Anyone Can Rank A Site [an SEO case study]

5/19/13 Update: The site is consistently ranking 4th, and occasionally bouncing around the top 3 spots.

I’m going to show you exactly how I ranked a site on the first page of Google in just a couple of months. My intention here is to be transparent, and to show you everything. It seems like there is a lot of information about SEO floating around the web. Sometimes it is conflicting. Sometimes it is just plain wrong. Too much information can be paralyzing. I hope through this case study you will get some ideas of what you can do to help your site rank better.

But first, some disclaimers:

This was not an ultra competitive niche. This was ranking for a (very) popular song, focusing on that songs lyrics.

SEO *is* complicated. There are a lot of things you can do wrong. If you’re trying to rank for a super competitive term, the things I’m showing you in this post aren’t going to help you.

SEO can be dangerous if you’re not sure what you’re doing. If you make your living from an online business, be very careful of the advice you follow, because there is a real chance that if your site depends on organic traffic,  you (or a very crap SEO company) can do something that causes you to lose your income.  And nobody wants that!

Who is this good for?

The information in this case study is perfect for people who are overwhelmed by SEO, or who have a brand new site, and are looking for some ideas on how to get started.

The site, and the ranking difficulty

About a year ago, the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons was Blowing. Up. I wanted to practice some SEO and just go through the process of just starting a new site, so I scored the exact match domain (EMD), and starting building a very simple site. Eventually I put adsense on it, and we’ll get into that later in the post.

The site ranks on Google for the main keyword phrase “Radioactive Lyrics,” plus a bunch of other long tail phrases. To be clear, this is not a big money maker or anything–and it was never intended to be. But it does get about 50-150 visitors a day.

Using Moz’s keyword difficulty tool, the difficulty in ranking for “Radioactive Lyrics” is 40%

mozdifficulty

You can also see that there is a pretty high number of searches per month.  (Note: when I first built the site, this was higher at about 33k).

The lyrics sites outranking mine are pretty authoritative. You will see them in nearly every search for most popular songs, so my little site has some good company. Looking at a comparison of the top 10, the average domain authority of the other 9 first page ranking site:  73.8. The domain authority of my site? 16.9.

authority comparison

Not bad!

Traffic from the first page

I started building the site in May.  This analytics screen shot only goes to the end of November because there was a problem with the tracking code (when I switched themes in December) and it gives a false impression that the traffic fell off.  Just as a note, today the site has had over 90 visitors.

analytics

Ranking: First Page of Google, Top 5 in Bing/Yahoo

By mid to late August the site was on the first page consistently (prior to that, it clung pretty tenaciously to spots 11 and 12).

rankings

The SEO On-Page Strategy

When talking about ranking a site, on-page SEO is crucial.  You might not be able to rank a site with on-page alone (though, Im pretty sure this has been done), you will have a needlessly hard time ranking a site if your on-page is a mess.  While this is not a comprehensive look at how to optimize your website for SEO, I will show you everything I did.

Using the exact match page title as the home page. 

This site uses a static homepage.  Rather than create a page in WordPress, name it “home,” and then use that as the home page, I created a page called Radioactive Lyrics, and made that the home page, like so:

Radioactive Page

Set the page to:

reading

What’s the point of this?  Well, when you are building links to your site, you don’t want to keep using the root domain.  So with this I can build links to www.radioactivelyrics.com, http://www.radioactivelyrics.com, radioactivelyrics.com–and then www.radioactivelyrics.com/radioactive-lyrics, http://www.radioactivelyrics.com/radio-active lyrics… you get the idea.  Keyword rich anchor text that is also a URL (which is a bit safer than building anchor text with just the keyword.  Because the /radioactive-lyrics page basically forwards to the home page, is a tidy little strategy that, in conjunction with other on-page optimizations, help.

Give the page a natural description and title with the keyword in it

This is a pretty easy one that most people get right.  Here is what I used for the site:

metaThe target keyword only appears once in the title and once in the description.  Natural phrases and related words make up the rest of the title and description.  Not only does this help visitors understand what your page is about, but it helps search engines as well.  Win-win-win, right?

Freshness

This one was a bit of a challenge at first.  Google values freshness, but this is a website about the lyrics to one song.  How the hell was I going to keep adding content to the blog to help my rankings (without the obvious answer of making it a band-news blog, which I didn’t want to do–too obvious.

The answer, which I am quite proud of:

recent posts

I used Google translate to put the lyrics into a different language.  These were probably pretty inaccurate, and maybe a little on the risky side due to duplicate content, but it worked quite well.  My rankings really improved when I started doing this.  I released about one new language a week for about a month or two.  #BOOM.  Fresh content.  And, as an added benefit, it earned me some long tail traffic–people were legitimately searching for these translations.

Media Rich Content

This one is kind of obvious for a music-related blog, but a site is made rich with media content.  For my site, I used lyrics video, live footage, and band pictures to round out the content and make it quality.

The SEO Backlink Strategy

I’ll get into the earning in a bit (they weren’t that big), but first, I’m going to go through exactly what I did.  Here is a list of all of the sites backlinks, so you can what they are, and below, how they were earned.

Blog Comments

If you do a search for “is blog commenting effective” you’ll find a pretty mixed bag of opinions. Yes.  No.  Maybe.  For Radioactivelyrics.com, I started my link building with blog comments.  Here’s what I did:

Type this into Google: “powered by wordpress” + “keywords” (replace “keywords” with your main keyword)

OR

Type this into Google: “leave a reply” + “keywords”  — both work.  So mine looked like this:

“powered by wordpress” + “Radioactive” Imagine Dragons

I’d find a blog with an article on the topic, read it, and *this is important*—> leave a relevant comment.

“Great article.  Loved it.”  That is not a relevant comment.

