Introducing the SEO Hierarchy of Needs

It happens a lot.

A company calls Bruce Clay, Inc. to find out what can be done to help them build links / launch a social media campaign / [insert Internet marketing service here]. But after looking at the site it becomes apparent that the SEO foundation is just too weak to support quality search engine rankings, let alone a link building campaign.

It’s at this point that someone should explain that there’s a hierarchy that should be considered when developing an optimized Web site or marketing campaign. When deciding where to devote resources, understanding this hierarchy is an essential first step. That’s why I’ve put together a little something I like to call the SEO hierarchy of needs.

SEO Hierarchy of Needs

The SEO hierarchy of needs takes its cues from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a well-known diagram rooted in the field of psychology, which explains the various motivators of human behavior.

In Maslow’s version, the most basic and fundamental needs are found at the base of the pyramid, and each higher tier represents needs that can’t be realized until the needs below it are satisfied. For instance, a person isn’t expected to prioritize love and affection (the third tier) if their physical needs for food or shelter (the first tier) aren’t met.

Likewise, if fundamental site requirements — like quality content and theme-based site architecture — aren’t secure, it’s probably inappropriate to commit resources to higher SEO objectives, like link building.

So without further ado, here’s a guide for understanding the SEO hierarchy of needs.

Analytics & Web Intelligence

While website analytics implementation and analysis could be the first level of the pyramid, it’s almost better to think of it as the backdrop for all your Internet marketing efforts. Without data that tracks visitor engagement on the site, there’s no baseline from which to measure the effect of SEO efforts.

And without analytics data, it’s nearly impossible to understand if your site and online campaigns resonate with your target audience. If you have even a single live page on your Web site, it’s critical that analytics is implemented as soon as possible.

As a quick aside, this week’s SEM Synergy podcast is all about analytics. I’m interviewing three of the foremost experts in the field on the show. Avinash Kaushik, Jim Sterne and Daniel Waisberg talk about the latest developments in the strategy and practice of Web analytics. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the information in this week’s podcast is extremely useful.

Keywords & Content

Optimizing a website’s content is an ongoing challenge for any site. But knowing where to start can also be difficult. Content is how a search engine and a human user know what your site is about, what they can expect to get from it, and where its expertise lies. It seems obvious, but the content of a site — be it text, images, video or other — needs to clearly explain who the audience is and what the subject matter is.

Competitive analysis and keyword research are important steps in developing site content. Be sure you’re targeting the relevant and trafficked keywords that relate to your site’s goals. Then develop interesting and compelling content that revolve around those keywords and goals.

Optimized Site Architecture and On-Page Elements

A site’s information architecture should support the content themes of a site. This is beneficial for both human visitors and search engine visitors. SEO Siloing is the practice of creating theme-aligned content sections of a site. Internal linking and a directory structure that reinforces theme-based sections of a site will indicate strong relevance in the search engines and make it easier for human visitors to find related content on the site.

Likewise, the on-page elements of a webpage should support the content of the site and the server configuration of the site should reflect crawl and indexing preferences. While not visible to human users, the benefactor of such efforts is primarily search engines. Search engines look at Meta data such as the page Title, Description, and other tags to determine the subject of the page. A robots.txt file indicates if any pages should be left out of the index, and an .htaccess file allows the creation of search engine friendly redirects. Be sure to help search engines understand the content of a page with Meta data and know what to crawl through proper server configuration.

Usability & Optimized Web Design

A website’s design and usability should optimize a user’s holistic experience on a site. Did visitors find what they expected when first landing on the site? Did the landing page meet their needs? Did the text and image of the site compete for attention or was their a clear hierarchy of design?

Usability, A/B and multivariate testing are helpful tools for optimizing a user’s journey through the site. You should seek to understand any obstacles to conversion, any competing calls to action and user’s preferred experience on the site. Your goals are understanding the site’s performance, its ease of use as well as the user’s recall and emotional response to the site.

Link Development

With your site’s content, structure and design in peak condition, a marketer can start soliciting links and the organization can become active in online social communities. After all, before you can expect a site to develop inbound links,you have to be confident that there is content worth that attention and those links.

Link building is an essential part of SEO success and a highly valued factor of search engine rankings. It’s also resource intensive and very challenging. It can be approached by a variety of ways, including link magnets, link bait and link solicitation. But in any case, the chances of attracting quality, relevant links increase through exceptional content — be it informative, entertaining or original — and strong relationships.

When engaged in search engine optimization, social media optimization, or any form of online marketing aimed at bringing visitors to your site, remember that every tactic comes in its own time. Prioritize your efforts and then build your online marketing campaigns from the bottom on up.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (25)
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25 Replies to “Introducing the SEO Hierarchy of Needs”

These sort of structures are helpful in creating an idea in a clients head of how to wrap there mind around the complexity of SEO. Its impossible to start any SEO campaign without a firm foundation of the keywords the site will be targeting. In the end it is always about the keywords.

Virginia, first off, let me congratulate you for making it into the Top 100 SEO Blog Posts (!

I like to think of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ not as a pyramid but as a series of events that form a continuous circle, ie keywords->Architecture->Design->Links->keywords->Architecture->etc.

