5 Lessons Learned From 1 Million Search Engine Visitors

Since starting out in SEO, my sites have brought in over 1 million visitors from search engines alone.

I’m not going to lie to you and say that my sites magically jumped to the top of Google’s first page.

In fact, in my first 2-years, I was Google slapped more times than I could count.

But as I experimented, I found myself with more successes than failures…

…and learned a lot of golden nuggets along the way.

Today I’m going to share the most important SEO lessons that I’ve picked up with you.

Lesson #1: Work on One Site at a Time

In 2010, I was living in a tiny apartment in the upscale Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong.

Even though I only had $197 in my bank account,  I thought I was a baller.

Why?

I had 150 niche sites that were going to make me rich.

Boy, was I an idiot!

You have to remember that these were the days when just about anyone could make money from SEO.

Believe it or not, but I was able to rank single-page EMDs in a matter of days with no link building whatsoever.

Because I had so many sites, I never spent the time I should have to make them better.

If I did, I may have been careful…and they wouldn’t have died off or gotten outranked by my focused competitors.

Since then I’ve focused on building one authority site at a time. And it’s worked out amazingly well.

Before focusing on my first authority site, my best month ever was $935.04 from Adsense:

Adsense Earnings

And here’s how much I made last month from my authority site in CPA commissions:

Authority Site Earnings

Big difference, right?

The difference between the two stats is that I put A LOT of time and attention into that one authority site.

Because I focus on one site at a time, I make sure that every piece of content is superb and every backlink is perfect.

I wouldn’t have the time for this sort of thing if I had 5 more sites to manage…and I’d ultimately resort to cheap and easy links.

Key Takeaway:

Only work on one site at a time. Not two, not five....ONE. Once you learn how to rank one authority site, you can start another. But don't make the mistake that many people make of building 10+ sites at a time.

Lesson #2: Quality Trumps Quantity

One of the first SEO packages I ever bought was this one from the Warrior Forum in 2008:

WF Package

“$37 for 1500 links?”, I thought to myself.

“What a steal!”

And you know the crazy part?

That package rocketed my site from #75 to #13!

Of course, it was eventually slapped.

Obviously, you’d have to be nuts to buy a link package like that in 2013…but many people still do.

No one talks about it, but since 2011, Google has been working hard to overhaul the way their algorithm works.

And I’m not talking about Panda and Penguin…

Instead of giving love to referring domains and Page Rank, Google now puts more weight on link quality and link relevancy.

Unfortunately, most people still try to build as many links as they possibly can…without regard to quality or Linking Domain Relevancy.

Skeptical?

Take a look at this:

pic4

This is a site ranking #1 for a fairly tough keyword, “cheap life insurance”.

While it only gets 2,900 exact match searches per month, the insane $34.16 CPC makes it a very competitive keyword (like most in the insurance niche):

pic5

You’d probably expect this top-ranking site to have thousands of links from hundreds of referring domains…

…but you’d be wrong.

Incredibly, this site has only 159 total links from 60 referring domains:

Referring Domains Data

That’s not a lot of links.

But it’s #1.

How?

That site has almost 100% of it’s links from quality, niche-relevant sites. That should be the focus of your SEO strategy from now on: landing links from a handful of authority sites in your industry.

Key Takeaway:

It's an SEO cliche, but it's true: quality is more important than quantity. In fact it's not even close. Stop mass link building and start getting quality links from authoritative, trusted domains. You'll rank better and make your site more durable to updates.

Lesson #3: Social Signals Will Always Be “The Next Big Thing”

Everyone and their Mom is talking about how social signals are “the next big thing” in SEO.

“Once Google figures it out, they’ll replace backlinks”, white hat SEO pundits proclaim.

Not a chance.

This is one of the first articles I could find about social signals and SEO,  a December 2010 post from SearchEngineLand.com:

Social Signals Article

Just check out this quote:

“There’s also been talk about using “social signals” to help rank regular search results.”

Sound familiar?

It’s the same stuff you see plastered on every SEO blog on the internet…and it’s more than 3-years later!

It’s going to take Google a loooong time before they start using social signals in any significant way.

Why?

Because Google knows that once something becomes part of the algorithm, people try to game it.

And with the thousands of man hours and millions of dollars they’ve spent to figure out backlinks, they’re not about to ignore them and use Tweets instead.

