Ranking your website without backlinks [case studies]

rank without backlinks

It seems that I have been hearing this hundreds of times now: “build it and they will come online is a myth”. I have been also reading statement like “spend 20 percent of your time writing and 80 percent of your time promoting your site (doing outreach for backlinks)”.

On the other hand, Google has been encouraging us for years not to actively seek any links to our sites and let all the backlinks happen naturally.

Recently I got really curious and decided to find out if there is anybody out there (besides Google), that says you don’t need to actively seek any backlinks to a niche site in order for it to get good search engine rankings – and they can actually prove it with some real data.

I was very nicely surprised that, despite what everybody says, there are some people that decided to go against the majority view (which is overwhelmingly in favor of having to build backlinks) and are actually succeeding.

I found real life case studies of website owners that not only say it can be done, but actually have been and still are doing it themselves.


Doug Cunnington

Doug has a unique approach to building niche sites and although he usually builds some backlinks to his pillar posts, his method has also been proven to rank niche sites in search engines without any backlinks at all. But before I will point you to Doug’s materials on the topic, let’s just have a look at a couple of recent case studies published on his blog.

Ellen, one of Doug’s students, has built a very successful Amazon affiliate niche site, which after about eight months started earning over $2,000 per month and was well on track to be earning $3k+ per month at the time of publication.

The interesting part is that Ellen has not built any backlinks to the site. She is hoping to eventually get some backlinks to happen naturally.

Eight months for a niche site to start earning $2k+ in affiliate commissions, that’s a nice growth. To be able to achieve this without any backlinks at all, yes that sounds almost unbelievable. If you look at the screenshot of the organic traffic curve, it just shows a steady growth. We will discuss how this is possible, in a minute.

But first, let’s have a look at another case study from Doug’s blog: Beginner hits $100/month in FOUR Months with the KGR, then Hits $100 per DAY is another very inspiring story. Jaron has been able to get 500+ page views per day and is now seeing days of $100 in affiliate earnings from Amazon and Clickbank.

Jaron says: “I’ve just done no link building. I haven’t even attempted to do anything. All I’ve done is just write the content and make sure that search console finds [it].”

This is really good and there are more stories like this on Doug’s blog to prove the point.

So what is Doug’s secret sauce? If you have read the above two case studies thoroughly, you already know that one of the main pillars of this success is choosing the keywords with a reasonable number of monthly searches and low competition. Doug calls his keyword research method KGR or Keyword Golden Ratio.

Not long ago, Doug recorded couple of videos where he explained his method and published the videos on YouTube. One of the videos is called The Niche Site Content Plan That Attracts Massive Traffic Without Backlinks and the other one Content Plan for Niche and Authority Sites for Traffic Without Backlinks. They are both quite similar, but not exactly the same. It’s probably best to watch both so you can catch as many details as possible. Just a warning that both videos are quite long but they are also quite detailed.

There is also a related blog post: The Content Plan That Grows Your Income Without Backlinks. Although it talks mostly about adding content to existing sites and ranking that new content without any backlinks, for less competitive keywords this method will work for a whole new site as well, as acknowledged in the comments by one of the readers:

“I can’t agree more with you. I’m following the same approach: Building a website with 0 backlinks. Nada. It works if you choose easy keywords to rank quickly.”

Doug also published a free master class about his KGR keyword research method, which consists of 11 videos.

If you poke around his YouTube channel, you will also find some other good stuff, about Amazon niche sites, some success stories and more.

Also read anything that interests you on Doug’s blog. I know you will like it.

I have also found a recent podcast with Doug: How To Get Rankings & Traffic Without Backlinks With Doug Cunnington which gives a nice overview of his core methods.


Jim and Ricky from Income School

I came across their material quite accidentally, while watching one Doug’s YouTube videos. YouTube put their video in suggested videos on the sidebar. The title caught my eye straight away: Link Building Is Useless. Do This Instead. These guys have obviously mastered the art of writing catchy titles.

