provides the search engines with a written description of an image. Alt text is first and foremost a principle of accessibility but help the search engines derive meaning as well.

Internal links allow the search engines and website visitors to easily click-through to other pages on your website. The clickable text on a given link (anchor text) conveys the context and meaning of an internal link. They also pass ranking power from one page to another on your website.

Structured data are snippets of code that give search engines precise information about what the content on a webpage is about. It also allows them to easily place webpages in the proper context in search results. Ever wonder how Google quickly displays recipes, movie times or concert information directly in the search results? Structured data a.k.a. schema markup is to credit.

Auditing on-site SEO is an essential step when devising SEO strategy. The opposite of on-site SEO is off-site. Let’s take a look at what that entails.

Pillar 4 – Off-Site SEO

So far we have focused on your website and the various elements that influence the search engine rankings. But, SEO isn’t just about your website. It is also about your website’s trust and authority on the internet.

You could create the world’s best website for a pizza restaurant in New York City. Great menu, testimonials, lightning-fast. You can imagine it. Google isn’t going to trust this website and display it in the search results until it hears an online echo that you are indeed New York’s best.

There are three main places that Google, Yahoo, and Bing are listening for these off-site signals:

Links that point from other websites to your website. These links are valuable because of their ability to pass authority (ranking power) from one website to another. In the simplest terms, links act as votes of confidence from one website for another. The higher the authority of the website giving a link, the more authority that link will pass to the website it’s pointing at. A link pointing to your site from The New York Times website is going to pass a lot more authority than one pointing to it from your dog groomer’s website.

Local search profiles such as Google Maps. If you have a brick and mortar location or serve a particular area, then a Google Maps listing via Google My Business is a must. Simply verifying your location and contact details with Google builds trust. And, you can build more trust by getting five-star customer reviews and comments.

Social media influences SEO. A link from a Facebook Post to your website doesn’t pass the same trust and authority as a traditional backlink as outlined in #1. But, your social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and beyond do carry value via the link they provide to your website.

Getting Started with SEO

SEO doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Instead, break it down into its component parts as we have here.

And, you don’t have to be an expert at SEO to get found in Google. All you need is a process. Here’s the process we coach our Pathfinder SEO customers through via the SEO Checklist and Monthly Tasks:

Common Approaches to SEO

As you get started with SEO, pause to consider which approach best fits your unique business. There are three common approaches:

Hiring an Agency — Outsourcing your SEO to an agency allows you to rely on experts. Some agencies like ours focus only on search engine marketing, while others offer a full suite of services — from web design and development to email marketing and more. Agencies can save you time, but they always come at a cost. Because SEO is a long-term initiative, most SEO services need to be managed via a monthly retainer. They also don’t occur in a vacuum; they require active collaboration with you and your business. We liken this to an 80/20 rule. The agency can do 80% of the work, but you’ll need to contribute 20%.

Do-It-Yourself SEO — A DIY approach saves money, but costs (a lot of) time — most businesses that engage in DIY start by learning SEO before doing SEO. There are a lot of online resources to learn SEO — courses, blog posts, and tutorials. The primary value of DIY SEO is that you already know your business and audience, which is required. The downside is that you probably don’t want to become an SEO expert just to grow your business.

Guided SEO — Guided SEO is the middle ground between DIY and hiring an agency. It gives you a process without asking you to become an expert in SEO. It offers a series of lessons with specific homework assignments so that you can start to get your site ranking in just a few hours a week. It also adds monthly coaching to keep you accountable and answer all your critical questions. Pathfinder SEO offers this kind of guided approach.

Next Step

The first step in guided SEO is establishing your starting point. We do that with an SEO Assessment. Our coaches will identify where your website is today and will create a roadmap for growth.


Let us identify where you are today and create a roadmap for growth.

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching site owners, freelancers, and agencies how to get found on Google via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.
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