For the record: I do think social signals have some influence in your site’s rank in Google.

But I don’t want to see you waste your time building Tweets, Likes, and Pins instead of links.

Key Takeaway:

When it comes to social signals, don't believe the hype. Links aren't going anywhere anytime soon. That's why you should put 80% of your SEO energy towards building links.

Lesson #4: An Awesome Site Makes Link Building Easier

There’s one SEO mistake that a lot of people in SEO make…

…and it drives me nuts.

What is it?

Building a crappy site.

You know the kind of site I’m talking about.

10-page wonders like best-toaster-reviews.info with ESL English articles and a free WordPress theme.

In other words, sites that look like this:

MFA Site

Well, I’ll tell you a little secret about SEO….

A great site makes link building so much easier.

Trust me: I’ve owned crappy single-page MFA sites and and I’ve owned authority sites. I’ve seen the difference firsthand.

And no, I’m not talking about building great content and waiting for “natural” links. That’s not gonna happen. But a great site opens up dozens of untapped link building strategies for you.

For example, let’s say that you want to make a site about yoga.

You could toss up a few pieces of useless content at healthbenefitsofyogax.com and hit it with SeNuke tiered links…

…or you could build an insanely useful yoga resource.

When you have a great site, you can tap into one of the most powerful link building strategies out there: resource page link building. This is an effective and scalable link building technique that big SEO agencies use for their clients.

What’s great about resource page link building is that you don’t need to bribe people with money or a guest post to get your link.

These pages exist for one reason and one reason only: to link to other sites.

In fact, the pages in the example below have the word “links” in their title tag!

All you do is use this search string in Google:

Resource Page Search Strings

And reach out to each of the site owners to give them a heads up about your awesome yoga site.

(As you can see in our Yoga example, we’ve got almost a half a million targets to work with.)

In about 30-seconds I found four pages that would happily link to a great site about yoga, including a PR3 page.

Resource Page PR

Let’s say you have a 10% success rate….

…if you email 500 people, that’s 50 quality, niche-relevant links!

For low and medium-competition keywords that’s literally all of the links that you need to rank.

But it’s only possible if you build an awesome site.

Key Takeaway:

SEO is much easier when you run an awesome site. It takes a bit more work up-front, but it actually saves you time and money over the long-run.

Lesson #5: Profitable SEO is Ahead of the Curve

One of the best pieces of SEO advice anyone’s ever given me is:

“If you read about an SEO technique on a public forum you should be glad you stopped doing that a long time ago”.

I do think that’s a bit extreme (there are plenty of classic SEO strategies on forums from 2006 that still work).

But the point is this:

Once an SEO technique becomes mainstream, Google swoops in to stop it.

To illustrate, in the last few years we’ve seen:

  • The death of content farms, like EzineArticles and InfoBarrel, courtesy of Google Panda
  • Anchor text over-optimization used as part of Google’s Penguin Update
  • The massive de-indexing of blog networks like Build My Rank and Authority Link Network
  • The possible devaluation of infographic backlinks

To do well in SEO you can’t do what everyone else is doing.

Because the second something is well-known, Google puts a team of NASA-smart, Harvard PhDs on the case to stop it.

In fact, Google moves so damn quickly nowadays that you can’t even be at the curve…you need to be ahead of it (being ahead of the curve can also help you avoid Google update penalties).

For those of you not familiar with it, here’s what the innovation curve represents:

Ahead of the Curve

Here’s the innovation curve from an SEO point of view:

People that make unbranded niche sites are behind the curve.

People that rely on guest posting and press release links are at the curve.

And people that build branded, authority sites are ahead of the curve.

Being ahead of the curve doesn’t mean you need to predict the future like Nostradamus.

It means looking at the current landscape, seeing the way things are going, and staying one step ahead.

Key Takeaway:

To rank above the competition and avoid Google update slaps, you need to use ahead of the curve strategies that will work today and tomorrow.

Learned Something? Share The Love!

I know that you have a ton of insights that I didn’t cover in this post.

I’d love to hear anything you’ve picked up since starting in SEO.

It doesn’t have to be an Earth-shattering insight.

Even a helpful tip would be awesome.

So leave a comment right now with something you’ve learned.

