How To Outrank Edu Sites – a content case study

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I love doing SEO research.  There’s nothing that will show you what works in Google better than looking at the SERPs and deconstructing what you find.  One way I do that is by following a bunch of niches and then looking through them to see if anything jumps out.

My tool of choice for this is SERPwoo.  Someday I’ll do a tutorial on exactly how I use it, but it’s a great way to easily get a 30,000 foot view of a niche.

The niche I’ll be talking about today is a tought one—it’s in the education niche.  Here are some quick stats:

Keyword: “Master of Engineering”

CPC: $19.03

Monthly Searches: ~500

Moz Keyword Difficulty: 51%

It’s not an easy keyword by any measure, but you can bet that it’s a valuable one.  How much is a college willing to pay to get a new engineering student?  Well, how much would a new student be worth to a college, tens of thousands of dollars?

Looking At the Top 20

Here, I’ll just post a screenshot and see if anything jumps out at you…

In case you missed it, the top 20 contains:

1 Wikipedia article

16 .edu sites

2 News/Brand articles

1 .org site

What?!

Master-of-Engineering.org

How is a 2.5 year old DA 19 domain outranking 16 .edu sites?  That’s what we’re going to be looking at, but here’s a preview—they’re killing it with content.

First, I just want to point some things out:

  1. This site is an exact match domain
  2. This site uses a hyphenated domain

Both of those domain techniques have fallen a bit out of favor in the SEO world.  Indeed, I have given clients the same advice:

Try not to use an exact match domain, and don’t use a hyphenated domain—build a brand!

But that’s one of the things I love about SEO, it’s not a concrete set of dos and don’ts.  Instead, it’s a massive beast that doesn’t sit still, that contradicts itself, and doesn’t always make sense.  That’s why you have to pay attention.

All right—let’s dig in and find out what this site is doing to kick the ass of several huge universities.

Content

The home page of master-of-engineering (the page that is ranking in the SERPs) contains 600 words of content.  Here’s what it looks like:

Now we’ll look at the Forbes and US News pages that are ranking.

Forbes:

US News:

(the list goes to 20, and there are five more pages)

Clearly, those pages are only ranking based on:

  1. They both have a relevant page title to the keyword
  2. They both have huge authority.

Master-of-Engineering.org is beating both these pages.  If you look at Domain Authority and Page Authority, it’s even more impressive:

Master of Engineering – DA/PA = 19/30

Forbes – DA/PA = 97/51

US News – DA/PA = 93/68

For comparison, here’s what one of the .edu pages looks like

This nyu.edu page has a DA/PA of 89/51, and a total wordcount (just focusing on the paragraphs in the begining) of 136.

In looking at the rest of the .edu pages (skipping Wikipedia, because it’s Wikipedia), there seems to be a rough pattern emerging of heavy-hitting 6+ Page Rank domains in the SERPs–with the more content-heavy .edu sites toward the top of the SERPs, and the less content heavy ranking in the bottom half of the top 20.

This isn’t to say that all you need to rank is content, but the results here shouldn’t be written off, either.

More High Quality Content

The Master-of-Engineering site has several pages filled with relevant (if keyword stuffed) content.  All the side-bar links (see image below) contain on average, about 500+ words of content (which is more than almost every single ranking page for most of the .edu results):

But Wait, There’s More!

In addition to the straight up content, Master-of-Engineering.org is doing some link building with infographics.

Infographic Strategy

You might think infographics are F-ed out, overused, and not worth it—but you’re wrong.  From a link building perspective, they are alive and well.  You’ll get a ton of good links from a solid outreach campaign after you’ve created an amazing infographic.

Someone on the Master-of-Engineering team made a “controversial” infographic on the downside of green technologies.  What does this have to do with engineering?  I guess there is a tenuous connection, but it’s not very direct.

Does it matter?  Not really.  They made a page on the website (master-of-engineering.org/green) and hosted the infographic there.  Sites who like the infographic (and think their audience will like it) link to it.  Those links become a diverse backlink profile for the website.  The links going to the infographic page help build authority to the entire domain.

