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.

Look:

I’m not going to lie to you and say that 100% my sites magically jumped to the top of Google’s first page.

In fact, in my first 4-years of doing SEO, 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: Content Promotion Separates Winners and Losers

A while back I put my heart and soul into one massive post: Google’s 200 Ranking Factors: The Complete List.

google ranking factors post

In fact, I spent over 20-hours on the first draft alone!

When I finally put the finishing touches on it, I was SPENT.

With my last ounce of energy, I hit the “publish” button in WordPress, closed my laptop, and went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning, I threw on my robe and rushed into my home office.

I knew that I’d need to start super early if I wanted to manage the viral tsunami that I created.

But when I looked at my stats the next day, I was mortified by what I saw:

8 tweets
1 comment
0 links

Panicking, I hit “refresh” just to make sure it wasn’t my browser cache messing with me.

Nope.

There was no avoiding the cold, hard truth:

My content was a huge flop.

I took a brisk walk around the block and calmed myself down.

**Breathe**

That’s when I said to myself:

“Brian, your site has almost no traffic. You have 58 Twitter followers. How will anyone share your content unless you hustle to promote it?”

That’s when I decided to promote the hell out of my post.

And I’m glad I did.

Here’s what happened after I finished promoting my Google ranking factors post:

  • My page now ranks #1 for “Google ranking factors” and #5 for “Google ranking” (right behind Wikipedia)
  • That content has been shared on social media over 5,200 times.
  • A conference organizer emailed me after reading my guide and invited me to speak at a HUGE event in London.
  • That post has generated over 112,000 unique visitors over the last year.

google analytics traffic

How did I promote that post, exactly?

This post will show you the exact, step-by-step process that I used.

Key Takeaway:

Publishing is only the first step. If you're serious about ranking today, you need to spend MORE time promoting than writing.

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 today…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 total links 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 relevancy.

Skeptical?

Take a look at this:

google serps

That’s my blog post ranking #2 for the keyword “backlinks”.

You’d probably expect my post to have thousands of links from hundreds of referring domains…

…but you’d be wrong.

Incredibly, that post has only 77  referring domains:

ose stats

That’s not a lot of links.

But it’s #2.

How?

Almost 100% of my post’s links are 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”

So-called SEO “gurus” love to talk about how social signals are “the next big thing” in SEO.

In fact, I’ve heard some people go as far to say: “Once Google figures out social signals, they’ll replace backlinks”.

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:

SEL social signals post

Just check out this quote from that article:

“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 4-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 hours and millions of dollars they’ve spent to figure out backlinks, they’re not about to drop 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 backlinks.

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: World Class Content Makes Link Building Easier

Let me tell you a little secret about SEO:

Mind-blowing content makes link building A LOT easier.

Trust me: I’ve published mediocre posts and industry-changing level content. I’ve seen the difference firsthand.

And no, I’m not saying you should publish 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 have a site about yoga…

You could toss up a few pieces of useless content, like “5 Ways Yoga Helps You Lose Weight”…

…or you could build an insanely useful yoga resource.

When you have an amazing piece of content, you can tap into one of the most powerful link building strategies out there: resource page link building.

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.

In fact, resource 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:

resouce page search

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 more than 250,000 opportunities to work with.)

In about 30-seconds I found four pages that would happily link to a great yoga resource, including a PA34 page.

yoga resource page

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 piece of content.

If you want a thorough case study to help you create the type of epic content I’m talking about, check out this post.

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: Effective 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 focus on content and outreach 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.

{ 62 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
  • 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
  • Richard Linn

    I laughed when I read your true comment in Lesson #4 about the low-quality sites using ESL English :) You are SO RIGHT about that. We see it all the time. Very helpful and interesting article. I enjoy your approach to this important topic.

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Thanks for reading, Richard. Back before I came to my senses I used to own sites like that. I’m glad I saw the light :-)

      Reply
  • Jonathan

    You are so right with Lesson #4. When I had crappy (looking) sites it was hard to get links. Now I have websites that look great and now it’s pretty easy to get good links.

    Just one question. What is your definition of an authority website? I see a lot of people say different things and I would like to hear your opinion.

    Reply
    • Brian Dean

      Glad you’ve seen the same thing with your sites, Jonathan. It’s one of those things no one in SEO talks about…which is weird to me because it’s so important.

      Good question. I define an authority site as one of the top 25-50 sites in a niche. In other words, a site that would have to be in the conversation whenever people talk about “The Top 25 Sites about X”.

      Reply

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Brian Dean is the founder of Backlinko, the training hub for digital marketing professionals with over 70,000 monthly readers and a popular email newsletter. Continue reading