There is a common misconception that to rank highly in search engines you have to build lots of backlinks.
While the data DOES show that backlinks are a critical factor website rankings, the truth is, there’s no instruction manual on how exactly to outrank your competition that has more content, more brand recognition, more backlinks, and more experience on the web.
Ranking without building backlinks is akin to trying to get backlinks without quality content.
It’s possible, but not likely.
There are metrics that you can learn about through Google though, that will let you rank without backlinks and otherwise outrank your competition for competitive terms, even if they have a much more dominant presence on the web.
We’ll break down the strategies on how to rank without backlinks to help you better understand them and so that even without backlinks, you can rank highly in search engines.
Table of Contents
1. Internal Links are Underutilized
What we mean by this is using internal links to point people towards the most important web pages on your site. Google sees large numbers of internal links pointing to a particular page as that page being more relevant and thus Google tries to rank it higher.
Using lots of internal links to a target page and the right content, using the anchor text of your target keyword, shows its importance to you and helps to drive search engine traffic. Google sees this as a positive sign of content quality and content relevance. It’s basically about using what you already have available to make yourself rank higher.
Internal links are free while the right inbound links can be extremely expensive and time-consuming.
We typically advise internal link building in the following ways:
- Focus on your money terms first, using anchor text that aligns with search results, search volume and cost per click metrics that will drive leads and sales
- Don’t worry too much about over-optimizing for anchor text on-site. You can certainly get in trouble if too many of your off-site links have the same anchors, your internal links can be heavily weighted toward your target keywords.
- Make sure all of your most important web pages have multiple (if not many more) internal links
- Make sure the largest volume of your internal links point to the web pages you want to rank, including those with the highest search volume and cost per click from your keyword research.
2. On Page SEO
The second most underutilized tactic for ranking in search engines without backlinks is using a good on page SEO strategy as well as technical SEO.
The great thing about on page SEO is that it’s inexpensive and completely within your control.
Focus on things like the following:
- Optimize your title tag, H1 tag & meta description. Make sure you have enough H1-H6 tags, the right keywords in your title tags and meta descriptions and that they’re fully diversified.
- Keep URLs and titles, straight, short, to the point and fully optimized. Make sure your URL strings target high volume keywords, but that your initial strategy is aimed at low competition keywords until your site is fully vested.
- Optimize images, including alt text and exif data
- Add schema markup to pages
- Place outbound, external backlinks to other quality resources
- Implement and optimize your sitemap and overall site structure for crawlers
- Install an SSL certificate
- Make sure you have Google Analytics and Google Search Console fully implemented
- Focus on page speed, load speed and other Core Web Vitals (CWV)
- Optimize for local SEO, including Google Maps
- Get the right target keyword density comparable to other top-ranking web pages
- Make sure your bounce rates are low and dwell time is high. This will throw off the right signal for the particular keyword rankings to the search engines as long as you are able to nail user search intent.
These on page SEO items represent very low-hanging fruit in your overall SEO strategy.
We discuss these and others in our complete on-page SEO guide here.
3. User Data is Key
Everyone pretty much knows by now that Google controls the search engine market and that user experience is one of the main ways they judge the value and ranking of your site.
Many sites use a lot of backlinks to prove their domain authority on a subject and generate traffic from external links and external sources, but that doesn’t mean they provide the best user experience or even that they fully understand their audience.
Google Analytics provides all the data you need about user experience to optimize your site so that users click on links to your site, stay on the site longer and click to other pages on your site to acquire more information and target the right search intent. This is known as user satisfaction and is much more valuable in terms of measuring site ranking than a ton of backlinks. It will also allow you to get the data to truly rank without backlinks.
To beat your competition without backlinks, the key is to provide valuable and relevant information to your users. Their satisfaction and ability to find your content useful will have more value than backlinks.
To think of it practically, think of a doctor with a wall full of medical degrees, but with a terrible bedside manner, versus a doctor who doesn’t display all his certificates but has a great rapport with his patients. That patient experience matters a lot more than all the paper hung on the wall.
4. High Traffic From Outside Referral Sources Other Than Google Search
Another way that Google determines how high your website page should rank is based on how much traffic visits your site from external links and outside sources. This means how many people come to your site from other sites that link to yours. These can be affiliate links from sales, social media accounts, other webpages you own that link to yours, and other sources.
The reason for this is because Google indexes millions of sites and a day and values them based on traffic from all sources. If your site is constantly being visited through other sites, then obviously it has a higher value than other sites that are indexed.
You can think of it as something akin to word of mouth in advertising, people visit your site because someone else told them to. This improves your relevance without you having to prove your worth through other means like backlinks.
