Brian Dean, the founder of Backlinko, is one of the web’s leading experts on SEO and link building. Over the past few years, he’s leveraged his tremendous SEO knowledge to launch one of the most popular SEO training websites in the world. However, Dean wasn’t always so successful. He has humbly shared his early stages as an entrepreneur, which has been wrought with failures and the changes that have since helped him become one of the most prominent voices in the digital marketing industry.
Dean’s Early Failures
Even the most successful entrepreneurs faced their share of setbacks early on; in fact, the average entrepreneur fails 3.8 times before becoming successful. Brian Dean is the first to admit that he struggled as an entrepreneur until he had an epiphany in 2010. According to an AMA he conducted on Reddit a year ago, Dean quit his job in 2010 to start working in SEO, but didn’t find success as quickly as he expected. He elaborated more on his successes and challenges in interviews with Growth Everywhere and Audienti.
In hindsight, Dean recognizes that failure is a natural part of the learning curve for all entrepreneurs, saying that the biggest mistake he made wasn’t that he was unable to develop a good system upfront—rather, it was not failing quickly enough. Since he was working on a limited income as a freelancer, he struggled to invest money into his SEO endeavors, so it took him a year and a half to really make any progress. However, he eventually reached a point where he felt successful.
Two years later, he launched Backlinko, which is ranked by Technorati as one of the top 50 small business blogs online. His journey has been filled with ups and downs, but has ultimately proved to be worth the effort.
The Backlinko Blog
Backlinko is an online marketing blog that Dean launched in 2010. The site has grown rapidly over the past five years and currently receives nearly 100,000 visitors a month—a significant number for a blog in the insanely competitive SEO niche.
Dean’s philosophy is very simple: provide the information that digital marketers need to be successful. “I’m a big believer that today’s online marketers MUST master the art of link building, user experience and content promotion.“ Through his work on Backlinko, he’s written a number of case studies and detailed list posts that are invaluable resources for readers looking to broaden their knowledge of SEO and content marketing.
As a result, Backlinko has become tremendously popular—all because Dean has taken drastic measures to offer the highest level of quality information for his readers. All his posts are chock-full of actionable tips that his readers can use. Readers can learn a lot from his blog, but they can learn even more by studying the processes that helped him become a renowned expert in the first place.
10 Great Lessons We Can Learn from Backlinko
Backlinko was Dean’s first successful venture and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the brand has radically changed the SEO industry. What can other entrepreneurs learn from its success? Here are 10 great lessons that both newbies and seasoned digital marketers can learn from him:
1. Be Willing to Burn Money Up Front
Dean eventually had to realize that failure was an essential stage on the path to entrepreneurial success. He invested a lot of money on his SEO initiatives and found that he was losing everything that he put into it. Unfortunately, failures as an entrepreneur are usually costly, which can be a problem if you don’t have a stable stream of income.
“But it took a good maybe a year and a half of failing to do that while I was freelance writing on the side. And part of the reason that it took so long is because I didn’t focus on it and I didn’t fail fast enough. And as you know, as an entrepreneur, one of the best things you can do is just keep trying stuff and failing and messing up and learning lessons. And it was really hard to pay the bills, so to speak, with the freelance writing so I didn’t put that energy into SEO.
And about two and half years ago — yeah, maybe two years ago now — the freelance writing totally dried up and I really had to focus on SEO. And that’s when I started failing fast, fast, fast, fast, fast. And about few months after that, I finally kind of figured it out. And over time, I figure it out more and more.”
Key Takeaway: Entrepreneurs must recognize that their ventures can take months and possibly even years to really succeed. And while the saying “it takes money to make money” rings true, you need to balance the need to burn money upfront with the ability to pay your bills. Live cheaply for a while if you need to, but don’t risk losing your business because you aren’t willing to invest what you need to before it becomes self-sustaining.
2. Understand and Conform to Long-term Trends
You need to pay close attention to the trends affecting your industry, as failure to conform to them can have serious consequences. In the SEO profession, Dean had to come to terms with the fact that black hat SEO was a dying art and adapt to the new white hat model that was emerging.
In his interview with me, Dean said that there used to be a point when SEO agencies could purchase 50 backlinks from a member of the Warrior Forum and create tremendous results for their clients. These agencies could then charge $2,000 for their services. However, Google eventually became annoyed with these black hat techniques, which forced a lot of agencies to change their practices. Dean was doing a little black hat SEO, but found that he had to embrace white hat strategies to create a sustainable business model.
Key Takeaway: It may be tempting to try to make a quick buck capitalizing on short-term trends, but you need to make sure that your business practices work in the long-term if you want to maintain growth and earn a solid reputation.
