10 Sep 2019 SEO

Ranking without backlinks – 8 ways to rank (we ask the experts)

man on tablet looking at a page with coffee

Ranking without backlinks, can it be done?

You may be surprised to hear this, but the short and simple answer is yes. Yes, a website can rank without backlinks. Even John Mueller (Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) says so: 

john mueller tweeting about ranking without backlinks

I bet I have your attention now? 

Whilst you can rank without backlinks, it is not easy. It can be done but it will take a little bit of effort on your part. 

To make it easier, I have decided to share 8 ways to rank without any backlinks. I’ve also asked other experts in the SEO industry for their thoughts and opinions on the matter which I have also shared in this blog too. 

Ranking without backlinks – 8 different ways

Here are 8 different ways to try to get your page to rank without backlinks: 

  • Focus on the value of the content
  • Go for longer tail keywords (they tend to be less competitive) 
  • Take advantage of Google’s local 3-pack 
  • Copy what your competitors are doing with their on-page SEO 
  • Work on your internal links 
  • Take advantage of ‘Barnacle SEO’ 
  • Work on having a low bounce rate for pages 
  • Take advantage of video carousels 

Let’s now go into each bullet point in more detail, starting off with the value of content. 

Focus on the value of the content 

So most of us are aware that Google likes websites that are regularly updated with fresh content. 

Great! I’ll just focus on writing as many blog posts as I can. Hey, I might even head to Fiverr and get some cheap content done quickly. 

Now I don’t want to get into trouble here. I am not ‘dissing’ Fiverr. Fiverr is great for outsourcing some jobs on a budget e.g. logo design. However, if you want to create content that drives traffic and ranks, you need to invest your own time and effort. 

Don’t focus on the volume of content that you pump out. Focus instead on the quality of what you are writing.  

Ask yourself, how I can be better than what is already ranking? How can you add more value? 

Whenever you are writing content, the aim should always be to solve people’s problems and answer the searcher’s query/intent in detail.  

Other things to ask yourself are, do you understand the intent behind the search query? Does your piece of content answer that intent? 

Adding your own personal opinion and thoughts about a topic is great but have you got the stats/facts to back up what you are saying? 

The winning content cocktail concept 

barman making cocktails

Chad Zollinger who is the chief editor at Best Company swears by the content cocktail concept. 

“For those who really want to dominate their industry’s search results, use the content cocktail. 

A content cocktail helps you tailor your content exactly to your audience (3 story-driven videos + 10 long-form articles + 1 e-book = a great content cocktail).” 

The secret for Zollinger is simple, “[write] better content than the top 10 articles for your target keyword.” 

This is not easy and takes hard work. But the rewards are worth it. 

Go for the longer tail keywords 

Generally speaking, longer tail keywords e.g. questions and longer phrases tend to be less competitive and therefore easier to rank if you haven’t any backlinks. 

Use a tool such as ‘Answer The Public’ to help you do your research. If you go for the free version you are limited to the number of searches you can do, so you may have to use Google’s autosuggest as well to do your research: 

google autosuggest example

After you have done this research, pick out the longer tail keywords that you know you stand a pretty good chance of outranking the competitors, because you can write better content. 

I would suggest opening an ‘incognito tab’ in Google, paste your phrase and see who is ranking e.g. if the first page on Google is full of ‘big names’ it will be tricky. However, if you don’t recognise names, you will stand more of a chance. 

You can also use Moz SEO toolbar and Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest tool to help with this research too. 

A quote from a marketing conference I attended last year seems fitting to include here, where Chris Marr (founder of the Content Marketing Agency) said that all businesses/brands should, “aim to become the Wikipedia of the industry”. 

Find the questions people are asking and provide answers and solutions for them. Become the Wikipedia in your niche, so that people keep coming back to you. 

Google’s local 3-pack 

I am a big fan of Moz Whiteboard Friday. Each Friday they invite an SEO expert to talk about a specific SEO topic for around 10 minutes (I am still waiting to be invited). I would highly recommend watching these videos every Friday. I always find time, whether it’s in the morning when I am drinking my coffee or eating my lunch. 

Recently they had Joy Hawkins, who runs a local SEO agency in Canada, talking about Google’s local 3 pack.  

What is Google’s local 3 pack? 

When you do a ‘local search’ or a search which Google think has a local intent, like hairdressers or dentists for example, Google will show you a feature that’s shaped like a map and displays places related to your query.  

Google also includes a 3-point list of businesses with their name, address and phone number (also known as NAP data). 

The local 3-pack is shown just below the ads and before the organic results: 

hairdresser google local 3 pack example

So, if you’re going after a keyword that has local intent, this is a great opportunity to steal clicks away from your competitors who are ranking organically. Technically’ speaking you will rank higher.  

How do you show up in Google’s local 3 pack?  

First things first you must have a Google My Business account, it’s free (yay). Then you need to spend some time optimising your listing. Make sure your address and opening hours are correct, you have selected the right category, you publish posts regularly, add photos, get Google reviews etc. 

How does Google select which companies to show in the local 3 pack? 