Whenever your site gains traffic from external links and outside sources, it will trend higher in Google rankings as a result because Google sees it as a more valuable site. This ties together with the user experience by telling Google that your site is more valuable to users because more users visit it from elsewhere and when they find valuable information that is relevant to their search queries.
That’s a mouthful of words to say that people like your site, so they tell other people about it, those people like it too, so Google says “hey we think people like this page, let’s rank it higher in search engines so more people see it.”
These statistics will more often than not beat out sites with a larger web presence, more valuable content, and more backlinks because their user experience and referral traffic are lower despite their size.
Sometimes high website traffic isn’t just search traffic.
5. Be Socially Relevant and Don’t Go With the Crowd
Our last point has to do with how well you communicate your message and what that message is. This means higher click-through rates, more talk about your brand on social media, more relevant testimonials from clients, basically anything that says, “even though we’re smaller, we provide better service to users.”
This has a lot to do with understanding your audience better than your competition. Who uses your site, what do they do when they are on your site, and what else can you do to make their experience better?
Messaging is part of this, particularly your meta description, how can you tell users in just a few characters that you have more value than the larger, older, and more well-financed competition?
This also means you don’t have to go with what every other search result says on a topic. For instance, if someone Googles a topic and most of the answers are yes, then you can explain why the answer might be no.
Choosing the different option often makes you more relevant to users as they like to seek the outlier or understand both sides of an argument. You don’t have to be like everyone else to succeed an yes, you can rank without backlinks.
Strategies for Earning Links (Instead of Manually Building Them)
Without any form of link building, Google will have no gauge for your authority, and anything you do onsite will be stuck in an isolated island. There is still a very strong divide between onsite and offsite content, and you’ll need both if you want any chance of succeeding.
Here are some proven strategies that will help you increase your site traffic by naturally earning backlinks:
1. Design Compelling Visual Content
People share content that they love. And do you know what kind of content resonates with the majority of people? Visual content.
Research shows that approximately 80 percent of readers skim online content. And of the remaining 20 percent that actually read your articles and blog posts, they typically only make it through 28 percent of the content before moving on.
But guess what? Visuals – graphics, images, videos, etc. – increase the desire to read content by an impressive 80 percent! Here’s what that means:
- The human brain processes visuals 60,000-times faster than text.
- 93 percent of all communication is visual.
- 65 percent of people are visual learners.
- Posts with images receive 180 percent more engagement.
- People are 85 percent more likely to purchase a product after viewing a video.
In other words, people are physiologically hardwired to respond to visuals and, as a result, are more likely to consume content, engage with it, and even share it. This makes visual content a perfect tool for naturally bolstering your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
But if you’re going to invest in visual content, you need to make sure you’re maximizing your resources and properly channeling your energy into the right content mediums. Here are a few types of visual content that perform best:
When infographics first rose to prominence around 2010, they were unstoppable. And while they’ve become more commonplace today, they’re still incredibly powerful.
From 2012-2019, digital marketer Neil Patel has generated an average of 53,459 visitors and 875 backlinks per infographic. He’s also been able to produce an average of 879 tweets and 443 likes. And while you might not have quite the same audience as Patel, the principles behind what makes infographics effective holds true. They appeal to a reader’s visual preferences, while also providing cold, hard objective data that builds trust. That’s a recipe for success – no matter the audience or application.
The only thing more powerful than a still graphic or image is a moving graphic or image – i.e. a video. In particular, short-form video content drives engagement and generates shares.
Video performs especially well when it’s between 15 and 120 seconds in length. The key is to start with a bang and to immediately get to the point. Cut out the fluff and focus on speaking directly to the viewer.
While they might not offer the same substance as infographics, videos, and other forms of content, memes offer a quick and easy opportunity to engage people through humor and/or irony.
The key with memes is to use them sparingly and to seize on the moment. While there are exceptions, most memes have a finite lifespan. They might only be popular for a few days or weeks. The more agile you are in creating clever memes, the more shares and exposure you’ll earn.
There are more than a dozen different types of visual content, but these three stand out. They’re magnetic, engaging, and have the ability to help you earn high quality links and generate traffic. Set a goal of creating at least one of each per month and track the search results. You’ll like what you see.
2. Write About Newsworthy Topics
Not all website traffic and clicks are created equal – at least in the eyes of Google. The search engine firmly believes in something it calls “long clicks.” These are sessions where a user searches for something, clicks on your page, and then doesn’t return to the search results page afterwards. A long click is an indicator that the visitor found what they were looking for.
Want to cultivate long clicks? Try developing newsworthy content that’s timely and relevant.
