As soon as you start to study SEO, you will find out that there are 4 pillars within SEO: technology, site structure, content and links. If you want to achieve something with SEO, you have to turn these 4 dials. But what do the pillars mean? And which one should get the highest priority in my opinion?
Pillar 1: technology
When I talk about technique, I mainly mean that you should have a website that creates as few barriers as possible for Googlebot, the software with which Google visits your website. Instead, you have to make it as easy as possible for Google. This includes the correct use of canonicals, hreflangs for multi-lingual sites, an XML sitemap, a good robots.txt, correct status codes, correct redirects, etc. Whether you have not accidentally caused duplicates by technology also plays a role here, but the speed of your website is important too and whether your content does not jump after loading your screen. Google’s Core Web Vitals update deals with these kinds of technical issues.
Pillar 2: site structure
The second pillar, site structure, is about the hierarchy of your website: are important pages within a few clicks of your homepage? Are there enough internal links to important pages, is the structure of your URLs correct and do you have a correct breadcrumb trail.
Pillar 3: content
The third pillar, content, is all about the texts on your pages, but of course also about your title tags, headings, meta descriptions, alt texts and so on. It’s about all the content you show to your visitor. You must keep in mind that Google is very good at textual content. If you have a lot of audiovisual content such as videos or podcasts, then you have to explain what happens in such a video or podcast. That’s why you always find a podcast combined with a blog on my website.
Your content determines which search queries you can be found on, Google matches the search queries of your customers to your content. As far as I am concerned, content is therefore actually the most important pillar of SEO. What you want to be found on, you have to write about. In 2021, this golden rule still stands like a house.
Pillar 4: links
Pillar 4 links is all about the link profile, whether you have enough good, relevant hyperlinks from other websites to your site. These are websites that are really relevant to your business. So a link from a website with automatically generated content about football, for example, to a page about American refrigerators (an example I’ve actually seen), adds little. In the past, it was all about as many links as possible, nowadays it’s much more about relevance and how you got there.
Technology as a basic requirement
What you do need to know is that if you want to compete with the major parties on important keywords, your technique will need to be in tip-top shape. Every little bit helps at that point.
Being seen as an authority
If you want to be seen as an authority on a certain subject, you will have to rely on your content and incoming links from other websites. Google tries to assess whether you are an authority and whether you can really say something about the subject. Suppose I were to publish an article about skin rejuvenation tomorrow, that would be strange. Google (hopefully) knows me as an SEO specialist, not as a dermatologist. So it may well be that an article of mine about SEO performs much better than an article about skin rejuvenation.
Your link profile was traditionally important if you wanted to rank higher. The more relevant links you have, the better it is if you want to rank higher. The problem with links nowadays is that it is very difficult to get them in a natural way. Almost nobody links to another website just like that. That’s why there are so many intermediaries who arrange (read: buy) links for you. There are certainly ways to get good links for free, but you need to have a lot of PR power and the necessary creativity.
The 4 pillars within a horizontal SEO strategy
But how do you deal with these 4 pillars when you start working with horizontal SEO; a strategy where you do not want to rank as high as possible but as widely as possible? What is the importance of your technique, your site structure, your content and your link profile? And what has the highest priority?
As I said: what you want to be found on, you have to write about. So in my opinion, content is the basis of a horizontal SEO strategy. Ideally, one page should be shown in Google on many different search queries. The advantage is that if you bet on a strategy where you want to be found in the width, you have to deal with fewer competitors. Everyone is busy with higher rankings, not with wider rankings. This allows you to let go of the reins technically and in terms of link profile. You don’t have to have the best links or the best technical site because you can compensate a lot with good content that seamlessly connects to a search query.
So really good and relevant content is often more than enough to be visible. In the 11 years that I am working with SEO, I have always managed with a huge focus on content to attract a lot of SEO traffic. This has even been successful with websites where not everything was technically top-notch and also with websites where the link profile was very poor.
