Howie Mann

An ex-banker's view of software, finance and growth marketing.

SEO Without Backlinks - 3 Simple Steps [Free Template]

May 1, 2019 | 9 minute read

TLDR; Google’s job is to match the best content to the relevant question. If an answer is better, then it should outrank. Backlinks should be a reflection of, not a source of ranking.

Do you need SEO backlinks to rank? The answer is no. Here is a framework to show you how. Without creating backlinks, we built SEO to be our largest acquisition channel for a world class SaaS company.

By the end of this article you will learn:

📥Skip the article and download the Framework Template we use to write SEO content that ranks.

👈 What are Backlinks?

Let’s start with some background. Backlinks are external websites that link back to your webpages. They occur when others cite you or refer to you as something of interest to their readers through a hyperlink.

Backlinks formed the basis of Google’s patented PageRank algorithm (named after founder Larry Page). The invention ranked the importance of a webpage not just on the number of citations it had, but on the importance of those citing pages.

Google PageRank Patent Filed 9 Jan 1998

Google PageRank patent

The rank assigned to a document is calculated from the ranks of documents citing it. This implies a recursive definition of rank. In addition, the rank of a document is calculated from a constant representing the probability that a browser through the database will randomly jump to the document.

Then the world changed forever. Fast forward 20 years and today Google answers over 3.5 billion questions daily and has become the information portal for the human race (minus China). People globally are actively using Google to find information and make important decisions.

Google Year in Search 2018

How well you rank on Google can be a determining factor in your audience reach and success.

🚀 How we Built Huge SEO traffic Without Backlinks

I had the privilege and joy to build and lead the SEO team for SafetyCulture, a global B2B SaaS startup with a mission to improve safety and quality in the global workplace.

Within 12 months we turned a virtually non-existent SEO presence into our largest and fastest growing customer acquisition channel and cut dependency on costly paid advertising to fuel growth. All without link building.

SEMrush organic US traffic for safetyculture.com (public)

SEMrush organic traffic chart

With zero experience in marketing or SEO, I was overwhelmed by the countless guides, tools, hacks, tips and must-dos to rank in Google. I tried many link building strategies, but after sending hundreds of spam emails only to get a handful of backlinks, I felt there must be a better way and went back to basics.

Google’s stated mission is to:

organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Today, people around the world turn to Search to find information, learn about topics of interest, and make important decisions.

Google makes public the factors that determine its search quality ranking in this 164 page document. Google contracts with over 10,000 search quality evaluators worldwide who use this document to rank the quality ranking of webpages to help power Google’s machine learning search algorithms.

To save you reading time, here are the 4 most important factors that Google uses to determine page quality ranking:

PageRank remains an important factor, but namely from backlinks to high quality content that naturally gain popularity.

Google has this to say about backlinks:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

The next section will provide a framework for how you can create unique, relevant content that readers want.

✔️ 3 Simple Steps to Rank

Here are the 3 simple steps our team still uses to write targeted and high quality content

  1. Find the Right Keyword to Target - Know Your Audience
  2. Competition - What Have Others Already Said on the Topic
  3. Write Great Content

💡To illustrate how to apply these steps, we will use the preparation and writing of this article itself as an example.

1. Find the Right Keyword to Target - Know Your Audience

This is the most important step. In order to write high quality content that achieves its stated purpose we need to understand who we are writing for and their intent.

From here we use Google’s free keyword planner tool to select the right keywords (questions) to target. In our case we know that users mostly search for backlinks, seo backlinks, what are backlinks etc. as opposed to link building.

Google Keyword Planner Tool Snapshot

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 4.44.47 pm

☝️General Rule of Thumb: Top ranking search results on average capture 30% of average monthly search volume (known as the Click Through Rate - CTR). So over time if this article were able to achieve a #1 ranking for the backlinks keyword that would represent a potential 15,000 global visits a month. The CTR falls exponentially as rankings drop. Very few visitors go beyond page 1 search results.

2. Competition - What Have Others Already Said on the Topic

To create a quality piece of content, we need to know what others have already said on the topic and determine if we can write something better. This is where many fall short and end up paraphrasing or writing content that is inferior to existing pages that rank.

For our target keyword of backlinks, we must google and review the first page results to evaluate what has been said.

First Page Search Results for Target Keyword

Google result for keyword backlinks

We see many definitive strategy guides on how to backlink and the importance of backlinking. As I have nothing more insightful to add to this topic I have opted for a contrarian response to the same question:

👉 How to Rank Without Backlinks: 3 Simple Steps [Free Framework]

3. Write Great Content

Now that we have a topic based on a target audience, intent and question, we can get to work. While it is still possible to write high quality content without being an authoritative expert (in fact it’s often easier) finding an author with expertise on the topic would rank content higher.

For this article I felt I have both the authority and experience to discuss this topic. There are basic online writing tips you can follow but never forget to empathize with the user. Don’t be selfish with your writing. Write for your user, deliver value, solve their problem.

📥 Free SEO Content Framework Template

On the topic of giving value to your users. I have created a Framework Template you can view, download and customize for your content. Our team uses this framework before researching and writing any piece of SEO content.

Download SEO Content Framework Template

SEO Content Framework Template Screenshot

How Long Does it Take to Rank Without Backlinks?

The ability to rank for keywords will depend on the relative competitiveness of your content. A piece of content that is better researched, articulated and solves the user's problem should rank well even without backlinks.

Our experience was that high quality pages would begin to rank on page 1 globally within a month and achieve top 3 ranking within 3 months. If we didn’t rank page 1 within a month then we would revisit the content, competition and user problem.

Organic weekly traffic of pages published in December (redacted private data)

Amplitude chart

However, if the competing content is of higher quality and has greater backlinks and authority (use a free tool to check), then you are unlikely to outrank others.

🤔 Do Backlinks Still Matter?

Yes, while not the deciding factor, the PageRank algorithm remains an indicator of a page’s authority. It should be used as an outreach tool to amplify high quality content you have already written. This is something we have recently pursued with success and may form a future article.

Remember, time spent understanding your user and solving their problems is always time better spent.


Final note: Thank you to the amazing SafetyCulture SEO team for giving me the opportunity to lead, teach and work alongside all you beautiful humans 💖.

SafetyCulture SEO Team Photo

SEO Team Photo