3. Follow Different Strategies to Scale Growth
Probably the most common question that a growth hacker receives is: “What is the best way to grow my business?” This is an impossible question to answer because there are many different strategies for growth, all of which come with their own benefits and drawbacks. That’s why it’s often necessary to consider multiple growth strategies at once.
It was with this in mind that Dean told me that PPC and SEO were both key marketing strategies for brands looking to grow. From his perspective, the benefit of SEO is that it’s more cost effective over the long-term, though it can also take a lot longer to make any headway. Running campaigns on Adwords and other PPC sites allows brands to grow their customer base while their organic rankings are still rising, which is essential for newer brands. Once you’ve built your SEO rankings, they pay dividends for years.
If you’re on a more limited budget, you may not be able to invest a tremendous amount of money into your PPC campaigns at first. Fortunately, there are other ways you can generate traffic while waiting for your organic search rankings to improve. Dean, for example, has gained a lot of visibility and loyal readers by e-mailing other thought leaders in his niche.
Key Takeaway: Ultimately, you shouldn’t limit yourself to one growth strategy. While you don’t want to try so many things that you can’t fully invest in any one tactic, you need to be aware of the benefits and limits of every tactic, as well as how you can leverage them to boost your name recognition.
4. Make Outreach a Priority
Outreach is a major growth factor for every business. In fact, Dean said in our interview that he spends only 20% of his content marketing time actually writing content—the other 80% he spends promoting it.
It’s not uncommon for Dean to send more than 250 e-mails to promote new blog posts, in addition to the other posts on his list. Dean learned this strategy from Neil Patel and discovered that it pays off very well, emphasizing that new voices especially need to do as much outreach as possible, as it’s critical to generate some buzz to gain momentum in the early stages of your campaign.
Key Takeaway: The best place to start getting your content promoted is to share it with industry thought leaders who have already posted similar content on their social networks. Of course, you’ll also want to vet people according to the amount of social influence that they have. See how many real followers they have in their networks before reaching out to them.
5. Leverage All Available Data for Your Campaigns
Many marketers spin their wheels for months on campaigns that won’t gain any traction. Often, they’d be better off paying attention to the strategies that worked from the beginning, which Dean recommends identifying through available data.
There are a number of great tools out there that can help you aggregate data for your marketing strategies. Dean told me that one of his favorite tools is Buzzsumo, which allows you to enter a keyword and see what content is gaining shares on social media. Dean also recommends using Twitter APIs to find out what strategies are working out well. There are a couple of reasons that this process works so well:
- You can see what type of content readers are most likely to share. This is important to know if you’re going to be investing a lot of time generating content.
- You can find out who’s sharing content in your niche. Dean, for instance, makes a list of anyone who has shared content that is similar to what he’s promoting and tries to reach out to them to get his own content seen.
Key Takeaway: Of course, as with any digital marketing campaign, you’re going to need to do your own testing and collect your own data for optimization purposes. However, you’ll be starting from a better place if you have a sense of what works in advance. There are plenty of tools available that will help you collect data before getting started, so take advantage of them to create campaigns that are set up for success.
6. Be Aware of Productivity Hacks
Because I was so impressed with Dean’s success, I asked him to elaborate on his process, expecting it to be something totally intensive. To my surprise, he said that he’s very old school and doesn’t have a large team. He has an assistant and a couple of freelancers on standby to help with some things that it doesn’t make sense for him to handle on his own. However, despite the growth of Backlinko, he mostly handles everything on his own.
How can one guy single-handedly create a leading blog that generates close to 100,000 visits a month in one of the most competitive niches? It’s all about managing productivity. Here are a couple of tips that Dean shared:
- There are a number of productivity tools that you should take advantage of. Find the right ones for you and put them to work.
- It’s important to block out your time to focus on certain issues at once. You’ll operate more efficiently if you learn to stay in a rhythm.
- Be aware of the limited energy that you have during the day. Dean tries to get all his creative work done in the morning while he still has enough energy and focuses on answering emails and other mundane tasks in the evening.
Key Takeaway: You can reduce the need to have a massive team if everyone is as productive as possible. Regardless of the size of your company, it’s important to keep looking for ways to improve efficiency as much as possible.
7. Develop Your Own Model
Every successful entrepreneur needs to develop their own system for producing quality products. Since Dean operates a popular online marketing blog, in a sense, his product is his content. To ensure that every piece of content he puts out is top-notch, he created a content generation model, which he named the “skyscraper strategy.”
Here’s an overview of his three-step process:
- Identify existing content in your niche. The best place to start is by seeing what content in your niche has already worked. This is where Buzzsumo and other similar tools play a role in his strategy.
