Search engine optimization is typically broken down into four distinct disciplines, often referred to as the “four pillars of SEO.” Here we add brand awareness as the fifth pillar.
SEO and Google
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a controversial topic and every “expert” has their own opinions and theories about it. We’re not experts, so if you read something that contradicts what we’ve written here, don’t fret — That’s expected. Most of SEO is Voodoo anyway, and nobody really gets it except Google. And they’re not sharing.
According to Statista, Google Search has a worldwide market share of 83.84% as of July 2022. Consequently, this discussion of SEO pillars is focused on the behavior of Google. However, the same principles apply to other search engines as well.
What is SEO?
For the uninitiated, SEO is short for search engine optimization. It’s a mostly overhyped collection of methodologies and techniques — many questionable — for improving the organic (free) search engine rankings of websites. In other words, trying to outsmart Google.
The objective of SEO is to grow website traffic, generate leads, increase sales, and improve brand awareness. Though other search engines have value, in North America none will have as much impact on your business as Google.
How does Google Search work?
To understand SEO, you first need to understand how search engines work. Search engines use automated programs — similar to stripped-down web browsers — called web crawlers, spiders, or bots (see below), to explore the web.
Index: When a Google bot discovers a new page, it crawls (reads) the content and, if you’re lucky, adds it to a vast search index.
Query: A person then searches on Google by visiting their website, or typing a few keywords directly into the search bar. A search request is technically known as a “search query” or just “query.”
SERP: Google then uses an algorithm (see below) to determine which relevant web pages get pulled from the index, and displayed in the search engine result pages (SERPs).
The goal of a search engine is to provide the best possible list of web page results for each search query. And remember, search engines don’t display entire websites. Instead, they display individual web pages.
Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. That’s why Search makes it easy to discover a broad range of information from a wide variety of sources. Some information is simple, like the height of the Eiffel Tower. For more complex topics, Search is a tool to explore many angles so you can form your own understanding of the world.— Google
The five pillars of SEO
Traditionally, the craft of SEO has been broken down into four distinct disciplines. These are often referred to as the “four pillars of SEO.”
These pillars work together in harmony to help a website rank well on search engines. In this article, you’ll also learn why SEO marketers should consider brand awareness as the fifth pillar of SEO. In no particular order, these five pillars are:
- Technical SEO
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
- Brand awareness
Important: This article is not intended to be an exhaustive instruction manual on search engine optimization. That would take hundreds of pages. On the contrary, think of it as a brief outline of the stuff to consider when you’re building and optimizing your own website. If you’re interested in a more thorough exploration of SEO, we’ve included a few learning resources at the end of this guide.
No matter how well you design and optimize your web pages, high quality content remains the most essential part of your website. And it helps if you have a draft of your content created before you tackle the other SEO tactics.
Google’s content criteria and search result algorithms evolve on a weekly basis. It’s safe to assume that if your content is of poor quality, sooner or later it will drop out of the search engine result pages (SERPs). Whenever possible, your content should demonstrate the following:
- Expertise: Content creators should be verified experts in their field, with authority, credibility, and respectability in the industry.
- Relevance: How well does your website content match search queries? The more relevant your content is to someone searching, the more likely your web page will rank well in the search results.
- Thoroughness: Though they claim otherwise, search engines seem to favor long-form content (1,500 words plus). That’s because — if written well — longer articles can provide more helpful information to the user in one location.
- Recency: Fresh content is popular with search engines. That’s why Google Search tries to provide the newest relevant pages. So even if you publish what you consider “evergreen” content, you should occasionally update it with more recent information.
- Richness: Pages that feature diverse content (text, graphics, images, lists, videos, etc) are often more engaging to users, and can contribute to better search engine optimization.
- Calls to action: Call-to-action (CTA) elements (buttons, links, clickable cards, etc) encourage users to spend more time on your website — Hopefully leading to some sort of meaningful interaction.
- Design: Your site should be presented in a simple and visually appealing manner that conveys trust, authority, and the spirit of your brand. Good design includes the appropriate use of color, typography, contrast, space, proximity, and hierarchy.
- Navigation: Your website should have a logical information flow that makes it easy for users to find the content they are looking for. Primary navigation elements with clearly labeled links should be placed in customary locations, and should scale easily on mobile devices.
- Usability: Websites should be easy to use and function in a uniform way that aligns with visitor expectations. This includes making sure that your site is accessible to as wide an audience as possible, including those with disabilities.
Benefit: Shows the value your business provides.
Google is not a charity
Keep in mind that Google — or any other search mechanism — is under no obligation to crawl or index your website. In fact, Google openly claims that about 20% of the web will never be indexed. This is not only related to efficiency and relevance, but to operational costs too. The daily compute cycles required to crawl and index the web are astronomical in number.
02. Technical SEO
Proper technical SEO makes it easier for search engines to discover, crawl, and index your pages. These parameters include:
- Crawlability: Make it easy for search engines to easily discover and explore your website.
- Indexation: Make it clear which web pages should be indexed, and which pages (if any) should not.
- Performance: The website should load fast, without errors, regardless of the viewing device.
- Security: Always serve web pages over a secure connection (HTTPS).
- Mobile responsive: The site must perform well on slower cellular connections and a wide range of mobile devices.
- Technology: Use a content management system (CMS) or other friendly website platform that is easily crawled by search engines.
- Robots.txt: This simple text file informs search engines where not to go on your website. Used properly, it will help discourage search crawlers (bots) from indexing specific web pages or directories which may have duplicate, thin, or private content.
- XML sitemap: Provides search engines with a list of all pages on your website that you want to be crawled, indexed, and shown in search results.
- Meta directives: Hidden instructions in the header of each page that can help search crawlers find and index your pages.