Google takes into consideration the following when deciding which company to show:

  • Proximity
  • Prominence 
  • Relevance 

Let’s investigate these areas a little more closely and start with proximity. 

Proximity is where Google thinks you are when you are searching for something on your phone or computer.  

Prominence is how important Google thinks you are looking at things like external links, store visits, reviews, citations etc.  

Relevance is how relevant your business is to the keyword, Google looks at content, onsite SEO, citations, categories, reviews from other places etc. 

As you can see Google takes a lot of different thinks into consideration for the local 3 pack. So, if you are lacking in the backlink department there are other areas that you can look into. 

I would always recommend working on Google reviews. Google is going to trust a website that has reviews, especially positive ones, meaning that they will more likely show you in the local pack. 

*Expert tip* 

Did you know that when someone includes ‘best’ in their search query (best hairdresser, best dentist etc), Google will automatically filter out companies from their local pack that have less that 4 stars. 

mindblown gif

Copy what your competitors are doing with on-page SEO 

When it comes to SEO, you can learn a lot from your competitors. I mean a lot. 

So, you have the phrase you want to rank for, the next step would be checking out the pages that are already ranking on page 1. 

Longer form content usually ranks better. Backlinko analysed 1 million websites and found that pages that were ranking on page 1 had on average 1890 words. 

When looking at the pages ranking for your keyword, get an average of how long your content should be. 

Other things to look at: 

  • How many times the keyword is used in headings 
  • If the keyword is present in the title 
  • What other pages it is linking to (both internal and external) 
  • Use of images/graphics 
  • Formatting e.g. length of paragraphs, number of subheadings, use of bullet point lists 
  • Use of videos 
  • Author of the page 
  • Expertise, authority and trust of the page/website 

This will help you to come up with your content and how to format it. Hopefully there will be opportunities where ranking pages have missed something of this list, which you can use to your advantage when developing your content. 

Internal links 

So, you have spent time creating amazing content that gives loads of value to the reader. Let Google know this page is important and link to it from other pages on your website. Your homepage carries the most weight, so if possible, include a link to the page from here. I’ll quote my podcast co-host here, “think of your homepage as the trunk of the tree and then the parent and children pages are the branches and leaves”. – Hannah Bryce. Yes, she is good at analogies, listen to our podcast if you need proof. 

There’s generally the 3 click rule, every page on your website shouldn’t be more than 3 clicks in depth e.g. after 3 clicks each page should be accessible somehow. I would use the Screaming Frog tool to help you identify click depth on your website. It’s an awesome free SEO tool.  

What you don’t want is an orphan page situation on your hands. What is an orphan page I hear you ask? A page with absolutely no links at all. 

orphan page definition

Also, don’t be afraid to optimise your links with keywords. I see so many wasted opportunities where people have used ‘click here’ to link to other pages. Obviously be natural and don’t just stick to the same keyword each time. Use synonyms and related phrases to make sure you are being natural. 

People often forget about the importance of internal linking. Especially with the homepage. Yes, links from external websites are going to matter more to Google, but internal links still carry some weight! 

Barnacle SEO 

Will Scott, founder of UpScribed, first coined the term Barnacle SEO, which is the idea of attaching yourself to a large fixed object (a big rock or ship) to collect the benefits when the currents bring it. 

What does this mean in the SEO world? Well your website is the barnacle and the large fixed object is a page/website that is already ranking for a term you want to rank for. 

Imagine this scenario, you’ve tried to rank your page/website for the term but it’s far too competitive and your efforts just aren’t working. You are no where to be seen in the search engines. This is where Barnicle SEO comes in and allows your brand to be visible on the first or second pages. How? Well, essentially by latching on to the sites and pages that are ranking. 

Obviously it’s not a good idea to reach out to a direct competitor here and say, “hey can you link to us as your ranking and we’re not?” They will tell you where to go. 

no thank you gif

However, let’s say what is ranking for your term is a blog where someone has reviewed the best products/services. Maybe you could reach out to them and ask if you can be included (you’ll obviously have to say why they should etc)? 

Or perhaps it is a Wikipedia or Quora page which you can add a link to somehow? 

Think outside the box and look for opportunities where you can add a link to pages that are already ranking. 

Bounce rate 

So, there’s an estimate that there are around 200 different ranking factors. Google takes into consideration over 200 factors when deciding what pages to show for what search terms. One of these factors is user experience. Google cares about the end user and what content is shown to them. 

So, we’ve already covered in this blog going for longer tail keywords and focusing on the quality of your content. Another key ingredient to successful content is taking bounce rate into consideration. 

bounce rate defintion

After you have published your content, log into Google Analytics and look at the ‘bounce rate’ of that page, along with the ‘average time on page’. If the bounce rate is high and average time on page is low, these are indicators that the content is no good. People just aren’t finding this page useful. 

