Can SEO Without Backlinks Work?

Cara Bowles    By under Link Building.

links no moreThe relationship between SEOs and links has been an interesting one.

It seems that, almost overnight, the industry has gone from believing that links are "the most important ranking factor" (there is no such thing) to believing that links are a "spammy SEO tactic," and that you should instead be focusing your attention on "social media metrics" (which don't directly impact rankings at all), or whatever the latest fad is.

Can you really make SEO work without building backlinks?

The answer should be enlightening for many in this industry.

Before I Say Anything Else, Let Me Be Clear: Links Are Still a Vital Part of the Algorithm

If you have any doubts about the importance of links to Google, just listen to what Matt Cutts had to say about it:

So we don't have a version like that [ignoring backlinks] that is exposed to the public, but we have run experiments like that internally, and uh, and the quality looks much much worse. It turns out backlinks, even though there's some noise, and certainly a lot of spam, uh for the most part, are still a really really big win in terms of quality for search results. So we've played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance and, at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical set of search results. [Emphasis mine.]

While things have changed a lot since the introduction of the first PageRank algorithm, links are still a very important part of the algorithm.

Brace Yourselves, Links Were NEVER "The Most Important" Ranking Factor

Before we start talking about SEO without backlinks as a possible strategy, we need to address this widely held belief, which many still cling to.

Allow me to quote the original PageRank paper (in which PageRank itself is just section 2.1 of a paper with 7 sections):

Google maintains much more information about web documents than typical search engines. Every hitlist includes position, font, and capitalization information. Additionally, we factor in hits from anchor text and the PageRank of the document. Combining all of this information into a rank is difficult. We designed our ranking function so that no particular factor can have too much influence. First, consider the simplest case -- a single word query. In order to rank a document with a single word query, Google looks at that document's hit list for that word. Google considers each hit to be one of several different types (title, anchor, URL, plain text large font, plain text small font, ...), each of which has its own type-weight. The type-weights make up a vector indexed by type. Google counts the number of hits of each type in the hit list. Then every count is converted into a count-weight. Count-weights increase linearly with counts at first but quickly taper off so that more than a certain count will not help. We take the dot product of the vector of count-weights with the vector of type-weights to compute an IR score for the document. Finally, the IR score is combined with PageRank to give a final rank to the document.

The algorithm was always designed to prevent any single factor from dominating the others. The "type-weight" of anchor text was probably the closest thing to a dominant factor at some point in the past, but that has long since been corrected. Calling links "the most important ranking factor" neglects how search engines actually work.

I don't want to give you a math lesson, but if a page's score is found as the dot product between two vectors, then any factor could be "the most important," depending on the circumstances.

Google's algorithm is probably a complex, nonlinear system at this point, considering all the machine learning algorithms in play. This means that any tiny "insignificant" factor could make a huge difference under the right circumstances.

So, is SEO Without Backlinks Actually Possible?

Before I answer that question, I think I need to define it.

  • If SEO without backlinks demands that you try to rank a site without any backlinks at all, then I would say no.
  • If, on the other hand, it means trying to do SEO using links strictly for indexing, or if it means ranking individual pages without any external backlinks, or even if it means ranking a site strictly with nofollow links, then yes, I would say that SEO without backlinks is in fact possible.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that SEO without backlinks is ideal. Building and attracting links is an important part of SEO. It's worth noting, ironically, that link building is most effective as an SEO tactic (especially in the long term), when it is approached primarily as a non-SEO tactic.

How to Do SEO With No Backlinks

A claim like this deserves an example, so let me give you two.

Here is a page from my personal site. What you're looking at is 100% search traffic:

seo without backlinks 01

So, what happened in August 2013 that caused my traffic on this page to suddenly improve? I sure wasn't building backlinks:

seo without backlinks 02

That's right. No external domains until November.

So why the sudden boost in August?

A clue lies in another page on my site. Here, take a look:

seo without backlinks 03

Now, this is sort of typical for a page that doesn't do well. SEOs often remark that pages get a special "boost" when they are first released, and that the traffic gradually fades over time if you don't start "pumping it with link juice."

