Beginner SEO: Understanding the Four Pillars of a Good Strategy

You’ve built a wonderful website. The navigation is sleek and attractive, the pages just fly off the server, and your niche is ripe for a fresh conquering. Now just one thing stands in your way of success: getting noticed by search engines.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of crafting written content to make it as attractive as possible to Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search outlets. Through a combination of organized site design and carefully choosing words and word arrangements, you can score higher rankings so visitors see your page above others in search engine results.

SEO is as much an art as it is a science. There’s no rigid course to success, as search engines keep their algorithms hidden from the public and change them on a regular basis. To stand out from the crowd, you need to get familiar with SEO and some of the best practices used by top ranking sites. It all starts with the four pillars of SEO success.

Search Engines, Crawlers, and Spiders

When diving into the SEO world you’ll bump into a lot of technical talk. The good news is most of it can be ignored while you get up to speed on the basics. Some terms are important and shouldn’t be skimmed over, however, such as search engine crawlers. These bots systematically browse the web and are responsible for making sites show up in search engine results. Without spiders, there’s nothing indexing the content together, it’s just a disparate bunch of websites nobody can find unless they type in the direct URL.

Catering to the needs of search engine spiders is what SEO is all about. Everything you do as a webmaster, from naming files to structuring content to tweaking server settings, is done to help spiders pass over your pages quickly and efficiently. The smoother the process, the better your search engine rankings.

Search engine spiders go by a lot of different names. You’ll see them referred to as web wanderers on occasion, as well as crawlers, bots, or indexers, depending on the source. All of these are talking about the exact same thing.

1 – Content SEO

Have you ever heard the phrase “content is king”? That’s true in almost every area of business and marketing, especially website SEO. Whether your publication focuses on niche areas or general knowledge, what you publish and how you publish it forms the core of your SEO strategy.

When talking about content we almost exclusively mean articles–things like blog posts, opinion pieces, product reviews, or interviews. Even if you publish a podcast or have a software service you run, having companion articles discussing your work is crucial. Just slapping an .mp3 file on your site and linking to iTunes doesn’t get search indexers very excited. Writing pieces about that audio is what earns you SEO cred.

Below are a few things to consider when coming up with a generalized content strategy:

  • What is your content about? Some topics are way more popular than others, like Star Wars versus Corner Gas. Tackle a big topic and you’ll have a lot more competition, making it more difficult (but more profitable) to rise to the top.
  • How is the content worded? Wording is key in SEO. Putting high-value phrases at the top of the article entices spiders to rank your content higher. Repeating phrases and using similar terminology also helps bring in the bots. Be careful not to overdo it though, as you want to ensure your human audience still enjoys reading your content.
  • How frequently do you update? One article every so often just doesn’t cut it. Having a regular publication schedule and sticking to it is a great way to build an audience and make search engines smile upon your efforts.
  • Is your content easy to read? Slamming advertisements between every paragraph may seem like a profitable idea, but both users and search crawlers hate it. Make your content clean and easy on the eyes for better SEO results.

Content SEO is the widest of the four main pillars. Its best practices are the least straightforward, and getting it right can take months or years of practice. In general, focus on making content you know is good, smart, and useful. Think about your readers more than the search spiders. After all, they’re made by people and are designed to find things people want to see.

2 – Site Structure

Think for a moment about the last time you were at the grocery store hunting for an obscure item. Let’s say you need a jar of organic capers, and you aren’t willing to settle for anything but the best. When you walk in, the first thing you do is look at the aisle signs hanging from the ceiling. Capers aren’t mentioned by name, unfortunately, but you do see things like ketchup, condiments, and pickles. Capers are kind of like pickles, so you head to that aisle, hoping for the best. And wouldn’t you know it, within moments you locate your little jar, all without having to wander the store like a lost animal.

Grocery store organization is important for shopping efficiency, but it’s a cakewalk compared to organizing a website. Hundreds of scripts, thousands of pages, dynamic content left and right; how does a search engine spider make sense of it all? Persistence is one factor, but the other is relying on tools which you provide. Making a crawler’s work easier is a sure-fire way of getting points on the SEO meter and avoiding internet obscurity.

You can spend months researching and analyzing the elements of site structure SEO. To make things worse, there’s no one way (or best way) to do it. Like everything in the SEO world there are smarter practices you can follow and useful tools you can employ. Here are a few great places to start:

  • Create an XML sitemap – XML sitemaps are like a roadmap for search engine crawlers. They give a quick overview of your site’s content and help speed along the indexing process. Generate one using an online XML sitemap tool, then upload it to your site’s home directory.
  • Massage your robots.txt file – Similar to the XML sitemap, robots.txt sits in your site’s home directory and tells spiders where to index and what to avoid. In general, the longer a spider spends on your site, the more slowdown you may encounter. The best use scenario is where you specifically disallow directories not relevant to your content. Learn more about robots.txt and how to make your own edits.
  • Have a mobile version of your site – Search engines give your site a score based on how mobile friendly it is. You don’t have to redesign the whole thing to fit on a smartphone screen, but you should definitely think about adding a redirect for a lightweight mobile version.
  • Run a crawling tool yourself – Want more detailed information on your site and how it performs? Use a tool like Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl to see your pages from the crawler’s point of view, then make tweaks accordingly.