The video is only thirteen minutes long and they get right to the point.

They quite categorically state that we shouldn’t be wasting our time trying to build any backlinks to a site. Jim said that they never ever build any backlinks to their sites. It’s easy to do it the wrong way and get penalised anyway. Instead, that time would be much more profitably spent on writing quality content for the site. They back it up with examples too. They even disclose the domain names of the actual sites they talk about.

In the first example, they created about 25 articles in about a month and then just let the site sit there and mature. As Jim says, Google found their site and started testing the pages against others to see where they should sit in the search results. After a year, this site was getting 66,000 page views a month, from only 25 articles. This was achieved with zero link building. Jim says it’s incredible and I agree.

Jim emphasizes that they create really good content. People do find it and people will link to it over time. This will happen organically and without you having to ask for a link ever.

I was so impressed with this video that I immediately started watching their other videos on the channel. They go into many more examples with timelines, traffic stats, earning stats and even domain names.

By watching their videos you will also pick up some other great bits of info. For example they talk about a simple change that converted a lot more visitors to click on their Amazon links. Getting organic traffic is one thing, but if you cannot convert it, then it’s not going to help you. I’m not going to reveal their exact process here. You really need to watch those videos. You will be glad you did. Okay, I will give you a clue: it’s about using plain in-text links. But this is just one of the many hints and techniques they share.

Also read their Income School blog and you will pick up their way of doing things. I recommend every time you pick something new, make a note of it and before you know it you will have a very clear picture of their method of operation. These guys are not holding back.

Although Jim and Ricky recently started selling this information in their online course, Project 24, which is nicely structured and will most likely shorten you learning curve, if you are currently short of money and are willing to put your Sherlock Holmes cap on, you should be able to gain enough information from their free material to be able to build your first successful niche site (and without backlinks). For best results I would recommend you concentrate on the articles actually written by Jim and Ricky and skip the ones that are guest posted by other authors. And, of course, study all of their free videos.


Spencer Haws

First, I have to digress a bit. If you are into building affiliate niche sites and have never heard of Spencer Haws and his Niche Pursuits blog, you don’t know what you are missing. Seriously. Large parts of his blog and many podcasts are devoted to this subject and you will find numerous tutorials and case studies there, all for free. Now back to the topic of no backlinks.

Spencer presented us with his very own niche site case study as well. He built the site primarily focusing on long tail keywords and not paying any attention to link building.

You can see that once Google started ranking the site, the traffic had a steady growth curve.

As Spencer said, “When I created the site, I spent a TON of time doing keyword research to find the best possible keywords to rank for. And more importantly, I focused on LOW COMPETITION keywords that I knew I would have a shot at ranking for without any links. Here’s the deal, there are tons of search queries out there where the top 10 results have no links or very little links to the actual articles ranking. So, you can often rank for these really low competition keywords by just having more in-depth content than the competitors have.”

While he does not reveal the exact keywords he targeted, he reveals the phrase patterns he typically looks for in any niche, which is very valuable. Phrases like “how to ___ with ___”, “best way to ___ with ___” and many more.

Spencer also made a point that he used this methodology to rank his other niche sites as well, in other words it was not a fluke. He also goes into a detailed explanation why he believes the low-competition keywords do so well and why he believes this will always be the case.

Spencer said something that really agrees with my personality as well and chances are you will love it too:

“Do you want to publish a few articles and then spend most of your time sending thousands of emails in hopes that someone links to your site? Or do you want to spend your time doing great keyword research, producing excellent content that Google should be proud to rank? I’ve personally always chosen the later.”

We have also examples of some of his students below.

Niche Pursuits Podcast 57: How Claire Smith Makes Over 5 Figures a Month with Niche Sites and NO Link Building.

In this podcast Spencer interviews Claire, who makes $10,000+ per month from her niche sites. Claire has never built a single link to any of her sites. In her own words, “I just never got around to it”. Not bad at all, considering that the niche sites have been responsible for selling over $4.3 million worth of Amazon products at the time of the interview.