{ 68 comments }
  • Brian Hawkins

    Since seeing your guest post on Affposts today. I’ve been glued to your posts. & yes its a real compliment w/o a link request…

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks for your support, Brian. It means a lot :)

      Reply
  • Andrii

    Another great article Brian! You’re awesome.

    Will you write an article on how to make money with CPA programs?

    Kind regards,
    Andrii

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks Andrii! Great suggestion. I’ll write about that soon.

      Reply
  • Rob Stone

    Hi Brian. Not sure how I missed this article but just read it and absolutely loved it. Learnt so much since finding you and your website. A real breath of fresh air compared to so many people thinking they know what they are doing compared to those who do like you. Keep it up.

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      I really appreciate your support, Rob. Glad to hear I’m doing something right : )

      Reply
  • Dom

    Your articles and advice are pure gold. You are officially “the man” when it comes to online marketing and I appreciate your honesty and openness when it comes to explaining how you get results. Looking forward to your article on making money from CPA and hungrily waiting to taste the steak. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks Dom! “The Steak” is almost finished. I’ll send you an email when it’s ready to rock.

      Reply
  • Justin

    Under #4, you mention resource link building; I checked that out and it looks like I can get a ton of links this way. However, some of the sites ask for a link back. How do you feel about occasional link exchanges? Do you think its worth to have a few, or none at all?

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Really good question. If you do this enough you’ll definitely come across the occasional resource page that asks for a reciprocal link. I actually never do link exchanges at all. It’s one of the first link schemes Google ever cracked down on and there’s simply too much of a footprint for it to be safe or effective. It probably won’t hurt you in small doses, but it’s probably not worth the risk.

      Reply
  • Charlie Livingston

    I like the idea of working on one site at a time. It’s something I’m trying now, after attempting to create 8 at once a few months ago. But how long do you work on each site for? I’m just trying to get an idea of how many sites you’re churning out: is it 1 every 6 months, or…? Do you have some sort of goal for each site, like work on it until it’s making $x,xxx a month then move on to the next?

    Sorry for all the questions!

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Good question, Charlie. Personally, I move on to another site when I feel that the site can earn on its own. For example, my best-performing authority site takes about 10-minutes per day of work to maintain. The rest (content creation, broken link building, writing guest posts etc.) is done by my team. In my experience time is the limiting factor for a site’s success. Once I have some extra time to put towards another site, I move on. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  • Petra

    Great article Brian! Thank you for this enlightenment
    And also +1 for how to make money with CPA programs and more insight about “ahead of the curve.”

    Cheers
    Petra

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks Petra! I’ve actually already started on the CPA post. In the next few weeks I’ll be dropping some ahead of the curve case studies for you. Exciting stuff! Stay tuned :-)

      Reply
  • Chris bradley

    Brian, you are so correct here. One thing I have learned about building an authority site and one you actually do promote is links do come naturally. Amazing when i check my backlinks via Ahrefs, GWT every month and see new and good sites referring back to our articles, or even copying them and crediting back. and for those who dont credit back, thats why inner linking works well, ill still get links :)

    Now what Ill be doing is contacting these people back and offering them a unique article or ask if they like to link back to me on a different page. (some people would even go as far as offer them compensation but we know thats against googles rules so dont do that! )

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Awesome insights, Chris. I think too many people get hung up on the whole “great content doesn’t create natural links” idea. Like you said in your comment, you need to promote your content for it to generate links. When you combine great content with outreach and promotion you’re unstoppable.

      And I like the idea of hitting those same people up for another link. I sometimes combine manual outreach with broken link building: after they drop my link I thank them…and let them know that I “stumbled on” a broken link. Of course, I offer one of my articles as a replacement :-).

      Reply
      • Martin Wojtus

        Nice article, finally someone write really interesting and fresh news about SEO. Thanks.

        Reply
        • Brian Dean

          Thanks Martin :-)

          Reply
  • Quinton

    Good stuff around here, man. Loved the report, too.

    Just gotta say I wish niche sites were still a hot thing. Authority shmority… but the Big G-man disagrees with me

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks Quinton! I also have a bit of nostalgia from the niche site days. But you’re right: Big G calls the shots in this game.

      Reply
  • Terry Kyle

    Awesome stuff Brian and exactly the post I wish I’d first read when I got into IM and SEO! I guess you don’t live in HK any more (personally I love the Far East)?

