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My site's DR is 1.2 but my article ranks #1 in the Google SERPs.
SEO folks know that these kinds of results are unexpected, but we also know that SEO is a big experiment. In other words, we never really know why something ranks.
Still, it’s weird to rank in the top of Google and only have a Domain Rating (DR) of 1.2.
Domain Rating (DR) is a ranking metric developed by Ahrefs which shows the strength of a website's backlink profile on a scale of 1 to 100. Domain Authority (DA), on the other hand, is a metric developed by Moz that is a predictor of how well websites will rank on search engines.
Plus, factor in this:
- My site is less than a year old.
- I’ve got, like, no backlinks (grand total is 15, woo).
- There are only 21,000 words on the whole site (that’s really low).
The fact that my article (I'll get to the details of that in a minute) ranks in the top of Google results for its intended keyword (and several permutations of it) is just plain strange.
According to some tools, the article ranks in the second position. On some browsers, it ranks first — depending on where you’re located and other factors. So, yes, it’s in the #1 position in Google for the most part, but it wobbles, just like all links in the SERPs do.
I know that these results are weird because I work in SEO and content strategy, and I play with a lot of content designed to wrangle in that good ol' juicy organic traffic.
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How Did This Article Rank?
So of course I want to know: What the heck? Why does this rank?
Overall, it feels like the SEO content community has been shifting towards a quality mindset for some time — create high-quality content and you will get traffic. But there’s still tons of advice and data telling us to employ all sorts of tactics to get more organic traffic to a particular post. These range from optimizing your meta description to building links, and beyond.
But I didn’t need any of those things to rank #1 in Google and still get lots of organic traffic to my post:
The traffic for my article, up to almost 600 views per month in December 2020.
In the rest of this article, I’ll lift the lid on this experiment and break down what I did and why I think it worked.
I won’t go over every on-page SEO tactic that theoretically can work. I’ll simply lay out a concrete explanation of what I think actually worked here.
So What Is This Magical Article?
I’ve been experimenting with writing some articles on various topics that I like on my personal website, sarahtolle.com, which I launched in April 2020.
I'm an actor, so I wrote an article titled 15 Best Acting Classes In Vancouver According To Real Actors. Maybe not the best title. Ben, the founder of indie digital media publishing company Black & White Zebra, pointed out that I should probably update it to include “2021” in the title. I subtitled it: “An informal, trustworthy write-up of acting classes from actors who’ve actually taken them.”
I published a “straw man” version of the article in May 2020. It was basically a slug and an incomplete numbered list of acting schools in Vancouver with a sentence to introduce it.
I republished the high-fidelity version of the article on September 10th, 2020. This version includes:
- Basic TOC with jumplinks
- Basic list of acting classes with jumplinks
- Overviews of each acting class with:
- Link to the acting class’ website
- Summary statement
- Description of the class based on personal experience or interviews
- Quote blocks from instructors or students with their headshots
- H3s that cover the class environment, schedule, practice required, highlights and pricing
- Jumplink back to the main list of classes
- Factors to consider when choosing acting classes
It’s super long (over 7,000 words)! Here’s a screenshot of just one of the acting class overviews:
Each overview section is really in-depth. In fact, it’s probably TMI. But that’s what came out of the research, so I went with it — which brings me to how I made it.
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This Article Took about 40 Hours to Write
Before I say anything about stats, I want to say that this article took a lot of time and patience.
We all know how common the “best of” and “top 10” articles are — some are really useful and strategic. For example, this post on customer journey tools is one of our most popular posts on The CX Lead site, gets a lot of qualified traffic and is legitimately useful to the audience. And then some top 10 articles are just spun up for SEO.
But I was uniquely positioned to write this “best of” article authoritatively because I am an actor and I’ve taken tons of acting classes around Vancouver, BC, where I live. Plus, I know lots of other actors and acting instructors who were interested in sharing their thoughts.
The main meat of this article was based on interviews with actors and instructors. Back in the good ol' days when I had social media, I posted on Facebook in an actor’s group to see if anyone wanted to recommend classes beyond the ones I was covering.
The response from actors was overwhelming, so I went with it. I conducted phone interviews with most of the people who responded with recommendations. Several suggested that I reach out to chat with the instructor, so why not? In the end, I interviewed 15 people and got email quotes from three more.
It took well over 40 hours to put the article together, between interviews, writing and handling assets like headshots for graphics, meta stuff, and formatting.
In short, I think that’s a lot more sweat, blood and tears than a lot of content operations are prepared to put into an article. Especially something as run-of-the-mill as a “best of” roundup. I didn’t pay myself to write it, but if I did, I would've paid myself $2,000 USD at an absolute minimum. Some content operations budget $2,000 per article, but I suspect that most aren’t — especially for a “best of” roundup. So it was pretty pricey.
All in all, high-quality content requires high-quality thinking, and that’s hard to come by for cheap. Any magic formula that includes “quality” as an ingredient probably won’t be cheap.
So, What’s the Formula?
So how can this article rank at the top of the Google SERPs and get steadily growing traffic with no backlinks?
