6 months after my Backlink Experiment – What works for Google and what doesn’t

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Hello everyone. It’s nice to talk to you again and this time on a topic that most of you will find interesting. After all, that’s probably why you’re here reading me at Stream SEO.

Let’s get straight to the content. 6 months ago, I started a backlinking experiment to see if i could rank 1 or 2 of my articles in the first page of Google and get traffic, by building backlinks and doing some keyword research and SEO competition.

Did it work?

Of course it did. In fact, I learned a lot more by doing this experiment than by reading hundreds of SEO posts in the internet.

Why? because I got to know what’s working for Google right now (and it’s been working for the whole 2013) and thus I was able to rank more posts and get traffic and conversions (sales too) while growing my blog’s audience.

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To be honest, I didn’t expect my experiment to go that long. Perhaps a month or two, but so many things happened after the second month that I had to stop updating the original article (which was being updated in a weekly manner) and had to analyze and test more things in order to give you the best analysis and results.

Before going on, if you haven’t read my original Back-linking Case Study, you should do it NOW before anything else. Otherwise you might be confused on how everything started.

backlink experiment seo guides

If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick resume of what I did back in february:

  • I created a pair of articles (a review “Squarespace Review” and a comparison”Squarespace vs. WordPress“) back in December 2012 which I wanted to rank. Of course, who doesn’t?
  • In february 2013 I decided to go pro and build “relevant” backlinks to see if that worked. That article is called: “How many backlinks do I need to rank on the first page of Google”. So I did some keyword research and defined that one of the articles had low competition (the comparison) and the other one had medium strength competitors (the review).
  • I started building backlinks for 2-4 weeks. Most of them from comments on blogs using commentluv and some of them even without being do-follow. It didn’t matter because I wanted to know what worked and what didn’t.
  • After one month I built between 20 to 50 backlinks to each article, most of them from comments and new pages or posts, which means they were all PR N/A or PR 0.
  • The article with low competition was boosted to the first page of Google, and the one with medium competitors was outranked and almost disappeared from the first 100 results. I was sad and happy at the same time πŸ™‚ πŸ™
  • I started building links from pages like Squidoo and Hubpages (I already had accounts there) and the low competition article ranked in the first 3 spots on Google (sometimes even number 1!), while the other one simply didn’t appear anymore.
  • After 2 months, I stopped updating my backlink experiment article and decided to go dirty on SEO and learn everything that worked and what didn’t work at all.

Here’s what I learned:

Everyone wants to rank, but most of them can’t

Of course, when you create a post or any article, you want it to get ranked and receive traffic. Unless you’re creating your own diary you want it to be famous and have comments. Comments give life to it, and traffic motivates you to go pro and keep blogging. And if a post like the ones I was trying to rank can generate leads and money, then you’ll try harder, like I did.

However, let’s not mistake that “everyone wants” with “everyone can“. Some people can rank an article and some people just don’t. There are a lot of factors Google is counting to define its listings, and some people know how it works. Those are the ones who will probably rank even when others try to work hard to beat them. (Note to self: Work Smart, not hard).

There might be some times when you’ll be able to rank one article and don’t even know how you achieved it (???), but that’s purely a coincidence or just because nobody else who really knows how it works is trying rank for the same keywords. If you’ve been there, trying to understand why an article you didn’t expect to rank is ranking on the first page and another article you really thought it was great and it was going to rank is just buried in the 7th page of Google, then YOU’RE NOT ALONE. I’ve been there, and it’s really frustrating. I had to go back and read the 10 reasons why being a blogger is for me a few times to avoid being burned out.

And everybody can see I still was, because I didn’t post any new articles in 2 months (only guess posts). Yeah, right. I was burned out.

However, after testing and trying many things, along with watching how my articles were dropped while others were going up, I managed to learn a lot of things on how Google works even after their Panda and Penguin updates. I learned the hard way; by watching how many others beat me on my own experiment.

In fact, right now the competition for the “easy” keyword has been literally changed to medium strength. Many people started doing their own posts targeting the same keyword (I know some of them are trying to beat me, and some others just appeared naturally), and some managed to beat me at least for a few days or even months. (Second note to self: if you’re doing an experiment publicly, expect other people to join the challenge, and beat you).

Eventually I was able to come back and beat most of them but it took me a few months to sort it out. And finally, my article with the keyword with medium competition strength, which was buried down on Google’s listings has come back stronger than ever.

I could have written this post almost 2 months ago, but instead, I waited this long because I wanted to try if the same strategy worked for other articles. So I took one extra month to setup everything and try the same with 2 more articles from this blog and also in some other new blogs I have now.