Benefit: Makes your web pages easy for search engines to find and index.
What the hell is a bot?
An internet bot, web robot, robot, or simply bot, is a software application that performs automated tasks over the internet. This is usually done with the intent to imitate human activity on the internet — such as web browsing — on a massive scale.
A bot plays the client role in a client–server model, whereas the server role is usually played by web servers (that deliver web pages). Internet bots are able to execute simple and repetitive tasks much faster than a person could ever do.
The most extensive use of bots is for web crawling, in which an automated script fetches, analyzes, and stores information from web servers. More than half of all web traffic is generated by bots. Scary.
03. On-page SEO
On-page SEO (sometimes called on-site SEO) deals with the content, structure, and layout of individual web pages, including:
- Architecture: The information on your website should be well-organized in an easy-to-understand structure (hierarchy).
- Keyword research: Be sure to include common search terms and phrases in your content.
- Page titles: Also called title tags (
<title>). Every page (or post) on your website should have a different title, and make sure you use keywords naturally.
- Meta descriptions: These are the web page excerpts that may appear in the search results. Craft concise descriptions to encourage clicks from users.
- Descriptive URLs: Make sure each URL (web page address) is short, simple, and descriptive. (URL stands for uniform resource locator.)
- Headlines: Standardize the format of headings (
h1–h6) and break up your content into easy-to-read sections and paragraphs.
- Lists: Use ordered (numbered) and unordered lists to help make content easier to read and follow.
- Alternative text: Adding brief appropriate descriptions to your images improves accessibility and helps search engines understand your content better.
- Internal links: Links between related pages on your site help visitors find relevant content and also help search engines better understand what your website is about.
- Structured data: Snippets of code (schema markup) that give search engines precise information about what the content on a web page is about.
- User experience (UX): Make sure your site is useful, usable, and easy to navigate. (This is a vast oversimplification — UX is an entire industry in itself.)
Benefit: Makes your pages easier for search engines and people to read and understand.
04. Off-page SEO
Off-page SEO (also called off-site SEO) refers to actions taken outside of your website that can improve your search rankings. These tactics usually don’t involve updating or publishing content to your website.
- Backlinks: Encourage relevant, high-quality websites to link to your website. Backlinks are valuable because of their ability to pass authority (ranking power) from one website to another.
- Local search: Online platforms such as Google Business Profiles and Google Maps are essential if you own a local brick and mortar or service area business. (Local search is a large and important topic, way beyond the scope of this article.)
- Social media presence: Social media profiles and posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn can carry value via the link they provide to your website. Google claims that they index social media content, so posting may help boost your rankings as well.
- Reviews: Make an effort to build trust by getting genuine positive customer reviews and ratings on third-party platforms such as Yelp, Clutch, and Google Business Profile.
- Reputation management: Although you can’t control what people say about you, you should always strive to answer all reviews — both positive and negative — with positive replies.
Benefit: Can help demonstrate your experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (Google calls this EEAT).
What is an algorithm?
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 the search engine results. The algorithms are the instructions that connect the two. They are complex, ever-changing, and highly confidential.
05. Brand awareness
As noted above, SEO has traditionally been broken down into four disciplines. More recently however, it’s become evident that a comprehensive SEO strategy isn’t complete if it ignores brand awareness.
Non-branded vs branded search
What is a branded search? Consider these two search query examples:
- Men’s running shoes
- Nike men’s running shoes
The first is a non-branded search. These are search requests from people who may not know about your brand or products, but are looking for information about the type of products or solutions you offer.
The second is an example of a branded search. These are typically conducted by people looking for a specific brand of merchandise. In this example, the searcher is looking specifically for Nike men’s running shoes. No other brand will do.
Branded search traffic not only reflects the level of interest of a specific brand, but also has higher commercial intent and a higher conversion rate. More importantly, a branded search has the potential to “short-circuit” the usual search process and place your business higher in the rankings. This is especially true if you have a well-known and distinctive brand. Unfortunately, most common SEO techniques have limited effect on branded search.
Obviously, people won’t search for your brand if they don’t know about it, or have no interest in it. In other words, branded search traffic results from a brand’s awareness and interest.
To grow brand awareness and interest, you need to increase visibility, develop authority, and generate trust. Content marketing can help, but relying on website visitors to learn about your brand won’t take you very far.
To grow brand awareness at scale, you need to bring your brand to your potential customers. You can’t just wait for them to come to you. What you need is good old-fashioned interruption (outbound) marketing.
Luckily, there are plenty of marketing tools available to help you build brand awareness, including:
- Traditional advertising
- Influencer marketing
- Social media
- Public relations
For branded search, ranking well in the search results is generally not an issue. This assumes that your website is already ranked in the top three for your brand name — If not, you need to fix this problem first. If you don’t rank high for your own brand name, you may need to make some identity changes.
Benefit: Short-circuit the search process with a strong brand.
So, can you do SEO yourself?
Absolutely. You don’t need to hire an outside agency or an SEO “expert” to improve your search engine rankings. This brief outline and the learning resources listed below give you some basic SEO tips to get started.
Just keep in mind that for most small businesses and ecommerce sites, SEO is not optional. Without it it’s unlikely that your website will rank high enough to generate much traffic. But even if you don’t have an enormous marketing budget, don’t freak out. There are plenty of simple SEO techniques you can implement on your own.
Non-branded search traffic is driven by keyword ranking, while branded search traffic is primarily driven by the search volume of the branded keywords. The more people are aware of your brand, the more branded search traffic your brand will get.
Every small business should not only have an SEO strategy to improve non-branded search rankings, but also a comprehensive marketing strategy to help grow brand awareness. SEO professionals need to include brand awareness as an important SEO tactic.