Some of Claire’s sites have links pointing to them, which happened naturally, over time, and without her involvement. Others do not even have any backlinks at all.

Claire’s “secret” is to do great keyword research and target super long tail keywords with good, useful content. In each niche she tries to find keywords with super low competition, where the “allintitle:” Google query returns 20 search results or less. Claire then knows that she has a very good shot at ranking for that keyword on page one.

There are also plenty of little great tips in the podcast as well as in the comments on the page.

On another podcast, Podcast 47: How to Create Epic Content and Attract Natural Links for Your Authority Site with Gael Breton, Spencer interviews Gael who is a pro at building sites that rank well and make solid income. Gael says that most people focus too much on actively building backlinks, rather than thinking what causes people to link to you naturally. Links are important, but building links is not what you should do. You need to attract those links, according to Gael. Google would agree, I’m sure.

Spencer himself also says: “I’ve never done a “link building” campaign for NichePursuits.com or LongTailPro.com. I’ve just done simple outreach to truly build relationships with no intention to get a link.”

There are a couple more podcasts there that might interest you as well. Although they are a bit older (around 2013) they are still as relevant today as when they were recorded.

Podcast 20: How to Build a Successful Blog in a Competitive Niche – here Spencer interviewed Sam Dogen. Sam did not actively pursue to build any backlinks to his blog either, yet has tons of links pointing to his site. The only outreach he ever did (up to that point at least) was commenting on other blogs. However this was done purely as a way to interact with other people, not as a link building tactic.

Over time plenty of people noticed Sam and his blog and some of them must have linked to the blog too. It resulted in 200k unique visitors per month. This is what Spencer and Gael mean when they talk about doing simple outreach to build relationships and attracting the links naturally.

Sam’s case is even more interesting, as up to that point he hasn’t even done any keyword research at all. Working in the financial field professionally, Sam was already in tune with the topic of his blog and understood what questions and issues his readers might be dealing with. This is exactly why it makes so much sense to write about a topic you are passionate about.

And the last podcast I want to mention: Podcast 5: Building a Real Business with Fraser Cain.

Frasier did not do any link building, any SEO whatsoever, yet at the time of the podcast his site was receiving up to 4 million visitors per month and most of that traffic came from Google. Fascinating!


More case studies

Ranking a website with no backlinks: It worked!

Alex set out an experiment to prove or disprove that a niche site can get organic search traffic without any link building whatsoever. The parameters of the experiment were basically to find a keyword with at least 1,000 searches per month, which would mean there is some traffic potential but the competition for such keyword should be low. Then he would write about 20 articles, ranging from 500 to 1,200 words.

Alex also decided that he wanted to do this on a domain that was already registered, presumably to shorten the Google sandbox effect. However, according to Doug Cannington, low competition keyword in most cases should not be affected by the sandbox effect at all.

One other thing I have noticed was that Alex decided to use a domain name with the exact keyword match. This is old school SEO and no longer works as well as it used to many years ago according to the experts. These days exact domain match is largely irrelevant as a ranking factor. One notable exception is probably local search terms (such as ‘Dallas car hire’, for example).

Anyway, Alex created a real site with useful content. That’s an important point to make, because Google looks at how long people stay on your site and this is one of the biggest ranking factors.

The results have been great. Already in the first month some pages ranked in the top 10 search results. In the second month, the site ranked in the top 10 for the main keyword as well.

Also, about 3.5 pages were viewed per visit on average and the bounce rate was very low at less than 2%. This is proof that the site has quality, relevant content and Google ranked the site accordingly.


How one niche site generated $23k Amazon income within 9 months with no backlinks

This is another interesting case study, that gives quite a bit of detail about a niche site without backlinks experiment, that AJ conducted in 2016. Not only traffic and Amazon earning details, but also some very specific details about the site structure that can be very helpful for anyone building niche sites.