My Ahrefs showing that there’s no backlink data — I had 2 links and lost them (see below).
My Ahrefs showing the 2 links I had but lost.
I’m not the only one wondering how it came to rank. I got an email the other day from someone wanting to know how I did it:
That email is really what made me take a look at it. After seeing that I have low everything — low word count on the site, less than a year in existence, few links to the domain and no links to the article — I looked at other factors.
I think it’s ranking because of two main things (I also have two other considerations, which I’ll cover after):
1) Good Ol' Fashioned Love
A great piece of content has to have some love in it — it’s way more motivating to make something really useful and good if you love the subject matter.
It was easier to do 40 hours of interviews and assembling class info because I legitimately enjoyed it. I made new connections that ended in cool real-world stuff. For example, an acting instructor invited me to a free month of classes and another actor invited me to their music gig at a local restaurant, which were both fun.
I also took the time to make people look good with nice quotes and photos, and include links to their site. And who doesn't love some free promotion?
I didn’t really focus on the quality of the article, to be honest. I focused on producing a resource that I’d love to read and embracing whatever came my way. The end result was pretty good.
2) Organic Social Traffic to My Site — Hear Me Out
Let me caveat this first: I do not use social media anymore.
I have a LinkedIn profile which I’m happy to keep for work, but I left social media somewhere in the middle of 2020 and never looked back (I highly recommend it!). So I am the first person to be like, really? Social media traffic affected my keyword rankings? But I think an influx of organic (not paid) traffic from social media tipped the scales.
The last week of October, I published a report based on survey data on my site — I’d surveyed local actors about all sorts of career and lifestyle questions and published it as the “2020 Vancouver Actors Report”.
Look at what else happened starting the last week of October:
Traffic got a clear bump starting the week I published the report.
As is very common, the report I published got lots of traffic on the week it was published and then it flatlined. I emailed it to a very small number of people (maybe 18?) and I guess some of them must have shared it on social media. I did pitch it around to a few local pubs but no one picked up the story. It was meant as more of a passion project than anything else.
Even though the report didn’t bring in sustained traffic, I think that those social signals from the report really helped with my overall site (which, at the time, was pretty much just the article on “vancouver acting classes”. Actually…it’s still pretty much just that.).
See how my keywords compared from October (before the report went out) to November (after the report went out):
After the report was published, the “vancouver acting classes” URL went cray cray with the keyword improvements.
My site in general started ranking or improved ranking for 61 keywords in total — most of them (52) related to and leading to the “vancouver acting classes” URL.
I’m not sure what happened with the report on social media, but I know that social media is the only way I could’ve gotten that many views on the report. I am certain that no one is typing “vancouver actors report” into their search bar. Maybe next year… 🙂
It seems that social traffic made a marked and lasting impact on the site’s keyword ranking and traffic in general.
Other Considerations: Lucky Timing and Low Barrier to Entry
Timing and difficulty could have easily played a bigger role in ranking the piece than anything else — more than the quality of the article and the social signals — so I definitely want to give these factors their due.
Maybe the “vancouver acting classes” article just got indexed a month after it was published and then boom! it started ranking. We’re not used to seeing that unless we’ve already got a strong domain, but who knows? It’s not a very competitive keyword phrase, so it’s possible that it naturally got indexed and ranked because the right keywords were there.
Low Barrier to Entry
Building off of my previous point, this set of keywords isn’t that hard to rank for. I do have a few backlinks to my domain in general, so maybe that’s enough to help this post rank.
I used Ahrefs, and I saw Keyword Difficulty of 14 for the main keyword “vancouver acting classes”. You can see in the graphic above that most of the related keywords are pretty easy, too.
Nobody else in the space is really doing this type of article — yet! (Let’s see if any Vancouver acting schools catch on!) The sites that already have authority in this space could probably knock me off my high horse in a few seconds if they were to replicate my article.
Of course, I like to believe that my ingenuity and prowess contributed to my article ranking somehow. But I always need to gut-check myself on stuff like this because in the SEO world, there are two rules:
- When your traffic improves, you did something right! Replicate!
- When your traffic goes down, blame it in on a Google algorithm update! Could be the weather as well.
So, I don’t know the magic formula for sure, but I thought the results in this case were at the least surprising and, at most, helpful for prioritizing my future efforts.
First of all, it made me think twice about the race to acquire links (still important, but maybe slightly less so).
It also reinforced my view that DR (Domain Rating), DA (Domain Authority), or DS (Domain Score), which are calculated based on your backlink profile, are more useful when investing in, buying or auditing a site, but for my purposes in organic content strategy it doesn’t help me much because it doesn’t correlate with traffic. There are studies showing a correlation at scale, yes, but for me, on an everyday practical scale, it’s not good for predictive purposes on a single site.
It also reinforced my faith in the advice we toss around about “focus on quality” because, let’s be honest, it’s not always the high-quality stuff that ranks at the top. Plus, even if quality gets you the #1 spot, the notion of quality is subjective, and you have to work to nail it each time on a case-by-case basis.