Let’s analyze what works and what doesn’t:

What doesn’t work:

1. Buying hundreds of cheap backlinks

backlink experiment low quality backlinks

Have you ever seen those Fiverr Gigs offering hundreds or thousands of backlinks in less than 3 days for $5? Don’t ever think about it. You get what you pay, and 5,000 low quality backlinks (most of them can’t be indexed) won’t work for you, especially if your keyword has some competition in the mid/high difficulty area. Just ignore them totally. I know they sound to good to be true, and so they are.

2. Social bookmarking

On it’s own, Social Bookmarking will only work for super low difficulty keywords, which might also work without the social bookmarking at all. I’ve found several services for social bookmarks and the key for those is to build 2nd tier backlinks (i.e. a backlinks to your backlinks) or help you avoid targeting only one keyword to avoid being punished by Google for doing keyword anchor text optimization. Again, Social bookmarking on its own won’t probably work unless the keyword you’re targeting is to easy to go for.

3. Building backlinks from Squidoo or hubpages.

Squidoo has a very interesting way to rank articles based on comments, traffic, SEO, updates and more. So if you’re doing an article just to get a backlink from them, you’ll suffer the same thing I suffered: I got banned without any previous advice. That’s it, one day my account was no more. Interestingly enough, I had 2 or 3 good articles that were ranking and making money for me (a few bucks per month), but everything disappeared.

On the other hand, Hubpages isn’t that strict with their users, and all my articles are still there (with PR 1 or even PR 2 already), but if the article you submit fails to get some traffic for a few weeks, they’ll idle it and it won’t appear on search engines anymore (no page rank juice from that backlinks). I didn’t suffer this problem on the articles where I was creating backlinks, but in case you’re thinking to start, at least make them interesting and relevant.

What works:

Now here comes the interesting part. I gathered a lot of things that you can do that will help you rank faster, and all of them work 100% proved by myself. You’ll be happy to know them all, but at the same time you might be disappointed because your beloved Google isn’t good enough to decide which articles are better based on what everyone preaches about (quality content, relevant, create a brand, answer comments, don’t focus on SEO but on readers, etc.).

Sorry to disappoint you all, but this is what works now and has been working for the whole year and yet many people still don’t know how to rank an article (P.S. I love Google products, and I don’t think how my life would be without Google, GMail, Android, Drive, Analytics and many other tools. But there’s still a long way to go before having the perfect search engine).

1. Exact Match Domains

backlink experiment EMD

Whaaaat? But Google released their EMD update last year and killed all exact match domains, didn’t it? They also killed a portion of traffic of many websites that probably didn’t deserve it.

Well, yes, but they didn’t kill all EMDs at once. You can still create EMD websites and rank them high without a lot of problems. Google was mainly aiming for SPAMY websites but they can’t target everyone.

1 month after I started my backlink experiment, someone created a website with the exact keyword I was targeting for (with the .com) and they were quickly ranked in the first page AND IN THE FIRST SPOT of Google. It was unbelievable for me, because supposedly, we wouldn’t see more of this sites on the first page. However, being honest, the site has relevant content and a comparison that while I think it’s not as deep as the one I wrote, it’s still good enough.

Do they deserve it? Who knows. I’m no one to decide that, but I know for sure that if the same article was published on any other blog it wouldn’t be ranking on the first spot.

I know they have relevant content and an exact match domain, but they have no CF or Citation Flow (I nowadays check out the domain metrics with Ahrefs) and the domain was basically new, with no content before. It’s got a landing page and an about page, and that’s pretty much all. Oh and yeah, they have affiliate links to blueHost and Squarespace. I know they should be making at least $500 per month, because I have been there in the first or second spot for that keyword and that’s what I was earning (without Bluehost affiliate links).

All this brings me to point number 2.

2. Freshness

Remember all those guys preaching about always create new content, publish X times per week and that kind of stuff? Well, it works. And you know it. However let me explain you why this is relevant to my backlink experiment.

Of course by posting more your readers will have more things to read, comment and share. And of course the more you write, the more possibilities you have to rank for different long tail keywords and gain more traffic. That’s simple math and everyone should know it. But it’s NOT the most efficient way to get traffic, at all. Promotion should be your number 1 priority, by creating email lists, writing guest posts or similar, you’ll probably get more traffic per posts, than by just creating hundreds of post every month.