AJ decided to create a niche site for a very popular seasonal product. He registered a brand new domain in March and in April started publishing articles. The total articles posted by the end of the year was just 12. However, they were well written, quality articles, written for well-researched keywords and AJ also goes into a considerable detail on how all of those article pages supported each other.

Here is the nice part: the site has earned over $23,000 before the end of the year. This was a seasonal product so the bulk of the earnings actually came in October-December. With no backlinks. Nice.

Here’s what AJ says about backlinks for that site:

“For this brand new affiliate niche website, my focus was on publishing top quality content with perfect on-page SEO. I did not want to focus on creating backlinks. It’s really difficult for review websites to generate backlinks anyway, so I decided not to waste my time on this.”

AJ also points out that for a successful affiliate site you don’t need a lot of traffic, you just need targeted traffic. You need visitors that are ready to buy that particular type of product.

I would suggest that you thoroughly read the whole article, as AJ talks quite a bit about the elements that go into building a successful Amazon niches site, even to the point of buying the products he was reviewing, so that the reviews would be genuine.


How to write content that gets traffic without backlinks

According to Blake, he has been able to rank content in some of the competitive niches. He quickly outlines the method he uses to be able to do it, although it would be nice if we could get more details on approximate number of pages per site, time his sites took to rank and some traffic details.

So this is not a case study as such. Nevertheless, the post still has lots of good tips. Couple of points that seem to be consistently present between all of these different sources of information is long, useful content and using the long-tail keywords which by their nature are usually less-competitive and easier to rank for.


Jon Dykstra

In his recent post The 10 Worst Blogging Tips I Ever Foolishly Followed Jon says:

“In a former life, I built backlinks. Thousands of them. It worked… temporarily. Like all the strategies listed above, building backlinks still works. However, I’ve found a better way.

Instead of focusing time and resources on building backlinks, I put time testing and creating content that attracts links naturally. I’m talking about no outreach or guest posting or anything.

Yes, other bloggers and website owners including small business owners will link to other sites. They do so all the time. The key is creating some content on your site that other sites want to link to.

Hint: it’s not necessarily making your content better. A big part of it is coming up with content that attracts links. Once you figure this out in your niche, it’s game over. FYI, not all content I publish attracts links. Just some of it.”

However, to understand the context of what Jon is talking about, we need to read his other posts. For example, in How I Broke a 6 Month SEO Plateau he says:

“(…) I did renew efforts into social media. I subscribed to MeetEdgar and started posting to FB and Twitter daily. I loaded up Tailwind for Pinterest and Instagram. I cleaned up my Flipboard account and started posting there as well.

Social traffic hasn’t increased much (Pinterest is up a bit) and I really don’t think any of this impacted SEO… but it’s what I did so I’m telling you about it.

Here’s what I didn’t do: Built links.

I ain’t gonna lie. It’s always tempting to build links because traffic growth can be meteoric. If done without Google catching on, they work. However, I resisted the urge and focused with on-site optimization only.”

So, while Jon does not actively build any backlinks, he still does outreach to the world via social media. This also makes perfect sense because it means two things:

  1. His sites will be getting some social media traffic long before SEO kicks in.
  2. He is likely to get more natural links over time because more people will discover his content sooner (via social media).

This perhaps might be the happy medium.

The other perfectly legitimate forms of outreach are:

  1. Answering people’s questions on Quora, with a link to a relevant post on your site when appropriate.
  2. Answering people’s question on relevant forums, with a link to you homepage in the signature.
  3. Informing other bloggers in your niche whenever you mentioned their content in your blog post (my favorite).
  4. Posting useful comments on other blogs in your niche, whenever you can contribute something useful to the conversation.


Chase Reiner

Chase does SEO work for his clients. In his recent video How I Rank Without Backlinks Chase says he doesn’t do any active link building, yet is getting good results. He shows an example of a client that was getting no traffic and is now averaging 500-600 daily visits without building any backlinks.

