Pillars
Search engine optimisation can be a daunting subject. You’ll hear things like ‘Over 200 ranking factors’. You’ll come across those that specialise in technical SEO. Many will evangelise content marketing whilst others focus on PR and link building.
 
How influential is social media? Do Google Ads affect rankings? What about Google handing out penalties and constantly moving the goal posts?
 
Don’t be intimidated. Any subject can seem mind blowingly complex when you know very little about it……Dunning-Kruger effect not withstanding.
 
The fundamental principles that drive SEO are pretty easy to understand. The great news is that if you always have these basic in mind, you’ll put yourself in a great position.

HINT: SEO is NOT about tricking or gaming search engines. It’s about authority, relevance, value….and effective targeting of the searcher.

We won’t be going into granular detail in this article, that’s covered in more specific ones. Instead, we’ll look at why each principle is important for success in organic search.
 
We’ll cover:
 
  • What do search engines want?
  • Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness
  • Long term consistency
  • Research
  • Technical/Onsite Optimisation
  • Content Creation
  • Link Building
  • Analytics
 
Right before we dive in, you should identify what your objectives are. For most businesses this revolves around converting users into customers. For other businesses it might be growing a readership or disseminating industry news. Whatever it is, keep your objectives clear. SEO takes effort, so you need to be working towards a goal.

What do search engines want?

It goes without saying that a search engine’s ecosystem drives much of what we do….we said it anyway.
 
We shouldn’t view search engines as the enemy. If we work with them and understand what they want, we can use this as the keystone in our metaphorical bridge.
 
As discussed in our explanation of how search engines work, they want to provide the most relevant and valuable search results for the user. This creates a critical mass of free users, enabling them to charge companies to advertise to their user base.
 
The quality of the results and experience for the free searcher is their primary concern. They want to make them a loyal customer of their free search engine, because it has a direct impact on their ability to generate ad revenue
 
What the searcher wants, the search engine wants to provide. Ultimately, this is providing results that truly satisfy their intent (i.e what the searcher is trying to achieve). That can come in many forms. It could be the freshest news story, the most appropriate products, the most detailed information. The constant is satisfying the underlying intent of the searcher.
 
What the search engine doesn’t want is a frustrated searcher. They don’t want untrustworthy results. They don’t want the searcher to have a bad website experience when they click on a link. They don’t want the searcher to have to click on lots of links or conduct multiple searches.
 
Which segues nicely into E-A-T.
 
Almost like we planned it.

Expertise, Authority & Trustworthiness

In August 2018 Google released an update, known as the Medic Update. It was named so because of its focus on what are known as ‘Your Money or Your Life‘ (YMYL) pages. In more colloquial language, these are webpages that could have an effect on the user’s bank account or health.
 
However, whilst important, this update was impactful because it highlighted Google’s focus on E-A-T and their Quality Rater Guidelines.
 
As you may have guessed, E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness. It’s a fundamental principle (amongst others) by which Google’s Quality Raters will judge a website. Therefore as SEOs we need to align ourselves with this.
 
A key point to note here is that whilst there E-A-T may give it a name (or an acronym), it wasn’t necessarily new. The Medic Update served to highlight its importance for YMYL pages, but also for all pages!
 
Let’s do a quick run down on the three components of E-A-T:

Expertise

Google want their users to be able to benefit from genuine expertise. To demonstrate this expertise to both users and search engines, it is advisable to use the following framework:
 
  • Ensure that you provide a detailed author bio, providing evidence of subject matter expertise & qualifications.
  • Do your research. Understand the type of information that the searcher may need. Whilst keywords can provide guidance, focus instead on being the best solution for a searcher.
  • Don’t duplicate. This can be difficult for more generic subjects but where possible, conduct your own unique research and provide this data.
  • Like any good article, it should reference data and facts.
  • Provide links to studies and other information to help reinforce that your article is factually accurate. You can also loop in other experts to reference and add weight to your content.

