As someone who’s worked on the content side of SEO (search engine optimization) for years, I’ve heard this question come up time and time again:
What should I focus on now?
In marketing, there are a million things you could be doing, but the hardest part is deciding what to invest in first. The same goes for SEO.
So I asked some of my friends at some of the most respected marketing brands (MarketMuse, Seer Interactive, and Verblio) to help me explain the three pillars of SEO, in which order you should tackle each pillar, and how to tell you’re ready to move on to the next stage.
If you want to hear our full explanation of how this all works, let’s dive into each of the three pillars: technical SEO, on-site content, and off-site authority.
A special note: To the folks who feel like they couldn’t accomplish all of this if they had a marketing team with 50 people on it: We see you out there. Our goal in this guide (and the accompanying checklist!) is to show you the path to success by combining the power of these three pillars. But know you’re not going to get everything perfect. Pick and choose what you can achieve from each pillar in this guide, and you’ll still be in the top 5% of all marketing teams.
Pillar 1: Technical SEO
Technical SEO is the foundational pillar but it can sometimes feel unapproachable due to the specialized language and expertise typically involved. You are trying to serve two audiences — an actual visitor to your site and search engines — and those two audiences evaluate your site differently.
You can think of your technical foundation as helping search engines to understand your website’s structure and content in the way a visitor would visually consume it. Your technical efforts can help align Google’s and other search engines’ interpretations with your website’s intentions.
Technical SEO must happen either first or concurrently with the second pillar, on-site content.
Because in order to be eligible to rank, your site needs to be set up for search engines to discover, crawl, render, and index your site.
Let’s take a brief look at how search engines work:
Discovering: Finding the location (URL) where content exists from links, XML sitemaps, RSS feeds.
Crawling: Bot requests the URL’s content from the website’s server, sifting through the content that’s accessible to the search engine
Rendering: A subprocess of crawling — processed/parsed, converted to format “readable” by search engine
Indexing: Analyzed, stored, cataloged (the library of content, labeled and ready for search results)
Ranking: Served in search results, based on searcher data and the cataloged content in the index
Your job is to help search engines accomplish the above goals. If you’re not doing that, scaling won’t be possible, because all of your hard work in content and link earning won’t reach its full ranking benefit.
Putting Technical SEO Into Action
If you’re just starting out with technical, your initiation into technical SEO should involve Google Search Console (GSC). Claim or verify your site in GSC so you can be alerted to issues GoogleBot is encountering.
Then, submit an XML sitemap in GSC, which will allow Google to identify and crawl your site.
The next stage is to monitor GSC; this is especially important when major changes and updates are being deployed. If you are launching new content, migrating the site, updating code, or expecting seasonal or news-related traffic, monitor the site daily for indexation and performance.
GSC also offers clues on areas of opportunity, such as Discover, Core Web Vitals, and enhancements, such as Schema markup for FAQs, products, videos, etc. Depending on your site or other initiatives you are working on, it is worthwhile to monitor this weekly or monthly.
- Blocking the site via robots.txt or meta robots preventing discovery and crawl
- Poorly implemented canonical tags that are not self-referencing or lacking absolute addresses can cause issues for crawlers
- Duplication of content due to parameters, tags that are not controlled by robots.txt, meta robots or canonical tags
- Outdated XML sitemaps
Once your technical foundation is secure, you’ve ensured that search engines and visitors can access your site’s content and you can establish a technical health monitoring process and cadence. The next step is to fold your on-site content and technical monitoring into your SEO workstream.
Pillar 2: On-Site Content
Content strategy can be overwhelming. Download our SEO Prioritization Checklist for a straightforward list of what to work on (and in what order)!
Some digital marketing gurus love to complicate things. And it’s true that some parts of digital marketing are very complicated.
But when it comes to on-site content, you can really boil it down to a darn simple formula:
Relevant to your ICP (ideal customer profile) + deserves to rank = SEO-worthy content for your brand
Maybe you get a bit fancier and layer in some concept of funnel-depth to your content, or you can keep it simple and think about it as:
- Content that’s directly tied to your product (and probably lives on your key product pages, helping them rank)
- Content that sits slightly higher in the funnel — it’s useful to your ICP, it’s related to what you do, but not directly what you do. This content adds volume to your SEO. It casts a wider net and allows SEO to help you play in the brand awareness space. Think: blog posts, pillar pages, in-depth guides, and other content assets.
Here’s all that in visual form for you visual learners out there:
Now, let’s take the formula above, break it into its component parts, and then get you a plan to build a content machine that turns the formula into traffic (and eventually money).