Chase explains: it doesn’t mean the site won’t have any backlinks, it’s just that we don’t build any. Which is another way of saying that the links will happen naturally over time.

Another interesting thing he pointed out was that when there is a very competitive keyword, he doesn’t shoot directly for it, but builds a silo of content pages around that keyword. What I think he is trying to say is that he builds a bunch of pages for related low competition keywords.

He also qualifies further, that it doesn’t mean they don’t do any outreach.



Here are some takeaways form these case studies.

If done the right way, particularly for the less-competitive keywords, it’s perfectly possible to rank in search engines and get free organic traffic with no backlinks at all.

One of the main ingredients of this equation is great content. This means long (where appropriate), well-researched and very useful, very relevant content. Google will find the content and will rank it over time. As an added benefit, you will not have to worry about another Google algorithm update, as any links to your site will be 100% natural, as natural as you can get.

Links are still important, however in this model every single link to your site can happen naturally, over time, without you having to ever ask for one.

Over time, even authority sites can rank high with just natural backlinks and bring hundreds of thousands, even millions, of visitors per month in free search engine traffic as we have seen in a couple of cases above.

Another comment I want to make is that no link building means slightly different things to different people. To some it means no outreach whatsoever. To others it means doing outreach as just described above, but never actually asking for a link.

For all of the above, the backlinks will happen naturally over time, to the content that is worth linking to.

However, there is a very good chance, that with any kind of outreach it might happen sooner and to a larger degree.

The one notable exception seems to be content that targets low competition long tail keywords. Where the competition for your keyword is extremely low, if your content is really good it’s likely to be ranked in Google without any backlinks whatsoever.

There are more and more webmasters who do realize that great content is more important than building backlinks.

Really good content, which leads to great user experience is what’s most important. This will be reflected in the click through rate for your search results. This will be reflected in the time spent by the visitors on your site and other factors such as bounce rate.

Google is able to measure all of these factors, of course, and take them into account when ranking sites. So, the greater the content and the more useful your site is, the more love Google will send your way in the form of organic traffic.

Going back to where we started though, I really like the approach detailed by Jim and Ricky from the Income School blog. Their model allows you to spend two or three months building a great niche site, then just leave it alone and let Google rank it over time. This is great if you get easily bored with topics too. You can jump into a niche you have some interest in, focus on it for a couple of months and then move on to another area of interest.

I like what Spencer has to say on this topic as well. He gives us plenty of details and case studies to back it all up.

I also like Doug’s method which is in many ways similar. All three of these approaches go pretty much hand in hand and complement each other. Doug’s Keyword Golden Ratio formula can give you a clear approach to keyword research. However, there are both pros and cons to using Doug’s KGR.

The pro is that the keywords found that way will rank almost immediately. The con, for me at least, is that these types of keywords will be more and more difficult to find, as the time goes on. Simply, because there will naturally be more and more web pages competing for those low search volume keywords as time goes on.

However, as Doug pointed out in the last video of his free Keyword Golden Ratio masterclass mentioned above, a person that is brand new to niche sites should probably stick with the KGR formula for a while. The pages will rank much quicker, in some cases almost immediately, which means the traffic will start happening sooner and the affiliate commissions as well. All those little wins can be very important when you’re just starting out and should not be underestimated. For some people it could literally mean the difference between succeeding and giving up too soon.

Spencer gives a very compelling argument for using low competition keywords as well. He says, while we may worry that eventually all of those low-competition keywords are going to become competitive, this is unlikely to be the case. The available data shows that 15% of daily search queries on Google are brand new queries that have never been searched before with the exact same phrase.

If you study all of the free materials available from Spencer, Doug, Jim and Ricky, plus all of the other case studies mentioned in this post, it should give you a very detailed picture how to build successful sites, without backlinks, which receive plenty of organic search engine traffic.

If you haven’t already, also read my recent post on doing outreach.

Until next time. Stay focused.

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