Provided there are no technical showstoppers (you will have to fix these first) you can really accelerate on content. If your internal structure is also (reasonably) well organised, you’ve come a long way. My golden rule for the site structure is always: an important page must be easy for the user to reach from the homepage. So you should be able to reach such a page within 1-2 clicks. This also means that in my opinion it is pointless to create orphan pages, which are pages that receive little to no internal links from other pages in your website and are only meant for SEO. Stick to the rule: if you don’t want to send a regular visitor to such a page, then Google won’t want to lead your visitor to it either.
How to create good content?
How do you deal with content? What is good content and how do you create good content? If you have listened to my podcasts you will know that I hardly do any keyword research, certainly not as the basis of a content strategy. The basis of a content strategy is your own knowledge of your market or field and always combined with the questions of your customer. In other words: what does your customer want to know and what can you tell him or her?
It goes without saying that you have to know your customer through and through. You need to know what their frustrations are, what they are up against, why they should be looking for your service or product and what they want to achieve by doing so. You need to know what the most common ideas or misconceptions are. What the most common associations are, so that you can address them. Only when you know that, you can start working on your content strategy.
How I do it: a persona
An example of how I do it: I create podcasts and blogs because I know that people are frustrated when it comes to SEO. They all want to do SEO, but everyone immediately thinks of higher rankings. That is one of the most logical associations when we talk about SEO. However, I often speak to people or see them on forums who have not succeeded despite adding keywords and links. Yet this is the goal for everyone because we traditionally do SEO and everyone expects this from an SEO specialist.
Because I know this about my target group, I can create a kind of persona. I also really have someone in mind whom I spoke to recently about an SEO issue. I think back to how that person thought, what that person said and what that person concluded about what would work and what would not. For me, this one person is the example of the target group I want to reach. Because I had such a good idea after this conversation, I could immediately list a number of topics of which I am sure that this person would find that kind of information interesting. These are the topics of every podcast I have made and will make. I use the content in two ways: through Spotify I hope to reach people who are looking for inspiration. But of course I also want to offer that content to people who are looking for answers via Google.
So did I do keyword research before creating a blog or a podcast? No, the Google Keyword Planner is really not going to tell me what searches people have. I checked it just to be sure: according to the keyword planner, people search for ‘how do I get higher in google’ but not for ‘why am I not ranking high in google’. While I bet that there really is search volume on such a search term.
With the persona, I came up with many more possible search queries. Such a conversation of half an hour was worth its weight in gold to me. All the things that were discussed, I let come back, regardless of whether the Keyword Planner says that there is search volume on it. And the next conversation with someone else may give me new input for even more content about SEO.
Getting started with content for your persona
When answering each question from my persona, I try to create the best possible piece of content. I look at what I think this person wants to know and what I think this person should want to know. So I’m not at all led by keywords or search volumes.
I suspect that the blog on my website will be found on search terms such as ‘pillars of seo’, ‘priority pillars of seo’, and perhaps even long-tail searches such as: is content or technology more important? But there will probably be many more possible searches that will eventually drive traffic to this page. As far as I’m concerned, this blog doesn’t need to rank high on ‘pillars of seo’. Yes, it would be nice, but I’d like to use it more broadly. I suspect that the blog on my website will be found on search terms like ‘priority pillars of seo’ or perhaps long-tail searches like: is content or technology more important? But probably there will be many more possible search queries that will eventually send traffic to this page.
So which search queries I am targeting exactly, I don’t know yet. From now on, I’m going to keep an eye on what search queries will make this blog findable and if I need to tweak anything.
As you might have gathered, a horizontal strategy relies heavily on content. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that technology, your site structure and links don’t matter at all. They are certainly important. But with content you lay the foundation of your findability; it determines on which search queries you can possibly be matched. The other 3 pillars make sure you can only be found better: higher rankings. A site which is technically perfect, but hardly has any content will hardly rank. A website with a lot of good links but without relevant content, will only be found in a limited way. So start with content if there are no showstoppers. You will be surprised of the results. Especially if you want to be found more widely on search terms with little competition.