If your brand is like most, you aren’t exactly swimming in newsworthy information – but that’s okay. Rather than writing boring press releases and company updates, you can try something known as “newsjacking.”
Marketer David Meerman Scott defines newsjacking as “the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.” In other words, it’s taking a breaking news story, finding a relevant detail or connection, and then attaching your brand to that story via strategically crafted content.
Oreo provided us with one of the earliest and most effective examples of online newsjacking when they took advantage of the unexpected New Orleans Superdome power outage during the 2013 Super Bowl. They posted a simple black and white graphic on Twitter that read, “You can still dunk in the dark.” It was funny, witty, and – most importantly – timely. It could be argued that they got more value and exposure that night than the brands that paid millions of dollars for 30-second TV ad spots.
There are plenty of other examples of effective online newsjacking, but it’s not something you can copy and paste into your strategy. In order to utilize it well, you have to be plugged in to what’s happening and have the creativity to latch on to hot subjects before they exit the news cycle. This is why it pays to stay engaged with current events.
3. Develop Detailed List Posts
Listicles and roundup posts consistently out perform other types of traditional written-form content. Here’s why:
- People are drawn to numbers. Numbers are considered simple and objective. There’s an expectation that whatever is behind the number is valuable and worth engaging with.
- There’s a clear expectation. If you encounter a post titled 21 Ways to Show Your Cat You Love Her, you know precisely what you’re getting. There’s something reassuring about that.
- They’re scannable. As previously mentioned, most people scan content. Listicles make it easy for readers to scan content and still get the gist of what the article is about. This can improve engagement metrics and promote better sharing.
- They’re familiar. Listicles have been enormously popular for decades. As a result, most internet users are extremely comfortable with them. This makes them more likely to click and read.
If you want your content to get clicked on, engaged with, and shared, try turning your ideas into digestible listicles and roundup posts. And as you do this, keep the following in mind:
- Use odd numbers. There’s ample research and evidence to suggest that odd numbers perform better than even numbers. More specifically, people are drawn to headlines with the number 7.
- Lead off with a bang. As journalism protocol teaches, you should lead with your most important and engaging information. Most people aren’t going to read all 11 or 21 points – but they will read the first two or three. Convince them as to why they should continue.
- Incorporate visuals. Want to truly maximize engagement? Try incorporating visuals into your listicles to really grab attention and encourage sharing.
Not every listicle will be a major hit, but if you develop 10 list articles and one of them goes viral, it’ll be well worth your time and creative energy.
4. Partner With Authoritative Brands and Influencers
Are you familiar with the halo effect? In the marketing world, it’s the phenomenon by which consumers show favoritism and trust toward brands, products, and people that they’re already familiar with. You can tap into the power of the halo effect by partnering with authoritative brands and influencers that have pull with your audience.
The halo effect is especially valuable for small brands and startups that don’t yet have visibility in the marketplace. It affords the opportunity to stand out and acquire credibility.
In terms of boosting SEO strategy, here are some good strategies and techniques to consider:
Most people think about guest blogging as a way of plugging in URLs and directly acquiring backlinks.
But in this day and age of “nofollow” links does guest blogging still yield SEO value or link juice?
The answer is yes – and it comes in the form of exposure. When you’re featured on a respected blog, or referenced by a trusted thought leader, it speaks volumes of your brand. Naturally, this directs trust and authority to your online domains and profiles, thereby enhancing SEO.
Try partnering with influencers on social media. You can do this organically – by sending free products and services – or through paid sponsorships. Either method can be effective, especially if the influencer’s audience has a significant overlap with your own.
Try interviewing respected authority figures and thought leaders in your field. You can then turn these interviews into videos, articles, and podcasts. Not only does this generate buzz with your own audience, but the individuals you interview will be inclined to share your content with their audiences. Boom! Free exposure and traffic.
Each of these strategies requires differing levels of effort, engagement, and promotion. Find the ones that work best for your brand and go from there.
Don’t Focus Too Much on Backlinks!
Backlinks are still a strong ranking factor and yes, you still need backlinks to rank in search engine results pages, but an over-focus on them could lead to over-optimization and other issues.
Backlinks aren’t the only way to make your site respectable, trustworthy, and high ranking.
Frankly, there are ways you can fail in link building. A lot of the way you make your site high ranking is by being useful, readable, and relevant, even if you don’t have the biggest brand name out there or a humongous budget.
As we talked about, a site with information that people find useful will spread around by internet word of mouth. You can outrank your competition by being good at what you do. Having a strong social presence and knowing your audience can do more for your site ranking than dozens of backlinks.
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