The ‘circle’ is kicked off by defining your business goals and the whole process is wrapped up in Analytics. It is the insight provided by Analytics that forces you back to the keywords step and so the cycle begins again.


that’s call great visualization thanks

The hierarchy itself is the clue to be able to attain high ranking and increase traffic.

Great visualization! We find ourselves drawing a similar pyramid when our clients want to jump into the world of social media and web 2.0. You have to have a strong foundation and the basics down packed before you get into the “sexy” stuff.

Its true to say people often mix up the whole process and like building a real pyramid, if your first layer of foundations are poorly constructed the whole thing will come crashing down.
In the offline world people hate doing market research, but if you don´t how do you know there is enough interest to make your business succeed?
There is no excuse for this online because research can be done at a relatively quick pace in comparison to offline methods.
Great post that put things into perspective!

Definitely a great post! These 4 elements sure are the essential things in SEO. One should definitely focus first on the keyword and content of the site, as this will become its foundation.

But just like Maslow’s pyramid theres a loophole. People can be on any step and be able to go up or down according to circumstance.
Someone who has attained the highest level of “link development” may still need to revert to the lowest level on the pyramid “keywords and content. The inverse may also be true that someone in the first stage may have needs from the higher stages.

Yes, yes, yes! These are the things that we try to explain to our clients every day. It’s hard sometimes when they are so eager to get to the end of the project, to slow them down and tackle the details but it’s worth it in the end.

Thanks for the nice image also!

Haha, a print out for the fridge? I think that graphic could do a little better than that; after all its not done in crayon! ;) Something like your desktop background to really hammer it into your brain or something seems more appealing to me.

now that graphic is a print out for the fridge. Thanks for sharing.

I think this is elegant genious, thank for the framework!

Great contribution to the discipline of inbound marketing. I was just talking with the head of web marketing for a fairly large tech company ($550million) who has had to use all kinds of relationship capital to bring a rigor and discipline to the evolution of the firm’s web marketing practices and technologies. This would have been a great tool to aid that discussion!

Awesome graphic and nice tie-in to Maslow. Well done!

I think the problem with the industry is that so much has been made of link building over the past few years that many people have forgotten the importance of the fundamentals.

Great post by the way!

So many companies try to jump ahead and start link building and social media without really taking a good look at the website first. It all starts at the foundation.

Great Post Virginia. I agree with the idea of Hierarchy. Although I would probably split out and reorder some of the earlier parts ( I’d put Keyword Research & Site architechture before content).

Understanding in advance what types of content can attract Links will greatly help when you actually come to executing on your link development strategy. Not all content can attract links (in high volume), so you need to make sure you account for this in your structure.

I think Darrell’s right in as much is there has the capacity to be a lot of overlap in real-world workflow (you might start to build some directory links while building out some other content, you’ll likely keep researching keywords continually, etc.) but I like the ability of the pyramid graphic to communicate the need for certain elements before other elements provide value, and I think with any really effective info graphic there are caveats.
As Virginia said in the comments I think the post/graphic would be a great way to quickly orient a small business owner with the way certain SEO elements support and amplify the benefits of other activities.
Nice post!

I totally agree with these points. Taking on a linkbuilding client with a poor website (and service) is not worth the hassle. Who is going to want to link to a poor site? It only makes your job harder.

Great article, but its amazing how many new projects/clients try and get you to skip the analytics so you dont have a baseline. Trying to slow a campaign so the base is built well can sometimes cause problems, but its often necessary.
If dont get results peel back the layers until you get the results that you need.

Virginia Nussey

Thanks, Darrell. You bring up a good point that I forgot to mention! There are definitely steps in the process of SEO that are never really done. Even if an effort to optimize a particular feature of the site may have occurred at one point, it’s still important to continually monitor the performance of keywords, on-page elements, Web design and links. None of these SEO tasks are ever really over. Usability testing and analytics data should help marketers and Web developers create a feedback loop to aid continued efforts of site optimization and improvement.

Usability testing isn’t limited to the “Web Design” stage. It can also be very important during “Site Architecture and On-page Elements”. At that stage, you just do informal testing or use a service like

Virginia Nussey

I agree, Alan! All the more reason an upfront and educated marketer needs weapons to right the wrong. Pointing to this graphic might not be a bad way to explain it to the small business owner who calls up and says, “I need links!” Because then I say, “Yeah, why do you say that?” And then they say, “Well, my friend Greg said that links is what you need to rank.” And then I say, “Your buddy’s right that links are valuable, but lets start from the beginning…”

I’m in total agreement. I do think, however, that many people in our own industry help to contribute or are the root cause of at least part of the problem. I routinely go up against ppl with “SEO” in their title or company services list, who claim “all you need is links”. It’s all they know in many cases as well.
And how many marketing people are so caught up in the social-media-glam factor? Which has bled through to the media…
When these two ways of thinking combine, many site owners think they’ve been given the solution, as compared to having to re-do their existing site, often from the ground up. Sad. Truly sad.


Funny how the smaller parts of the SEO puzzle tend to be the most challenging ones.


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