How to Deserve Page 1
With technical issues resolved, you still need to make it worthwhile for search engines to visit your site. You do that by creating original and helpful content — the type that proves your expertise and authority. In other words, it deserves to rank.
But it’s not how much content you have. Rather, it’s about how it all fits together. And if your goal is scaling your SEO program, this piece is critical.
Connecting pages into topical clusters is how you transform content from an expense into an investment — one that will continue to pay dividends far into the future.
To do this, think in terms of clusters of content as opposed to individual pages. Yes, individual pages still need to:
- Adequately address search intent
- Cover their subject comprehensively
- Answer the questions Searchers are asking
Beyond that, the content you’re scaling needs to be organized into semantically connected clusters, each with:
- A pillar page that functions as a center or hub for the surrounding content
- Supporting content that dives deep into concepts only briefly covered by the pillar page
- An internal linking strategy to connect relevant pages using meaningful anchor text
Content strategy goes hand-in-hand with the operational aspects of creating quality content at scale. The ramifications of Google’s Helpful Content Update (now bad content can weigh down your entire site) make this even more critical.
Creating Quality Content
Content is ultimately built for humans, not robots — but the robots are gatekeepers, determining what the real people searching find first. (This is why technical SEO is critical.)
But our goal as content creators is to write for the readers. Content — and scaling your SEO program — requires quality content. But what is quality content?
- Fulfills a need and provides information for your target audience (AKA satisfies search intent)
- Uses good internal and external link schemes to both serve up related content to readers and demonstrate to Google that you know what you’re talking about
- Is accurate and well researched, demonstrating expertise and authority
- Highlights your brand’s value to readers
Now, that doesn’t mean talking about your product, but it does mean authentically connecting with your target audience and speaking their language/solving their problems.
This Slack blog post is a good example of this: It solves a problem for their audience without directly promoting their offering.
Because it meets search intent, it ranks for a ton of keywords that help expand Slack’s brand awareness and authority among audiences that care about improving the employee experience at work.
Scaling Your Content Program
Once you’ve created quality content pillars and clusters, it’s time to scale.
Here’s a 7-step process for going from the high-level strategy to actually publishing and reaping the rewards:
- Perform audience research. You might think the first step to scale is keyword research. Wrong. First, start with audience research to dive deeper into what your audience is actually looking for and trying to accomplish. If you skip this step, you might end up with traffic that has no chance of converting.
- Perform keyword research. Now you’re ready. It’s at the intersection of keyword research and the audience research that you’ll find the biggest wins. Don’t shy away from content that has low or even no search volume according to keyword tools.
- Synthesize your research into topics. Before you go hammering the keyboard to knock out content, organize your keywords and audience research into topics and topic clusters. This is a step many people skip, but one that can amplify the ranking power of all of your content. As we noted above, connecting your content into topical clusters through internal linking and site architecture is critical.
- Write briefs. Want the secret to great content? A great brief. When we talk with content marketing leaders, brief writing comes up again and again as their secret weapon. In this step, you’ll organize your research into an outline, add content goals, and provide direction to your writers.
- Don’t feel like you need to do it all yourself. When building your content creation team, it should very likely be a blend of in-house folks, freelancers, and outsourcing. The content creation pie is distributed between these groups depending on things like expertise needed and level of product knowledge required.
- Get it on your website. It’s go time! (Almost.) When transferring your content from Google Docs to your CMS, take the extra few minutes it takes to ensure your content is readable, looks good, and is a compelling read. Images, even a quick hand-drawn graphic, make a world of difference in keeping readers engaged and preventing the dreaded back button click.
- Do technical stuff to optimize. Easy, right? Just kidding. This is a key tie-in to Pillar 1, so we’re going to dive in a bit more on this below.
There are a handful of page-level technical considerations you should check on here:
Various schema types make you eligible for rich results on Google’s search engine results pages. Rich results are visual experiences that enhance the way your listing is shown, typically making it more appealing and specific to searchers’ needs. Rich results can drive more traffic to your site as they surface your content in a more visible manner.
Examples of markup which are eligible for rich results include Product, FAQ Page, How-To, Event, Review, and Video. You can use the Rich Results Test to see if pages are eligible for these enhanced listings.
How your web pages are coded and the elements that are used can help search engines (and visitors using screen readers) understand your content. Using semantic HTML markup such as hierarchical headings, tables, and lists can provide descriptive clues about your content and its relationship to what surrounds it.