Factors to investigate if bounce rate it high: 

  • Have you answered the intent of the keyword – basically with the content are you barking up the wrong tree? 
  • Does the page take too long to load? (aim for around 3 seconds) 
  • Is the formatting easy to read? Are paragraphs split up with subheadings. Are there use of images and videos? 
  • Is your page responsive? Does it work on all type of screens (desktop, phone, iPad etc)? 
  • Is the text easy to read? I heard people in the industry say that you should aim to write for a 9-year-old. People tend to scan text, rather than read each word. Make it easy for them to do this. 

Video carousels 

You must have come across video carousels or featured video clips when using certain search phrases in Google?  

This is where you have searched for a term and are given a selection of videos in a carousel or a featured video clip to watch. 

Video carousels or featured clips are shown just below ads and just before organic search, like the Google local 3 pack. They are usually shown for ‘how to’ type of queries. 

video carousel example

If the term you are wanting to rank for displays videos and the current videos are outdated or you know you could do better, what are you waiting for? 

HubSpot analysed 165 video featured snippets and found the following: 

  • 80% contained the exact keyword in the title. 
  • Video length really doesn’t matter, the longest video they found in a snippet was 2,125 seconds long whilst the shorted was 55 seconds. I suppose what matters more is the intent and if it is being answered or not? 
  • Average video age was nearly 5 years old – this means your older videos can be optimised to win snippets. 
  • Correlation between YouTube rank and ability to win a featured slot was not as strong as the videos rank of Google’s video tab and its presence in a featured slot. 
  • 71% of featured clips don’t have scripts’ or lists in their description. Google likes you to make content as accessible as possible for visually impaired or those who prefer to read. 

What the SEO experts have to say 

One of the things I love about working in SEO is the community. They never let you down. I simply reached out to the community and asked for other people’s opinion on the matter of ranking without backlinks. Here’s what they had to say: 

“Do your research, find a niche keyword(s) you want to target, ensuring there’s low competition (check the SERPs for low quality results, low PA pages, or irrelevant content, low authority domains), then create a good piece of content (think “10x” or “skyscraper”) targeting that exact search – internal links are completely under your control so make use of these from your key pages to boost that piece of content and show Google that it’s a key page on your site.”

Dom Bryce – Search Manager at MHR

“With everything in digital there are always a few schools of thought or avenues to go down. I thought that this was an interesting approach and one that stuck in my mind. 

A few years ago, there was a reddit post that called on the reddit community to get involved and trick Google in trying to rank a potato on page 1 of Google for the search term ‘gaming console’. 

They were able to do it. From what I can tell it wasn’t down to any external link activity as it happened so fast but happened purely on the viral nature of the thread and Google wanting to reflect search results with a focus on freshness. In this instance it was viral and social signals getting the relevance and affecting the search results all the way to Page 1, Position 1.”

Alex Worth – Senior Digital Marketing Manager at Infinity Co. 

“Focus on local opportunities in the search engine results page (SERPs). Easier to build a presence there using local-focused content and citations rather than links.” 

Neil Hannam – Search Marketing Manager at Rock Kitchen Harris 

“Internal links – This helps two fold: (1) A positive experience for users as they navigate your site (2) Point search engines to your most important pages.” 

Ryan Sear – Digital Marketing, SEO and Paid Advertising at Cite 

“I have been blogging for over 15 years and been a full-time psychology blogger for over 4 years. From my experience, I can say that what works best is to publish useful and relevant content on a regular basis. The best source of traffic is through organic and direct channels. Ultimately, if your content is useful and relevant to your audience, they will visit your website.” 

Dennis Relojo-Howell – Founder of Psychreg 

“If you’re focusing on an SEO strategy which doesn’t involve backlinks, you really need to ensure that your technical SEO, on-site optimisation and content are top notch. 

If you don’t have an SEO tool stack, Google Lighthouse can help you to identify initial technical issues with your site, as can Search Console.    

From an on-site optimisation perspective keywords do still play a part.  You need to be clear within your metas, headings and content as to what phrases you want your webpages to show within Google for. 

Finally with content, consider EAT (expertise, authority, trustworthiness) – creating one in-depth article can often have more benefit than four little articles” 

Laura Hogan – Founder of Jelly Bean Agency 

“Ranking without keywords is absolutely possible, but only in a narrow range of circumstances. Even then, you will want to build backlinks as soon as you can to keep hold of any rankings you manage to gain. If a keyword has very little competition from other pages and is somehow desirable to your business – such as a keyword that has a small, but growing search volume – you may be able to be the first page that provides highly relevant content.

Of course, to stand any chance of ranking without backlinks your on-page SEO needs to be pretty much faultless, including a decent amount of content, maybe 1,000 – 2,000 words. As a keyword becomes more popular though it could get targeted by other sites and your rankings are likely to slip over time. You may find of course that if you are the first really authoritative source for a particular keyword that you attract links naturally without even having to do any outreach.”

Rob Watson – Digital Marketing Consultant at Click to Sale


That’s it folks! There’s my 8 different ways that you can rank without backlinks including input from others in the industry. Told you it could be done. 

Go and have a go at some of these ‘hacks’. Maybe you have tried some tactics yourself that have worked? Let us know in the comments below. 

Who needs backlinks hey? 

cat winking gif

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