Now back to the main point, freshness is important for SEO because google is focusing a lot on new stuff, technologies and news sites. So when someone is looking information about the royal baby who was just born (I don’t really care, but it works for this example), Google wants to give you the latest news about it, instead of showing 2 months old results.

This works great for websites that are always writing news about upcoming products, events, designs and tendencies, but for some of us who somewhat create “evergreen” content, it doesn’t work. Let’s go back to my backlink experiment after 2 months…

So yeah, I was displaced from the first or second spot after 1 month and a half by an EMD. A little bit sad, but not as sad as being moved to the 4th, 5th spot because some people decided to do an article on the same topic, and their article was fresh out of their hands, compared to my article which was 3-4 months old already.

I went through all those articles and while some of them were good, some of them were really simple and not really explaining everything as I did. Still, because those articles were new, Google ranked them pretty high (the same happened to me when I was at the first spot I guess) and it took Google a few weeks or even more than one month to get them down.

In fact, one or two of them which were actually ranking higher than me, were backlinking to my article, which means my article should be ranked better, right? Well, it didn’t for like 2 months.

This is called the Google Dance and happens every time new results are added to the index or every time Google updates it’s algorithm. You can read a bit more about Google Dance at TCG. The point here is that I think Google should do this process from the bottom to the top, and not from the top to the bottom. Otherwise it hurts high quality/aged results and can kill some traffic or money in the process. This can happen in a 10 search queries per month keyword and also on a keyword with 5,000 searches per month.

Imagine you could rank on the first page (or even the first spot) for the word “SEO plugin” or “WordPress Themes” for a few weeks or months while Google’s still dancing the results? How much could you make from that? The ROI would be great. Read more about freshness from the Viperchill blog.

3. Google loves itself (a.k.a. Youtube)

backlink experiment seo

Oh yeah, they love themselves, and that’s normal. But being biased is something different. What happens when you mix up a fresh result with a Youtube video?

You’re almost invincible!

And that’s what happened to me. After 2 months, not only fresh results and an EMD passed in front of my article. Also a Youtube video was out ranking me. A Youtube video that had been published within 3-5 days was in the second or 3rd result of Google, while I was dropped to the 6-8th result. πŸ™

Yes, again the video was too fresh, it had no backlinks, and to be honest, that one wasn’t really relevant as it was one person telling his thoughts (no offense intended) about Squarespace and WordPress. But yeah, because it had the main keyword in the title and the tags, and because it was NEW, and it was FROM YOUTUBE, the result quickly ranked in the first page.

Let me know when you see a Vimeo video or anything else ranking on the first results of Google.

Anyway, that video stayed for at least 2 months above me, and I finally passed it but it remains on the first page, so don’t ever underestimate Youtube Videos. In fact, if you want to rank quick for a not-so hard keyword just create a video and you should be in the first page in a week or so.

And if you’re targeting a difficult keyword you can always create a Youtube video, have a backlink to your article and embed it at the same time. You’ll have some power to rank for a long time. It doesn’t matter if the backlink from Youtube is no-follow, trust me.

4. Longtail keywords are VERY IMPORTANT

I’ve shown in the past why long tail keywords are important and how to use search queries to create better posts for your readers. So what I did was in fact, use the WordPress Jetpack plugin to find the exact search queries people were using to arrive to my article and add them to the end of my article in an FAQ.

For example, if I’m offering a comparison between WordPress and Squarespace, but someone is looking for a comparison between Squarespace and the Genesis framework, I would add it to my FAQ at the end of the post.

I was able to add 3-5 things that I didn’t have in my original post thanks to the search queries analysis. Now instead of receiving that occasional traffic because the search queries were relevant to my article, I fully receive that traffic because IT IS included in my article.

I think it’s pretty much self explanatory.

5. High PR links

High PR links are what probably helped me the most to get my articles ranked after all this madness happened. If you remember well, I was completely buried in the medium competition keyword (Squarespace Review) from the beginning, and slowly moved up and down in the “now not so easy” keyword (Squarespace vs WordPress) due to freshness, EMD and Youtube articles.

However I was able to strike back using high PR relevant links, which shows that Google still cares about PR. But who knows for how long.

As mentioned in a show with Pat Flynn, you can get high rankings if you have relevant High PR links to your articles. So I went ahead and tried that and it worked. My article is now again the second result in Google, and the article that was buried down since the beginning is quickly approaching to the first page. It’s incredible how fast that can work, however, there are a lot of things to consider before doing this, and I was able to do this without being penalized by anchor text optimization and everything else because I had done a lot of stuff before already.

