While it’s possible in some cases to rank a website without backlinks, that sort of strategy is only likely to work for keywords with low competition. At some point, most websites are going to need some backlinks.
But where are those links going to come from? Which types of links work? Where should I point them?
There are as many unique theories and answers to these questions as there are individual SEOs. Google might know the answer, but they’re not sharing. The successful SEOs probably have a good idea, too, but the hints and clues they’re sharing often leave out critical details that their own competitors could use against them.
The good news is that instead of asking and waiting for an incomplete answer, you can go get the information you want.
Comparing on-page SEO
The first step is to decide which websites you want to compare to and emulate. A good way to start is by running a Google search for the keyword(s) you want to rank for, and compiling a list of all the URLs in the top 10 results.
Once you’ve got an idea which sites are successful, the next step will be to take a look at their on-page SEO. Ask yourself the following:
What type of content are they using?
If you notice that a majority of the results are in video format, Google may have decided that videos provide the best answer to the type of question the search asks. Same goes for text-based content, images, and even audio.
Is the content focused or expansive?
Another thing to keep an eye out for is the length of the ranking content. While Google has begun to favor longer content, not all queries indicate a user intent to read a novel. Sometimes, a short and quick answer will suffice – and if Google agrees, you might notice that short, highly focused content is outranking long, exhaustive guides. Either way, the point is to pay attention to exactly what is working for the specific keyword you want to rank for, because what works for one search won’t necessarily work for all of them.
Is the content fresh or well-aged?
Some topic pages, like politics and news, tend to do best when they’re very fresh and new. Other topics, like how to cook a chicken, tend to age just fine. When comparing on-page SEO of successful sites in your niche, pay close attention to whether or not publication date seems to influence Google ranks. Depending on the exact topic, Google may see the niche as favoring fresh content, but it might also prefer classic content that has stood the test of time.
How is the content structured?
Finally, the technical details of the content structure may also matter. Plugins like Yoast can help evaluate things like keyword density, sentence structure, and language complexity. Reviewing other successful sites may also reveal other patterns in how content is structured. Does Google favor pages with a list of distinct components? Does it favor an image or video gallery? Or are all the pages that are ranking just long essays with well structured headings? Again, there’s not one right answer for every search query, so it’s important to do the research to see what works.
Comparing off-page SEO
The bigger mystery isn’t directly visible on the ranking page. Many times, the secret to a website’s success isn’t on that website at all – it’s the links on other websites pointing back to it.
This info is less readily available, but can be acquired through various link-checker services, such as the following:
BacklinkWatch is free, but it’s also a little more limited. Ahrefs and SEMrush are not cheap at all, but they do provide very thorough information. Check out the free and reduced price trials they offer to see which one you prefer! I’ll also hopefully have my own reviews of these services posted here, shortly.
How many links do the ranking pages have?
In some cases, you may come across a keyword where the ranking sites don’t have a lot of backlinks. This means you should probably focus more on the on-page aspects of a site. Other keywords may have ranking sites with hundreds or even thousands of backlinks. In those cases, you’ll probably need to focus more on link building and other off-page outreach efforts.
What types of links do they have?
The next question to ask is exactly what type of backlinks they’re using to rank. Most importantly, consider whether or not you can also get those types of backlinks.
Do they have lots of micro-sites pointing to their main site? How do they promote and increase the ranking of the micro sites? Follow the trail of backlinks as far as you can – you might be surprised how deep it goes! You might also be surprised how easy it is to copy a successful off-page SEO campaign!