Along with the deep structure of your website, there are also a number of surface tweaks you can do to make navigation easier on visitors and search bots. By far the best one is including keywords in your URLs. Seeing things like doesn’t make anyone interested in your content, not even crawlers. Switch that to something descriptive like and suddenly the clicks come flooding in.

Yoast is one of the top resources for SEO information. Follow the Yoast SEO blog for lots of small tips like this to get your site to the top of search results.

3 – Inbound Links & Social Media

You know those cheesy sitcoms where a teenager broods on and on about how none of the popular kids like her and she’s doomed to a life of obscurity? Search engines are kind of like that, though they’re admittedly less dramatic about it. In this example your site is the moody teenager, and outlets like The New York Times and Spiegel Online are the popular kids whose attention can make or break your success.

How many sites link to you is important. It tells search engines that you’re hosting something of value other people are likely to want to see. Raw links from other sites are great, but the reputation of those sites is arguably more important. A top-tier publication linking to your site carries a lot more weight than some random blog nobody’s even heard of. Building external links to your content is crucial, and it’s also the hardest part of SEO. After all, you can’t just go to another site and place a link there yourself. You have to earn it!

Social media is closely linked to off-site authority building, as it can directly impact who links to your site. Including outlets like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter into your publishing strategy helps stoke the fires of user interest. It’s a basic way of getting eyes on your pages, but it also builds a timeline so search crawlers know your site regularly produces content and is here to stay. Social media outlets themselves even carry some weight with search engines. Making your page go viral on Facebook or Twitter is definitely a good thing for your site’s SEO health.

4 – Technical SEO

We saved the best pillar for last. Technical SEO is a way of looking at your site from the search engine spider’s point of view. It asks basic accessibility questions like “How fast do the pages load?” and uses them to score your content accordingly. Usability can make or break your site’s SEO, and the top priority for any site should be loading times and overall speed.

There are dozens of factors that can contribute to slow page loading times, including everything from large site scripts to low-quality server hardware. One of the main issues webmasters and search spiders pay attention to is time to first byte (TTFB). This measures how much time passes from the moment a URL is entered to the moment the first byte of data is received. If it takes more than a few fractions of a second, both visitors and search spiders will simply move on.

Testing TTFB is a simple affair, even if you’re not in the least bit technically minded. YSlow is a great place to start. This browser extension helps identify problems and suggest improvements to your site, all by running a quick loading test. For more detailed information, check out the GTMetrix site, which runs multiple services and delivers the data in percentage scores as well as an incredible waterfall chart.

How can you speed up your site and improve your time to first byte? We’re glad you asked! Your results may vary, but checking on the following areas can help you diagnose and increase a site’s loading speed almost instantly.

  • Cache your content – Most websites use certain elements on multiple pages, including images and certain scripts. There’s no reason to load them from your server each time a visitor clicks an internal link. To keep your pages running smoothly, check into caching options or even off-site content delivery networks, both of which can reduce server load considerably.
  • Optimize your images – Text is lightweight, but images aren’t. Cutting down their size can make a huge difference in your time to first byte. Check out the EWWW Image Optimizer to start simplifying your pictures without losing quality.
  • Minify CSS, JavaScript, and HTML – The framework of your website can quickly get bloated to unreasonable levels, slowing down page loads considerably. By minifying things like CSS code and basic HTML, you can cut TTFB speeds by a huge percentage, all without sacrificing usability. Google’s speed tools page offers some great suggestions to get started.
  • Edit your .htaccess file – The .htaccess file is a unique configuration file that sits at the root of your server, offering guidelines and directions for web browsers and crawlers alike. There are a number of tweaks you can make to compress, cache, and speed up your site, all by adding a few lines of code. .htaccess is usually hidden, so check with your hosting provider on how to directly access it and make your own edits. And be careful, as making the wrong moves here can temporarily break your site.

Continue Your SEO Journey

This is only the beginning. People make entire careers out of studying and refining SEO strategies. With constantly changing algorithms and increasing competition from more and better websites, there’s always something more you can do. Follow the resources provided above and make your SEO learning journey a constant goal. Before long, you’ll be telling others about the four pillars of good SEO strategy, and maybe even add a pillar or two of your own!