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks Terry! That’s actually why I made the post: to help people avoid the hundreds of mistakes that I made when first starting out. I actually live in Lisbon, Portugal at the moment. But I also loved my time in Asia! :-)

      Reply
  • FERNANDO BIZ

    Great Article Brian. Great to find out about the importance of link building more than anything else.

    Also thanks for the share of The possible devaluation of infographic backlinks”

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      You got it Fernando: link building is still ranking factor #1.

      Reply
  • Steve eMailSmith

    Speaking of staying ahead of the curve… I can’t help it and I have to mention:

    There IS one vertical in online marketing that is always, not just on the forming slope of the curve, on the ‘ahead’ side of things, but rather they are usually 3-5 years ahead of everything, lol.

    I hope I won’t make too prude people blush here, but we certainly need to keep an eye on the p*rn sites, you know… just for keeping up with what we shall ALL implement sooner or later (and I’m talking about marketing, obviously…)

    Cheers,

    Steve ✉ Master eMailSmith ✉ Lorenzo
    Chief Editor #
    eMail Tips Daily Newsletter

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      You make a good point there, Steve. I don’t look at that niche in particular, but I do reverse engineer sites in shady niches to see how they’re able to do it. There’s a lot of insights to be had from the darkest shade of black hat SEO. Even if it’s just to learn how Google works.

      Reply
  • SeoLayman

    Well I got a question. You said in quality trumps quantity that one must stress on getting good quality backlinks, but If we have a new website, not many pages in it but the content is really good, so why a well reputed relevant website will give it a link.

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      That’s a good question. The amount of content on your site really doesn’t matter for attracting backlinks. For example, I got links to Backlinko from entrepreneur.com, QuickSprout etc. when the site only had 11 total posts.

      Reply
      • SeoLayman

        Wow! Never knew that you got only 11 posts. I just checked your Google Ranking Factors posts and it is also amazing. The link from entrepreneur.com, you earned it because of that article, I must say investing 20 hours on that article really paying off now. I am a newbie in blogging, but I hope to be as good as you are in near future. Once again thanks for the awesome articles.

        Reply
        • Brian Dean

          :D. Let me know how things work out for you.

          Reply
  • Mike

    You’re information is great; it’s just the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. There’s so much hype and nonsense surrounding backlinking. It’s hard to find truly valuable resources. I’m looking forward to going through your site in more detail.

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. Let me know if you have any questions.

      Reply
  • Loz James

    Hi Brian
    Another great post on a superb blog. Since I found your site a few days ago – I think through Neil Patel – I’ve tried to read every single post you’ve written.

    Your link building strategies are definitely ‘ahead of the curve’ and your writing style is very readable. This is the best new blog I’ve found in 2013 and I almost wish nobody else could have access to it so I can clean up using all your advice :-)

    Keep up the great work!

    Cheers!

    Loz

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Hey Loz,

      What a great comment! I work really hard on the site so it means a lot to hear that you’re getting so much value from Backlinko :-)

      Let me know if you ever have any questions.

      Cheers,
      Brian

      Reply
  • Chris

    Not that I disagree with you, but the website “cheap life insurance” is no longer ranking number one. Is that due to the EMD update do you think? Any updates on this would be good.

    I personally have been finding that blog comments on relevant sites related to my niche are working well. I also hear you recommend blog networks built ourselves. Do you use SEO Hosting for this or do you buy a basic shared hosting plan from someone like Hostgator, Bluehost, Godaddy and so on.

    Great content here….I have visited this site many times, and keep spotting you in the forums helping people. :)

    Thanks very much,
    Chris

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Chris. Thanks for the update on the life insurance site. You’re right: looks like an EMD update victim.

      For my private blog networks I use basic shared hosting plans. It takes a bit more work and money than SEO hosting, but I prefer to stay on the safe side :-)

      Reply
  • Vukasin

    Very nice post Brian, I agree on everythin. I like all of your posts, you are giving nice advices!

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Glad you liked the post, Vukasin!

      Reply
  • lakshman teja

    Wow what a cool article will follow your technique to rank my sites also.

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks for reading, Lakshman!

      Reply

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Brian Dean is the founder of Backlinko, the training hub for digital marketing professionals with over 60,000 monthly readers and a popular email newsletter. Continue reading