Here are some of the links they got from building an infographic (some are organic, others are clearly built), but these are all specifically built to the page that hosts the infographic.

Most of those links are organic (or at least, achieved through outreach to relevant sites).  It’s easier to do outreach when you have something intersting to share.

They also took advantage of the medium (infographics) to get some links from relevant authority sites:

This was done in 2012, so there are a lot more places you could build links to your infographic now.  Here is a list of recommended infographic distribution sites you could have your infographic posted to. 

http://pinterest.com – DA 100

http://graphs.net – DA 47

http://www.ucollectinfographics.com – DA 20

http://vi.sualize.us – DA 58

http://visualizing.org – DA 65

http://www.nerdgraph.com/submit-infographic – DA 39 (moderated)

http://www.loveinfographics.com – DA 39

http://visual.ly – DA 87 (have to create an account, then you can submit)

Referring Domains

Does the number of referring domains to a page matter?  By itself, no.  And, though this goes without saying, I’mma say it anyway: not all links are created equally.  500 horrible spammy links are not worth a few CNN/Lifehacker/Authority-site-in-your-niche links.

In trying to determine how a site is ranking so well, a picture emerges when we consider many different points.  It’s (usually) never just one thing.

With Master-of-Engineering.org, the page that’s ranking (the homepage) has 37 links.  The top universities with a page ranking below the .org site have referring domain counts as follows:

7, 1, 4, 18, 5, 2

So Master-of-Engineering.org has the highest number of referring compared to the big .edu sites it is outranking.

Conclusion

Master-of-Engineering does not have a very impressive list of backlinks.

They do not have impressive authority (especially compared to all the .edu sites it is outranking)

What they do have is enough linking domains with enough authority to outrank Duke, Harvard and Berkley.

They have more and better content.

As much as I don’t recommend it, they have an exact match domain (and I think that helps a little).

If any of the universities in the top 20 spent even half an effort on getting some natural links to their master of engineering pages, they would bury Master-of-Engineering.org.

Action Steps

1. Invest in content.  There’s no reason any of the sites in the SERPs here couldn’t find 1,000 words to write about engineering.  More QUALITY content on your site will never hurt you.  So spend an evening building up a thin page.
2. Find a piece of content you can use to create an infographic around.  If you outsource the job, it’s gonna cost you.  There are some sites out there where you can build your own infographic, such as:

  • http://piktochart.com – price: free to $29/mo.
  • https://infogr.am – price: free to $42/mo.
  • http://www.easel.ly – price: free
  • https://venngage.com – price: free to $19/mo.

3. Remember, as with all things: you get what you pay for.  You may create an infographic yourself for free or for a low monthly price, but is it going to be of high enough quality that sites are going to want to link to it?

4. Host the infographic on your site and distribute the infographic on the sites listed above.  Credit your site with the source of the infographic, and build high authority links to your site.

5. Use your Google skills (or a tool like Buzzstream) to find sites that are linking to similar content, or that are relevant to your niche, and start reaching out to them.  Don’t ask for a link.  Keep your outreach email short, and focused on them (“As a frequent reader of your site, here’s something I think your audience might love.”  And then, you know, make sure that it is something their audience might love).  Include the embed code in the email, or tell them you’ll send it to them if they write back and are interested.

Though it’s just a few steps, each one involves significant work.  But if good SEO was really that easy, everyone buying $99/mo. SEO would rank first in Google.  So put in the work, make a strategy that works for you, and execute.

If you’re interested in having this all done for you, reach out to me and lets talk.

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  • Very well done Sean & congrats on that ranking success. On the surface that niche looked nearly impenetrable so it must have taken some effort to follow through with that. Good to see that decent content can still rank against super high DA sites when backed up with some smart linking. It’s the perfect example of the serps working exactly the way they should be as the other sites offered minimal value in relation to the search query. Nice work..

  • Great write up Sean!