“Hey, great point.  I love Radioactive, but am having a harder time getting into the other songs on the album.  Got any recommendations?”  — or whatever.  One is specific to the article, the other is generic and easily not approved by the web master.

I didn’t do too much blog commenting.  Of all the sites I left a comment on (probably about 10), 5 stuck around, and show up as backlinks.

Relevant Sitewide Links

nmrI happen to own a site from when I first got into the blogging/internet marketing space.  It happens to be a music blog (you can probably start to see a theme emerge).  I put a link to my Radioactive Lyrics site in the sidebar.  I can do that: it’s my site.  The site is not particularly powerful, but I think it helped to get my new lyric site indexed by Google, and certainly it didn’t hurt.  That ended up giving my site 175 links from one domain.  You will see some SEOers who believe it is not a good thing to have a crappy ratio of backlinks to domains, and they are mostly right.  The thing is, this is a natural thing people do.  Not just people trying to optimize a site or put together a backlink campaign, but webmasters everyday are linking to other sites in the sidebar, in the footer.  So, I guess the message is, use with caution.

Obviously it was convenient that I already had a relevant site to use for this, but if you are trying to copy this technique, there are ways to get a similar link.

White Hat way: find a site that is linking to content in your niche on the home page (either in copy, sidebar, footer, etc.) and create a stunning piece of content–something so valuable they cannot ignore it.  Then start reaching out to these sites, and telling them about your research.  With hard work and luck, you’ll get a super relevant link.

Black Hat way: using an SEO marketplace/resource, find someone selling or renting homepage real estate, and purchase.  Another way is to find an expired domain (or a site for sale) that is relevant and has some authority.  After you buy it, it’s your site, you can do whatever you want with it.

301 Redirecting a Relevant Domain

Hopefully you are picking up on recurring theme here.  Relevant site/relevant content makes a difference.  Get it whenever you can.

This is obviously a bit on the black hat side, so… just understand that there is a risk before you implement this strategy.  That said, if you are a small site, and you don’t go overboard, there’s a pretty low chance of anything.  301 Redirects happen all the time for very legitimate reasons.  That said, if your little blog has 10 sites redirecting to it, no matter if they are relevant or not…that begins to not look very natural.

hiper

I found this domain on moonsy.com and won it in an auction for about $25.  It had hundreds of links going to it (some from wikipedia), as well as some pretty solid metrics (citation flow, trust flow, domain authority, and similar metrics).  Because I didn’t take care of it and didn’t bother building more links to it (which I should have, especially as an SEO tactic of buffering), it lost a lot of its authority.  It ended up giving me over 1900 links.

Using Expired Domains

This is something that works really well if you do it right.  There’s a lot that can go wrong: leaving a footprint for Google to find, buying sites that are not as powerful as you think, either through trickery on the seller’s part (yes, this happens), or through an uninformed buyer.

I used two expired domains that I picked up last year.  The first thing I want to say is, I did not put a lot of effort into these domains, and I do not recommend you copy them in their current state.  When I do work for clients, I create much better, much more powerful sites.  This was just for testing.

These two domains simply have a link in a blog post to my lyric site: that’s it.  One site has a Page Authority score of 40+, and the other site is a PR 3 (used to be a PR 6).  I won’t point out exactly which domain in the backlink report for Radioactive Lyrics is which, but with the most routine of digging it should be apparent.

If I had done these expired domains right, and built up my own private network, I’m pretty sure I could have ranked in the top 3 for this term.  I just didn’t want to put that kind of capital and energy into the project.  I was happy enough with a front page ranking, anyway. 🙂

Forum Links

O, lost days of SEO, when forum spamming actually worked!  Well, everything is relative, and getting some links from last.fm really did help.  Once again, it is a relevant site (music!).  I created a profile, populated it with some content and some activity, and linked back to my Radioactive Lyrics site.  Simple.  If you look at the backlink profile for my site, you will see that it lists lastfm.pl and lastfm.it, but not last.fm.  Dunno why, I made the profile at last.fm, but I think it is similar to when you get a link from a blogspot site, and find blogspot.de, blogspot.whatever-country giving you links as well.  I only linked from one site this way, but there are HUNDREDS of authoritative sites I could have used as well.

Summary of a Link Strategy

All disclaimers of low competition aside, there aren’t many links built.  Just imagine if you scaled this up a bit and put more work into it–you’d have a pretty strong site.  One of the key things I want you to take away from this is how relatively easy it was, and how diverse the backlinks were.  The main idea of building backlinks is to make it look natural.  If you only have backlinks from one kind of link building, that doesn’t look very natural.

There are MANY more kinds of link building I could have done, but did not.  I just stuck to these basic concepts.

Some Other Things to Think About

Link Velocity – I didn’t just do all this link building over the course of a day or a week.  It took a bit of time, and I spread it out over months.  Obviously, you can do it less spread out if you’re being more aggressive.  I wasn’t worried about getting a penalty (though, that is one consideration), I just wasn’t in a hurry.

Anchor text – Here is a screenshot of the anchor text for my site.

anchortext

The anchor text percentage of my main keyword is 9.68 percent.  If this were an important site to me, one I wanted to build and have grow into the future, I would have kept that number down to 3%.  But!  It is under 10%.  If you don’t know, you can be seriously penalized by linking to your site with your preferred anchor text.  It is perfectly doable to link to your site with other keywords, including author names, the website URL, the brand, and some long tail/partial phrases (such as “check out these song lyrics”).  I’ll have a post up here soon about anchor text, but for now, follow the rule of DON’T OVERDO IT.

Questions?

I hope you enjoyed this post, and found it valuable.  If you have any questions, either leave a comment below, or send me a message: hello [at] visiblehq (dot) com. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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