In theory, search engine optimization (SEO) sounds amazing. With one strategy, you can get your site to the top of Google's organic search rankings, raking in relevant visitors and sales. Unfortunately, SEO scares a lot of people away because of its volatile nature and intimidating degree of complexity.

However, if you break SEO down into its main components, it looks a lot less intimidating--and for many, it's definitely something worth learning. To illustrate this, I've broken down SEO into the three main components that must be present to comprise a successful long-term search strategy:

1. On-site Optimization. On-site optimization is all about the content, structure, and layout of your site. Google and other search engines crawl your site to get an understanding of what it's about (and how authoritative it is), so the information it finds on your website can have a big impact in how it ranks pages on your site for relevant search queries.

It would be inappropriate to list every single on-site optimization factor here, as the real intention of this article is to give a broad overview of how SEO can be broken down, but here are some of the most important considerations for the on-site SEO of your domain:

  • The title tag (per page). Google uses these to learn the main topic and purpose of a page. They should be written accurately, concisely, and without any unnatural language (like keyword stuffing).
  • The meta description (per page). Similar to title tags, meta descriptions are more extended and--you guessed it--descriptive.
  • Site navigation. Your site navigation should be easy to follow, and broken down into categories and sub-categories.
  • Internal linking. The fewer clicks it takes to get from one page to any other page on your site, the better. Internal links also help Google understand how pages on your site are related, what their hierarchy is in terms of importance on your site, and their relevance for given search queries.
  • The URL (per page). Don't use a string of numbers or symbols in your URL--instead, write concise descriptions of each page (often, the title of the page is preferred).
  • Relevant, unique content (per page). This is a big one. The content on each of your pages should be full, complete, informative, and free from error. Google uses this content to "understand" the purpose of each page and evaluate its usefulness.
  • Site speed and performance. Though not as important as some of the other features listed here, the time it takes your site to load and the availability of your content is a significant factor.
  • Site security. This is especially important if you have an e-commerce site or one that processes transactions--use modern security protocols to keep your customer data safe.

2. Ongoing Quality Content. Let's say you've successfully optimized your site--you've hammered out all the sitewide performance issues you can, and you've gone over each page with a fine-toothed comb to improve its relevance, significance, and uniqueness in your competitive landscape. Aside from making updates and adjustments as you add or subtract pages, you might think you're done with on-site optimization--but this isn't exactly true.

The biggest component of your on-site strategy is the ongoing component--the content you continue to produce for the life of your brand, which forms your content strategy. Usually relegated to a blog or newsfeed, this serves a variety of functions for your brand--not just an SEO benefit. Your content shows off your expertise, helping users trust you, and gives you a platform for conversion by including calls to action at the end of your pieces. It can also serve as fuel for your social media or email marketing campaigns.

For SEO, content similarly serves a variety of roles. First, and perhaps most importantly, it increases the number of pages of your site that can be indexed in Google. Every new blog post you publish is more content for Google to index on your site, and another potential search listing leading people to your domain--as long as your content's quality is high enough. Having a regular flow of content also looks good to Google, giving you a boost in the search rankings. Finally, if your articles are frequently linked to and shared, they'll be displayed higher in search engine rankings--but I'll touch on that in my final point.

The caveat to all of this is that your content has to be good. What do I mean by "good"? I mean useful, original, well-researched, insightful, properly formatted, appropriately written, free from error, relevant for your audience, and fun or engaging to read. The content market is intimidating for newcomers, but to see the true benefits of content marketing, you'll have to rise above the fold. For help understanding how to do that, see What We Learned From the Official 160-page Google Search Guideline Document and The 12 Essential Elements of High-Quality Content.

3. Off-site Authority Building. Everything else in your SEO campaign should be focused on off-site authority building, meaning building a presence and relationships on external sites and platforms. The biggest tools Google uses to evaluate this "authoritativeness" are inbound links from such external sources. The more inbound links you have pointing to your site from high-authority sources, the better your perceived authority, and the higher your website will rank in search engines. However, any links deemed irrelevant, spammy, or unnatural could earn you a penalty rather than a boost--so be careful how and where you acquire your inbound links.

Your best bet for link building is to stay away from "manual" link building altogether, and instead focus on earning links that you naturally attract through your content strategy. People want to share and link to great content, so if you publish truly great content, it'll attract inbound links.

Guest posting, social media syndication, and influencer marketing are all tactics you can use to get your content in front of more people and widen your authoritative reach--but remember, it all starts with good content.

Conclusion

Chances are, as you've read this article, you've noticed a theme. In on-site optimization, ongoing content, and even off-site authority building, there's one quality that permeates and underlines the success of an SEO campaign at every turn: great content. Once all your technical on-site factors are taken care of, the biggest indicator of your campaign's success will be the quality and reach of your content. Prioritize these three "theaters" of search engine optimization, with content quality always at the top of your priority list, and you should have no trouble building your company's visibility in search engines.