SEO First Principles

Get these right to rank highly on Google

Happy Saturday to every unicorn in the galaxy.

Last week’s guide to first principles thinking was quite popular.

We got a ton of feedback.

The most asked-for follow-up was a guide to first principles for SEO.

So let’s get to it.

Today’s growth strategy is: SEO First Principles

Growth stage: Any

Difficulty level: Medium

“Websites and pages should be created to help people.”

SEO First Principles

When talking about first principles of SEO, what we really mean is:

What do we know is true about how to rank highly in Google?

This isn’t quite the same as asking “What are Google’s ranking factors?”

The reality is that Google’s algorithm is constantly evolving and likely includes thousands of ranking factors.

Fortunately, the first principles approach to SEO allows us to stop worrying about that and focus on what really matters.

Let’s begin with Google’s mission:

“Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

If we take this mission at face value, your website serves Google’s mission to the extent that it makes information more accessible and useful than the alternatives.

A cynic might say - Google’s mission is really to make money.

But Google stands to make the most money by attracting the most users and advertisers.

All else equal, users will choose the most useful search engine.

So Google’s financial incentives are well aligned with the need to provide a superior way to access the world’s information.

Google is financially motivated to surface the highest quality pages to users.

To understand what Google considers a high quality webpage, look no further than their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.

Google pays for thousands of contractors to manually test and rate the quality of its algorithm’s results.

These guidelines are their operating instructions for gauging search quality, which can be reduced to two concepts:

  • Page quality

  • Does the page fill the searcher’s needs (aka “needs met”)

Google & Page quality

Page quality signals include:

  • Effort

  • Originality

  • Talent / skill

  • Accuracy

These concepts mean different things within different content categories. For example, accuracy is more important on a medical website than a humor site.

However, these can be important benchmarks within your competitive set for you to gauge the caliber of your web content.


Google highlights EEAT as an important component of quality.

Let’s dig in.

“In determining page quality, Raters must consider EEAT:

The first-hand experience of the creator.

The expertise of the creator.

The authoritativeness of the creator, the main content itself and the website.

And trust: the extent to which the page is accurate, honest, safe, and reliable”

In other words, you’re providing accurate information because you’re an expert on the subject and you can be relied on.

Google’s “Needs Met” Rating

The second component in the search rater guidelines is “Needs Met”.

Not only does your page have to be useful and accurate, it has to meet the needs of the search query it was shown for.

For example, you could have the best content in the world on “restaurants in barcelona,” but if the user is googling “restaurants in madrid”, your page is going to leave them dissatisfied.

What’s clear in the infographic below is that Google uses the extent to which users need to view other results to satisfy their need, as a negative signal for meeting their needs.

In other words:

If a user hits the “back” button after looking at your webpage to re-visit the search listings, Google interprets this to mean that your site offers an incomplete experience.

The user had to seek out additional information to satisfy their search intent.

Having seen firsthand how SmartAsset has accrued millions of backlinks and monthly pageviews, here’s my current take on SEO first principles that should guide your content strategy:

SEO First Principles

  1. Google is financially incentivized to surface the most useful information

  2. Google search results favor high quality content that meets users’ needs

  3. High quality content is original, effortful, accurate and requires skill

  4. First-hand experience, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness at the level of content, author and website are indicators of quality

  5. Backlinks from reputable sites are an important signal of E-E-A-T

  6. Google prefers fast web experiences optimized for desktop and mobile

  7. HTML markup and structured schema help Google understand your web content

  8. Googlebot has to crawl your website to understand, index and rank it

  9. Site structure, including URL structure, meta tags and navigation, affect how Google ranks your site

SEO First Principles Checklist

While these principles are fun to think about, I also want to leave you with actionable insights to improve your SEO content.

The questions below should make plain whether you have done your best to satisfy Google’s needs and your user’s needs, which will give you the best chance of ranking highly.

Page Quality + “Needs Met”

  1. Does your page satisfy the intent of the search query it was written for?

  2. Are there additional considerations that someone searching for your target keyword may have that should be included?

  3. Does your content reflect a considerable depth of care in how it’s put together?

  4. How does your page convey that you have first-hand experience with the topic?

  5. How does your page convey that you’re an expert on the topic?

  6. How do your page, content and website convey authoritativeness?

  7. How does your content convey that it can be trusted?

  8. Does your page type (blog, comparison, product page etc.) provide the most utility for the type of query it’s built for?

  9. Does the content hierarchy on your page make sense from a logical user journey perspective?

  10. What further questions might someone reading your page have about the topic?

  11. What else might cause someone who lands on your page to click the “back” button?

SERP Competition

  1. In what ways might the existing Google search results for your keyword query be more useful than what you’ve created?

  2. What do the existing Google search results for your keyword query lack that a user might find valuable? Can you create it?

Technical SEO

  1. Is Google crawling your site? (Google Search Console will tell you)

  2. Is Google indexing your content? (GSC will tell you)

  3. Is your site’s technical performance up to Google’s standards? (GSC will tell you)

  4. Does your website meet Google’s standards for page speed? Go to to check.

✨ That’s it for today!

I hope this helps you in your growth journey.


PS - go here to read the entirety of Google’s search quality evaluator guidelines.

PPS - if you found this helpful, you might enjoy my guide to Buyer Psychology First Principles.

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