Authority

Similar to how we interact with each other in normal society, Google wants to see your authority on a subject. Some would call this reputation. In fact, Google have a section in their Quality Rater Guidelines on assessing the reputation of a website or content creator. How do we display this reputation or authority? Glad you asked:
 
  • High quality and relevant links are going to be influential here. We’ll cover this when discussing link building, but remember that a strong backlink profile is critical.
  • Reviews and star ratings can be indicative of a good (or bad) reputation.
  • How does the industry talk about the company or author? Are they referenced in recognised papers, websites or forums? We want ‘independent, credible sources of information’ to shine a positive light.

Trustworthiness

It could be argued that much of trustworthiness is an amalgamation of expertise and authority. However, there are opportunities both onsite and offsite for Google to judge your trustworthiness.
 
  • Website security could impact a user’s trust. SSL is a ranking factor for Google so make sure you have https on the site.
  • Clear access to information. This could be a privacy policy in line with, for instance, EU Laws & GDPR. It could be returns & refund policies or terms & conditions.
  • Independent awards or recognition within an industry.
  • Reviews, ratings and how others refer to your website will likely impact trustworthiness as well.
 
There are of course nuances when it comes to E-A-T. Although it all comes back to one thing: the searcher. E-A-T doesn’t need to be intimidating. It’s a framework by which Google can further judge whether a searcher will have the best experience on a website. It always comes back to the searcher.

Long Term Consistency

Even as someone new to SEO, you may have heard that SEO is a long term commitment. That is absolutely true.
 
You may be able to gain some initial success, especially in low competition industries, but the real benefits come long term.
 
Long term can sound expensive to some, exhausting to others. That’s why we talk about long term consistency. The whole hare and and the tortoise fable comes to mind. If you can be a hare with stamina then even better. If you can’t, get comfortable being the tortoise.
 
The key point here is that your plan should be long term and sustainable. Of course the main reason why long term consistency is critical is because SEO takes time. Here’s a few reasons to help explain:
 
  • Not everything is perfect first time. As such, you will have to revisit some of the work you complete and adjust it according to your analytics.
  • Consistency over time will mean a larger amount of deliverables (work completed in all areas of SEO)
  • Your content will remain relevant. This may come in the form of regular industry news updates, or updating old content. As we’ll see, in some circumstances fresh content can have a real impact on your SEO.
  • Frustration and burn out can set in, especially if you set false expectations. When you look to work over what you might deem as ‘above your threshold’ for a short period, you’re automatically in the wrong mindset. You’ll expect to see short term results. This can lead to you losing faith in SEO as a channel and not reaping the long term benefits.
  • SEO is constantly evolving. If you have are consistently adjusting your campaign, you’ll stay up to date.
  • A portion of SEO requires reputation (such as link building). This takes time to develop, including connections with publishers and other websites.
 
Start off slow, especially if you’re just getting started. There’s a lot to do and it’s easy to get distracted. Focus on one task at a time. This might be optimising your meta data, or removing duplicate content on your site. Take the time to understand why you’re completing said task and don’t move on until it is fully completed. Yes, you’ll need to prioritise, which is what we’ve done with these guides, but don’t leave things half-baked. You don’t know when you’ll get the time to revisit them.
 
By now, you’re probably itching for some actionable items.
 
Let’s start with research.

Research

As we said at the start, we’re not going to go into specific step by steps in this article. We’ve created those separately within the Beginner’s SEO Guides feed.
 
What we’ll discuss here is the underlying theory behind the main pillars of SEO. Please don’t skip to the step by step guides if you’re new to SEO, we cannot undersell the value of gaining a true understanding of the core theory.
 
So……research.
 
Most of the narrative around SEO research revolves around keyword research, i.e search volumes. This is an important part of the research, but in actual fact, our research needs to cover the following:
 
  • Brand strategy
  • Messaging and communications strategy
  • Audience insights
  • Keyword research
  • Competitor research
 
Why don’t we just look at keyword research? Surely that shows us what customers are searching for?
 
In part this is true, but it’s a house built on sand (yet another metaphor/fable/parable for you).
 

Brand Strategy and Marketing & Communications Strategy

Monthly keyword search volumes can be the shiny objects in your vision. They catch the eye and lead you off course. That’s why the first items to clarify are brand strategy, as well as your messaging and communications strategy.
 