Images can support the experience of your content as well as the organic performance of your pages. Image optimization can include serving properly sized, named, and formatted files as well as including descriptive alternative text and deferring images that are offscreen with lazy loading.
Page Speed Optimization
Google uses metrics called Core Web Vitals to measure the performance of a page. These Core Web Vitals (CWV) are collected from Chrome browser user data that users opt-in to providing. Investigate issues here for desktop and mobile users.
Want to dig into all of this a little more? Here’s a great on-page technical SEO resource: What SEOs Should Know About Accessibility.
Pillar 3: Earning Links
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Once you’ve made headway on Pillars 1 and 2, you’re ready for Pillar 3, the one that can dramatically amplify everything you’ve done up until this point.
While it’s fine to do some of this work while focusing on Pillars 1 and 2, it’s best to fully invest in it once you have your technical SEO and on-site foundation set up. Earning a bunch of links to a piece of content that sucks is like watering soil that doesn’t have any seeds — it’s not going to get you very far.
When we talk about earning links, we’re talking about getting other authoritative people/brands/sites to mention your company. Google relies on this reputation system to assess whether your page is useful and trustworthy and thus should rank higher than other pages.
So if you have a great site and you’ve created killer content, and yet you’re not ranking as well as you’d like, Pillar 3 is ready to be of service.
The catch? It’s tough.
And because it’s not easy to secure those authority signals, countless companies don’t invest as much as they should in earning them.
The good news is that if you invest in link earning, you have a real chance of surpassing your competitors in the SERPs.
How much you’re able to scale will depend on your budget and resources, but any investment in this area can really bolster your content’s rankings, which can significantly impact how much relevant traffic you drive to your site.
Earning Authoritative Links
We’re not going to talk about buying links in bulk, because it’s not a safe way to scale — quality is dicey, and there’s always a chance you’ll be penalized by Google for taking the shady route. This isn’t a feasible approach for folks who can’t or won’t take the risk and prioritize long-term scaling over short-term traffic spikes.
So just like we talked about earning our Page 1 ranking for our on-site content, we’re also going to talk about earning links vs. building links. When you create something that’s link-worthy, you’re more likely to attract higher-quality links, meaning links from sites that are actually relevant and authoritative.
Passive Link Earning (Through Linkworthy Blog Posts)
One way to do this is through creating linkable, high-quality on-site content; there’s a beautiful overlap here with Pillar 2! (Particularly, the more top-of-the-funnel content we mentioned.)
Folks in the industry call on-site content “linkable content” if they think it has a high probability of being linked to. Some examples of this type of content are:
- Statistics pages
- Original research
- Definition pages
The way to think about this in reverse is to consider what type of resources people like to link to when they write something; what can you create that would be a source for someone else?
This is a more passive link earning approach, but it’s a good fit if it has a dual goal with ranking for top-of-the-funnel awareness keywords.
But there’s a more active approach, as well, that gives you more control over the link earning process.
Active Link Earning (Through Newsworthy Content)
For years now, link builders have used the approach of offering to write guest posts for blogs or pitching their own blog post that has no newsworthy value.
This approach doesn’t work anymore.
Publishers are inundated with pitch emails daily, and unless you’re pitching something truly remarkable, they’re not even going to open your email let alone bother to read the content in earnest.
That’s why creating newsworthy content is the best approach. Content that is new or carries some sort of timely, localized, or contextualized significance is much more likely to be appealing to publishers than your latest “How to” post.
Going in depth about what makes something newsworthy can be its own post, which is why we wrote one all about news values.
But, the simplest way for a brand to create newsworthy content is by:
- Analyzing and illustrating insights from public data sets
- Surveying groups of people to uncover new trends or insights
- Publishing analyses of your internal data that can help shed light on a topic
For more advice on how to make newsworthy content that stands out, watch my (Amanda Milligan’s) Moz Whiteboard Friday on the topic:
Pitching this type of content to publishers will improve your chances of earning media coverage and high-quality links.
Now, none of us are on the Slack marketing team, so we have no idea if this was pitched or if the BBC writer found this study and knew it would be a great data point for their story.
But what we do know is that studies like this are much more likely to be covered by news sources, and if you do actively pitch/promote them, you can earn multiple top-tier placements that are considered link-earning gold and provide massive authority signals to your domain, which then helps your pages rank higher and your organic traffic increase.
We’ve covered a lot in this post. If you’re exhausted just scrolling through it, we totally understand. Achieving this type of scaling often requires a robust internal team and/or the perfect set of SaaS and agency partners.
To help you assess where you should spend your time now to have the most impact, we created this free checklist to guide you. 👇