On average, it takes me about 5 minutes on Twitter or a marketing Slack community to see someone yell “You can’t rank without backlinks”.
OK, they’re typing it so it’s not literal yelling. But it seriously feels like they might as well be yelling it.
Is it true?
Is it really impossible to rank without backlinks? Am I some kind of naive fool to think that good content is all you need?
No, it’s not impossible and no, I am no naive fool. I’ll attempt to answer those questions, and show you some of my favorite tactics to rank content without backlinks.
Backlinks have been an integral piece of Google’s algorithm for decades, and a strong ranking signal.
OK there’s a lot of jargon there.
Let’s start with backlinks. Backlinks are links from other websites to your own.
Google has a series of algorithms (software programs) that they use to find websites and analyze them. There are different factors that Google looks for (ranking signals) to determine whether a website is worth ranking on page 1, or page 100.
The more websites that link to you, the more authoritative Google will think you are. And if an authoritative website links to you (like The New York Times instead of some random blog) then that is a strong signal to Google that you are authoritative.
Therefore it has been advantageous for SEOs and marketers alike to get backlinks to be seen as authoritative and worth ranking on page 1 of Google. So much so that our inboxes are flooded with backlink spam that gets ignored, making it harder and harder to get backlinks.
Are we doomed to fruitless outreach?
No. You can rank without having to beg for backlinks, and here’s how to do it.
Short answer: yes.
I have firsthand experience coaching our clients to build content strategies that help them consistently rank, and link building is never a key element of those strategies.
At least, not at the outset.
Just to prove it’s possible to rank without backlinks, here are my favorite tactics to do it. If none of these work, email me and I’ll send you a video of me eating my hat.
It all starts with a well-constructed SEO strategy.
Go into SEO and content haphazard and you will surely fail. Go in with a clear plan and an aim to win, and you just might succeed. Most folks like to define SEO strategy as nothing more than a to-do list: build a big list of keywords, write a blog post for each one, rinse and a repeat.
The problem is, all of your competitors are doing that and if you follow suit you’ll be doomed to follow in their footsteps of mediocrity.
Instead, beat your competitors with a smart strategic framework. We define strategy as 5 coordinated decisions designed to win:
A good strategy is just the start though, there are some other things to keep in mind.
I think we’re the cat’s meow, but I’d be crazy to try to rank for ‘SEO’.
It’s just too broad. And competitive. There are multiple thousand pound gorillas going after broad keywords like that and for a newer site without backlinks, it’s fruitless trying to rank.
Instead go for low-competition keywords.
Low competition keywords are keywords that are more niche, and less oversaturated. They’re keywords that the giants in your industry are not ranking for, because they are not creating content to target them.
You can find low competition keywords by brainstorming niche long tail keywords and Googling them to see who ranks, or you can use an SEO tool to tell you the keyword difficulty score for a keyword (hint, Centori does this).
To rank you need content, and to rank without backlinks that content needs to be good, and fits in line with what your audience is looking for.
In SEO speak, we call this ‘search intent’.
While we may deal in keywords, don’t forget that there are actual questions behind every keyword typed into Google. The better you can understand that question behind the search, the more your content will align with what your audience is looking for.
Better content is not always about length, there is no magical word count for your content to reach. Better content means content that matches the intent of your audience, and actually educates and helps them.
Backlinks are a shortcut to building authority, but there are other ways you can build authority: Father Time, and content.
The older your domain is the more authority and recognition it will get. This is not a linear path to growth, but age will help. The quickest path (outside of backlinks) to building authority on top of age will be publishing content. Lots of it.
Publish content quickly and a consistently (as much and as often as your schedule allows) to build authority in topics that are key to your site and target audience, and Google will shine favorable upon you. If you’re being strategic and targeting low-competition keywords, this will lead to results with or without backlinks.
Don’t just publish blindly though. Publish strategically with topic clusters and pillar pages.
I frequently see marketers make the mistake of tossing content into their blog and calling it a day.
All of your competitors are doing that, you can stand out by organizing content into topic clusters and pillar pages. Taking this approach results in authoritative guides built upon related pieces of content that all link to each other, creating ‘content hubs’ on your website.
Google crawls websites by tracing pages that are linked together, so when you have related pages all linking to each other and addressing the same topic from different angles or funnel stages, this sends a strong signal to Google that you are an authority on that topic.
Sure, backlinks are a great way to get a rankings boost from another website, but you can do the same thing with your content.
Do you have any pages that are performing well on Google? I’m talking first page results, all the way near the top. This page is adding to the authority of your website, and it can be used to lend some authority to another page by linking to it.
That’s right, an internal link can provide some of the same benefits a backlink would by passing authority to another page to give it a rankings boost.
In SEO terms this is called ‘link juice’ and it can be very helpful in giving content a strategic boost. One of my favorite habits is to build up content hubs, get them to rank (by targeting the right keywords, questions, and content) and using that hub to give the next hub I create a nice boost in rankings.
Now all this is well and good, but as they say, “where’s the beef?”
The article above is not a theoretical approach, it’s a real approach we’ve used to get real results with our clients. Check out the case studies below for a bit more insight into what this looks like in practice, and the results it brings.
Narakeet was on track for SEO dominance in June 2021 thanks to relatively low competition in their space. Suddenly, new competitors appeared on the scene and Narakeet began to fall behind.
After months of trying out popular SEO tools and paying for consultants to perform the same audit over and over again, they knew they needed a change.
The tools weren’t helping, the audit results didn’t make a difference, and Narakeet was running out of time.
Our approach to SEO helped Narakeet think about their site differently. Rather than a collection of pages and blog posts they churned out hoping they might rank, Narakeet started to think about their website like they would a product.
Their website went from a static brochure to a website engineered to answer the questions their audience is asking on Google, and add value.
Narakeet’s best chance was to leverage the fact that their text to speech software supports 50+ languages and accents.
In just three months, Narakeet’s growth exploded as they increased clicks from search by 1000%.
We’ve been working with Insoles.com for some time now together with Tailord Design and, despite being in a crowded space (Dr. Scholl’s, anyone?) and competing with giants like Amazon and Walmart, their SEO campaigns have been incredibly effective at outsmarting their competitors and getting in front of their customers.
All without building links, or even doing much in the way of blogging!
From our research, both the survey and keyword research, we found that people primarily purchase insoles for two reasons:
Rather than focus on building a big list of keywords and blogging about each one — a strategy that doesn’t work in 2022 — we recommended that Insoles.com engineer their website around these two motivating factors.
Chances are, if their customers are buying insoles for these reasons, then people are going to Google for the same thing.
By engineering the site around the key motivators for their customers to purchase insoles, Insoles.com has consistently ranked on the first two pages of Google for each of their categories as well as product names.
They’ve also earned numerous featured snippets, and continue to increase both their organic traffic and revenue.
You’ve got a plan of attack, so now it’s time to put it to work. To help, we’ve compiled this post with a few extra helpful resources together to arm you with everything you need to rank without backlinks.
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