Think about it. You need to know your position within the market, the value you offer prospects and your differentiators. Without these you’re just generically targeting the highest volume searches in your industry. They may only be loosely related to your business, but they are big numbers and distracting. Instead, we want to focus on search terms where your message and brand resonates with searchers.
 
These strategies provide focus for the SEO campaign. Subsequently, you’ll find that your targeting, content plans and link building is far more focussed. They’ll fall in place and align with your brand, delivering higher conversion rates.

Audience Insights

You may well have completed an audience insights exercise as part of your brand strategy. This is your chance to double check it with your SEO hat on.
 
Using tools such as SparkToro, you can get a better understanding your audience and what they engage with online. You can even start to understand the type of language that they use.
 
Developing your buyer personas is again important prior to diving into keyword research. If you have Google Analytics set up on your site then you could look at user flows and behaviours. The aim here is to nail down who you’re targeting, why and how they search and buy. Again, this is going to form a foundation upon which all of the other factors making up your SEO campaign are built upon.

Keyword Research

The one you’ve all been waiting for. The practice of identifying the search terms you want to target as part of your SEO campaign.
 
This has been a staple in the SEO agenda for time immemorial. Find what your prospects might be searching and assess how much search volume is attached to the query. At its core, the practice still has value. After all, we want to quantify the potential traffic and conversions from our all important target keywords.
 
It is slightly more complicated than that nowadays though. Remember talking about searcher intent? This forms the basis of Rankbrain, and algorithm that looks to understand the intent behind a search and not just the keyword string. We need to keep this in mind when conducting our research.
 
Perhaps that’s jumping ahead of ourselves.
 
The fundamental here is that our Keyword Research provides data points. As SEOs we have access to all of this data prior to making an investment of time or money. As such, we need to use this to help steer our strategy.

Competitor Research

In many industries, SEO is a competitive environment. Businesses are vying for the attention of their audiences, so you’ll want to know what you’re up against.
 
Through competitor research, we are able to identify opportunities and assign resources accordingly. It may be that certain search terms (or intent) are highly competitive. As such, looking at other opportunities to target your audience’s buying lifecycle could be appropriate.
 
Competitor research is essential for any marketing campaign. It’s not exclusive to SEO. We need to gain clarity on our position within the market and how we can best target our audience, given the competitive landscape.

Technical SEO / Onsite Optimisation

Armed with thorough strategies and research, we can now move on to implementation.
 
Content and link building are the most talked about factors when it comes to SEO, but technical/onsite is just as important. There are differences between technical SEO and onsite optimisation, but for the moment let’s lump them both together.
 
So what exactly does it mean?
 
Search engines need to be able crawl, index and rank your webpages. If they are unable to do so, you won’t rank on the search engine results pages (SERPs). It’s as simple as that.
 
The process of technical SEO/onsite optimisation is to make it as easy for search engines (and users) to understand what your website does. This can range from accessibility to optimising webpages for both bots and the user.
 
Let’s look at a few examples:

Site Structure

Both your users and search engines want to see a clear site structure. You may also hear this being called site hierarchy or information architecture. Essentially, there needs to be order and a clear user flow. You might need to adjust the structure to prevent pages from being buried deep in your site (i.e requiring a lot of clicks and navigation to access).

Page Experience

How easy is it for the user to interact with the website? Well known factors such as page load speed and whether your website is mobile friendly come into play here.

Page optimisation

We don’t want to leave anything to chance. Optimising meta data, headings and content on each webpage help search engines understand the purpose of the page. For more advanced SEOs we can also look to use items like schema mark up to provide additional information.

You don’t need to worry about learning the details of how to implement technical SEO or onsite optimisation just yet. What’s important is that you understand why this is a critical stage in the process.
 
You can have the best content in the world. If search engines and users struggle to access it or it’s very hard to find, it produces a bad user experience. Let’s remind ourselves that Google cares deeply about the user experience of their searchers.
 
We need to get the basics right. We want it to be clear what each page offers the user, and this process is part of that.

Content Creation

You don’t need to dig very deep into SEO to be bombarded with information regarding content. ‘Content is King’, a term often bandied around by SEOs is not only irritating, but is also very true.
 