- Figure out what worked (and what didn’t). In this next step, Dean carefully analyzes content that went viral in his niche, trying to break it down and find out what made it so successful.
- Make it better. Dean recognizes that he needs to create the best content to stand out in such a crowded niche, and he does so by finding ways to improve on his competitors’ content to get more traction from it.
As an example of this system in practice, Dean created a post on 250 of the ranking factors involved in Google’s algorithms. Through his research, he found several similar posts that competitors had created that had gained a lot of social shares. However, many of them were missing some of the crucial points, so he chose to create a more inclusive piece that gained a lot more attention and ranked better. His post “Google Ranking Factors: The Complete List” is currently the number one search result for the term “Google ranking factors.”
Key Takeaway: It isn’t enough to publish “good” content anymore. Content has to be ten times better to get noticed these days, and Dean’s skyscraper technique can help you meet this metric.
8. Don’t Jump the Gun on Non-Existent Trends
Dean has strongly emphasized that being able to identify trends in general is a critical part of recognizing trends in your specific industry. And while it’s true that trends could have a significant impact on the success of your business, you need to be careful not to jump onto every single one that comes along too quickly in case you start acting on something that doesn’t actually exist.
“I have sort of an apathy towards any change that doesn’t impact the traffic that actually comes to my site and the number of visitors that I’m trying to lead to sales. So, once that happens, if that happens, then I’ll start paying attention. But until then it’s just noise for all the bloggers to have something to write about.”
Key Takeaway: It takes a lot of data to confirm that a trend has been established. Make sure that you test carefully and know that you have a statistically significant sample size before drawing any conclusions. How much data do you need to confirm a trend? That really depends on a variety of factors, so use your own judgment. Looking at Apple’s success should tell you that a first mover advantage isn’t really necessary to succeed.
9. Never Forget Your Customers’ Needs
It may sound like obvious advice, but you’d be amazed at how many businesses choose not to follow it. Never forget the needs of your customers. This is something that far too many entrepreneurs get wrong.
Dean pointed out that it’s a mistake many content marketers make when generating list posts, in particular. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with list posts, problems occur when they don’t offer any actionable tips that readers can benefit from. Too often, they tend to feature short blasts of information, and while these may be entertaining, they rarely give readers anything of value that’s needed to succeed.
For this reason, content marketers need to review their work from the perspective of their readers. The goal is to enrich their audience with information that will improve their lives—and this goal must always be kept in the front of your mind.
On the Backlinko blog, Dean breaks his content up into easily understood, actionable steps that his readers can follow, giving him an immediate edge in terms of value compared to his competitors. He also makes sure that all the information his visitors need to move forward is in the post so that they won’t have to leave his site to find it. This is one of the reasons he’s earned far more visitors than other sites in his industry.
Dean also applies these principles when he’s creating content for the purpose of getting new subscribers to his blog. In past interviews, he’s stated that most bloggers have difficulty generating e-mail subscribers from their blog posts. They generally use generic call-to-actions such as “sign up for our newsletter,” which are rarely effective ways to get people to subscribe.
Instead, he’s been able to significantly boost conversions by tailoring his calls-to-action to specific blog posts. He does this by offering “content upgrades” that provide even more information on the subject of the current post. For example, on his Google ranking factors post, his opt-in box has the CTA “Bonus: Download a free checklist that will show you how to tap into the 10 most important Google ranking factors listed here.” This change alone boosted his conversion rate from 0.4% to 5.5%.
Key Takeaway: By tapping into his visitors’ current interests, Dean is able to earn more list subscribers than most other bloggers. If you’re trying to build your own e-mail list as part of your business model, this is a step that you can’t afford to ignore.
10. Invest Time and Money in Areas that Lift Your ROI
Every single decision an entrepreneur makes needs to be driven primarily by ROI. Some of the strategies that Dean has focused on, such as his content upgrades, have provided an absolutely insane ROI. Even more surprisingly, he’s said in the past that his content upgrades don’t usually take that long to execute, although he has no problem investing lots of time and energy into them since they yield such high returns.
Key Takeaway: Spending a lot of time and money on something can be intimidating, but this is an investment that every entrepreneur needs to be willing to make in order to boost their returns. You shouldn’t be hesitant to do this if you want to be as successful as Dean.
Start Applying Dean’s Lessons Today
Brian Dean has become a leading voice in the digital marketing industry, and through past interviews with Growth Everywhere and other sources, he’s offered a number of great insights that other entrepreneurs can learn from as well.
If you’re trying to boost growth on your own website, start applying these suggestions today. In addition, take some time to check out the full Backlinko blog. No matter what challenges you’re facing, you’re sure to find some interesting insight there.