But the first page above demonstrates that this isn't always the case. What happened there was a complete inversion of what is typically expected. Where the page would have normally started to trail off and lose attention, it's traffic instead started to snowball.

So, what's happening?

Here's my hypothesis.

Google is measuring things like:

  • The click through rate for your search result
  • The percentage of searchers who return to your page more than once
  • The percentage of searchers who don't view any other search results after they find yours (especially if their next search is about something completely unrelated), indicating that they were satisfied

Here's a question. Why should a new piece of content get a "boost" in the search results? Just because it's "fresh?" The niches for these particular pages are completely evergreen. There are no news search results. There's no indication that "freshness" should be a factor that influences the user experience.

Instead, here's why I think new content gets a boost. It's because Google wants to test it against their existing search results. Most of the time, the new piece of content doesn't make the cut, and it gradually moves down the search results until it settles into a position among search results with similar user behavior.

But, sometimes, the new content performs very well against the competition. It starts to make its way further up. Not only that, but Google starts testing it for other, related queries, some of them more competitive, some of them less. (The high-performing page above currently attracts about twice as much traffic as its target keyword phrase, and that's in the summer months for an academic subject.)

I feel fairly confident that this is what's happening for the simple fact that the high-performing page above has lower page authority metrics than most of its competitors on the front page. It's outperforming them because the pages we're talking about are random forum and message board posts, paragraph-long introductions, and other results that wouldn't be ideal for users.

So, the strategy for SEO without backlinks looks something like this:

  • Identify a relatively low-competition topic
  • Put together a piece of content that will satisfy users more than anything else on the front page for that topic
  • Put relevant language in your title tags, urls, h1, h2, and h3 tags.
  • Make sure your site's internal link structure is optimized for web crawlers
  • Clean up html errors
  • Write a meta description that will encourage clicks from the search results (if there's reason to think the automated snippet won't be good enough)
  • Use and other markup where relevant

Links as a User Behavior Metric?

I'd like to end this on a final thought. The high-performance page mentioned above didn't pick up a natural external link for several months. It currently has links from just 2 domains. We're talking about a page that currently gets about 1,300 visits per month from search engines.

I'm not just saying this to point out that a page can rank without a massive number of backlinks. I'm saying it to point out how truly rare a serendipitous, completely natural link actually is.

When you compare this with a page that picks up thousands of links despite having very little search traffic, it starts to become clear how Google can identify artificial links. This is a night and day difference. Truly natural links are very rare, even for a page with over a thousand visits. Keep this in mind if you think Google is really using all of those links to rank your page.

I am beginning to think of links as just another user behavior metric. It may be that Google is comparing search traffic against the number (and reputation) of new links in order to gauge how worthwhile a search result is. While there are obvious examples where this isn't the case (link velocity being one big example), I'm starting to believe that this is increasingly how Google thinks about links.

Update: Is This Post Ranking Without Backlinks?

Ironically, this post has become an unintentional case study in the theory that links are acting as a user behavior metric. Let's take a look at this post's performance over the past year:

traffic to this page

Now let's take a look at the links indexed in Ahrefs for the same time period:

links to this page

It is tempting to look at this as evidence that the page saw no traction until it started getting backlinks, but that's not actually what happened.

Instead, we see a slight bump in traffic over the month of June. The next month, in July, we earn a natural link. We then see the traffic jump in July. The page earns a couple more links over the next few months, and the traffic continues growing. Then those links fall off of the index, but the traffic remains and even grows before plateauing.

We can't dig into Google's algorithm to see what happened here, but one explanation is that the fairly rapid inflow of links for a small number of visitors was interpreted as evidence that visitors were satisfied with the page. The fact that those links fell off the index, however, seemed to be understood as normal by the search engine, and other user behavior metrics likely kept the momentum going.

Again, I should stress that this is only one way of interpreting what we are seeing here, as well as the possibility that the initial backlink simply got counted by Google before Ahrefs caught it. At the same time, the pattern of new backlinks building momentum that continued growing even after the backlinks disappeared is evidence that Google is looking at new links like a user behavior metric, not strictly through the old PageRank framework.

Image credit: Kjetil Almås