Don’t believe us? Here’s what Google have to say about content:

“Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors”

Content is what attracts and engages users. A lot of the time it is your first opportunity to provide real value to your audience. Other times it can help to create backlinks and raise your profile with regards to E-A-T.
 
On a more basic level, without content, how do users and search engines know what you do? What value are you providing for the user? With no content, how do users and search engines judge you as an entity?
 
It’s all about quality. It’s all about value to the user. It’s all about being highly targeted.
 
It’s not about creating content for the sake of it, simply because Google said it was influential, because ‘content is king’. This is a slippery slope and there are countless SEOs out there trying to create ‘SEO content’ (i.e for search engines).
 
By now you should understand that prioritising work for a search engine instead of the user is not the way to go. The user is the one thing you should focus on. We create content to satisfy their intent, their needs, providing a solution to their search query.
 
Content is indeed king, but only when executed properly.

Link Building

Link building is possibly the most infamous aspect of SEO. As we discussed in our Brief History of SEO, the concept of backlinks has been abused in the past. Let’s not focus on that though, let’s focus on why backlinks are important.
 
In a lot of ways the internet works like normal society. We judge people on their appearance, how they talk, what they have to say. We also judge them on their reputation.
 
What do others have to say about them? How trustworthy are these people? How may people would vouch for you?
 
That’s what your website’s backlink profile represents.
 
It all started with Google’s PageRank algorithm, but has evolved over the years. The fundamentals remain though. How many other websites are willing to reference you? How relevant are these websites to yours? How authoritative are the websites that link to you?
 
Links are your votes, they’re your endorsements. In effect, they make up a lot of your online reputation.
 
Google and other search engines don’t just use links to navigate between websites. They use them to judge your standing within your industry, your own little online voting system.
 
The difference between backlinks and democracy is that not all links are the same. There is no one vote. Instead, the more authority a website has, the more votes they have. A backlink from the BBC is far more influential than one from a blog with no readership. That’s why it’s better to consider them endorsements. If you’re endorsed for a promotion by the CEO it’s going to hold far more weight than your mum writing to your manager with a character reference.

Analytics

Most would leave it there. Technical, content and links are your three amigos, your core pillars of SEO.
 
We disagree.
 
Research comes before everything, and analytics drives your SEO forward.
 
It is the analytics data that allows us as SEO marketers to make adjustments and maximise our investment into SEO. In our opinion, if you ignore this data, you’re not really an SEO.
 
Google Analytics and Google Search Console are free tools, so there’s no excuse. They allow us to see how searchers are finding our site, how they behave when on the site and how they convert. They also allow us to submit information to Google such as sitemaps, new URLs and to check that our site is compliant. There are a whole swathe of other platforms out there that can be used for analytics. You have the major SEO platforms such as SEMrush, Majestic, Ahrefs and Moz. The list is rather extensive! You have crawlers like Screaming Frog and heat mapping technology through the likes of Hotjar.
 
 
Whether you just use GA and Search Console, or add on other platforms, the point is that using analytics data is part and parcel of SEO. We are able to surface issues with our sites, or find drop off points in our user journeys. We can re-optimise content that isn’t performing as expected, or maximise the impact of content that is over performing. We live in a data driven world, where personal data is now has a larger market cap than oil. Great search engine optimisation relies on data. It enables us to adapt and iterate.
 
 
 
There we have it. The fundamentals of SEO.
 
Check out our other guides for more specific information on each of the fundamentals. We’ll walk you through each step so that you can manage your SEO campaign, or manage your SEO agency.
 
To recap:
 
It’s all about relevance, value and authority. We’re not looking to find gaps in the algorithms. Instead, we’re making it as clear to search engines that we are the best. That we are the most relevant and the highest quality result for our target searches and topics. This involves putting the user first.
 
Finally, and importantly, there are no silver bullets in SEO. Great content is invisible if your website cannot be crawled properly. A stunning backlink profile means nothing if your content fails to provide an adequate solution for the searcher.
 
Be consistent long term. Leave no stone unturned and in time, you’ll love how powerful SEO can be.
 

2 Comments

  1. […] our guides, this should be coming as no surprise. If you haven’t, just hop over to the ‘The Fundamentals of SEO‘, ‘How Search Engines Work‘ and ‘Why SEO is important‘ […]

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