Just keep in mind that Google has not updated the PR in almost 6 months, which is kind of weird because they used to update every 3-4 months. I think Authorship and Social Media will finally end pushing back PR, but it will never die 100%.

By now, my articles have hundreds of backlinks (most of them aren’t high PR), and I have even received SPAM attacks and SPAMY backlinks probably to get me down or by people that want to rank a simple article in no time with tools like scrapebox or other tools (I redirect them away from my blog using Digi Link Doctor every week), which now leads me to the next point:

6. Google Authorship

Update 2019: This point doesn’t work anymore. Google+ is scheduled to be taken down soon.

If you haven’t validated your authorship via Google+, what are you waiting for?

There are a lot of bots that scrape your content and duplicate it in another site. It’s not cool, and it’s almost impossible to avoid. But if you want to protect yourself from duplicated content or even negative SEO, there’s no better way than validating your credentials with Google (in Webmaster Tools but also in Google Authorship). They’ll know which was the original article and which are just copies trying to get backlinks or trackbacks from your blog.

If you don’t know how to claim your authorship read here.

7. Page Speed

I did another experiment here at Stream SEO tying to probe how page speed and load times affected SEO and the bounce rate. This is no hidden magic and it works. And because Stream SEO and other sites are already making a good amount of money per month, I decided to move from a shared account in HostGator, to a massive dedicated server with a 4 cores CPU, 32GBs of RAM and unlimited bandwidth, all just for me and a friend.

Now before someone tells me that this is too much for Stream SEO, of course I know it is. But I have many other websites and an average of 2 million page views per month. So think again.

Stream SEO started ranking better for many articles just a week later after I moved to a dedicated server. Even many articles where I haven’t build backlinks or promoted in any way are getting traffic now.

I know for most people a dedicated server is too much, but consider a better host, a CDN, or a VPS if you’re getting a good amount of traffic or you have several websites.

8. Social Backlinks

Social backlinks do work, and most people know it, but nowadays having a good amount of social likes, shares, +1s, tweets or similar, will also help you with SEO.

As a matter of fact, all my articles that have more than 20-30 social actions use to rank faster or higher. And because of that, more people keep arriving and more social engagement happens. It’s a cycle that once it starts, can be repeated all the time without your intervention.

Of course, when people interact with your posts, you should really have great content in order to be shared or linked naturally. But you can always start rotating the wheel by sharing your sites in communities or by using tools like just-retweet and similar.

I did an extra experiment on Social Interactions and how they affect SEO, and I found impressive results.

I setup a totally new website (new domain) and published some viral videos on it, while sending thousands of visitors trough Facebook.

Probably there were not a lot of competitors in that niche, but I was able to achieve between 200 to 600 Facebook likes and shares, and between 50-100 retweets and +1s in a month.

The result? That blog quickly ranked for all the main and related keywords and now receives around 200 visitors per day!.

Yes, this happened all in one month only, with no SEO optimization (in fact, it was a simple PHP blog without optimized URL, meta keywords and all that stuff), and still Google thinks because of the social interaction that it deserves 200 visits after 1 month of being launched.

It took me almost 8 month after launching this blog to achieve that quantity of traffic. I was really impressed on how quickly could Google rank anything even if it’s not SEO optimized (in-page) just because of the social interactions. I have no doubts that Social Media will drive a huge weight in the SEO future.

What’s next?

backlink experiment cat

Well, this experiment has opened my eyes a lot on what works and what doesn’t work on SEO right now. I think this is by far the best investment I’ve done for my blog and my (now freelance) life.

I’ve finally learned what’s important and what’s not, and where should I put my attention if I want more traffic, leads, comments, sales and engagement, and I know I can replicate this in other niches. In fact, I’m already doing it (don’t you think I’ve been sleeping the last 2 months while I didn’t post here) and it’s giving me great results.

The experiment isn’t over, and it probably won’t ever be because those things tend to change every once in a while and who knows which kind of animal is Google preparing to launch at us again. But I know it can’t be so different, so I’ll stay up to date and either update this post later or simply write a new follow up in a few months.

Oh and yeah, I finally prepared some more posts for you guys. I bet you’ll find them very interesting because most of them are case studies on many of the other niche sites that I’ve created lately. That’s the kind of stuff that helps me learn more than reading 101 posts about the holy grial of SEO and I can share with you guys without any problem.

Talk to you the next week! And yeah, if you think this post was useful or interesting let me know by dropping by a comment or just sharing it!

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Servando started Stream SEO in 2012. He is a full-time affiliate marketing expert and blogger. Servando has been able to generate more than 7 figures with various digital marketing strategies. Read more here.