Case Study: 111x Traffic in 4 Months
When I checked Ahrefs to see how this site was doing the day after Christmas (one can only handle so much family time after all), I honestly thought that the traffic graph was bugging out.
It was showing a line going straight up to a level of traffic that just seemed impossible for the site at that point in time given its rankings a few days before.
Upon further inspection, it turned out Santa had one last present for me. The site’s main keyword had jumped from #7 to #1 overnight, resulting in a 2,000% increase in traffic. Four months of link building had paid off in spades.
And no, a 301-redirect was NOT used.
Apparently SEO and link building fundamentals are still being rewarded by Google with much more than just coal.
What is Covered in This Case Study:
Off-Page SEO Analysis
Link Building Strategy
Link Building Execution
Backlink and Anchor Diversity
Leveraging the Power of an EMD
What is NOT Covered:
Keyword Research or Content Strategy
Monetization, CRO, etc.
First things first: this was not our website – it was a client’s site.
This means that we were only building links for the site. All other aspects of SEO were taken care of by the client themselves.
We will touch on a few of these aspects briefly, but the bulk of this SEO case study will focus on link building. Not much was done to the site except for adding backlinks during the 4 months covered in this case study.
As it was a client’s site, we will also not be showing any identifying information (we probably wouldn’t want to show this if it were our own site, either!). Sorry, but privacy and security always come first.
The site is in the business / government niches.
Ahrefs rates the competition for their main keyword as hard.
Ahrefs estimated that we’d need over 200 Referring Domains (individual websites linking to us, not links overall) to rank on the first page.
Here is an overview of the metrics of the sites on page 1 for this keyword:
You can see that a couple of the top rankers have thousands of RD, and there was also a government site taking up 3 of the higher positions.
However, the site we were working with was an EMD – Exact Match Domain. This means that all of the site’s main keyword was included in the domain name. This would give us an advantage as well as the site being more focused for the keyword overall than some of the top rankers.
Initial SEO and Off-Page Analysis
When the client first applied for the site to be in our Managed Link Building Program, we conducted an analysis of its current health and previous SEO efforts just like you would do with any new domain or site you had purchased.
We found the following:
- It was a small, niche-site with only about 15 pages indexed in Google.
- Its on-page was well done. Nothing fancy – they had just put keywords where they needed to be without going overboard.
- Content was high-quality.
- It was a somewhat new site with its first links showing up about 9 months before. It was currently at about 26 Referring Domains.
- Its Domain Rating was quite low at 1.7, but that was expected from a website with only 26 Referring Domains. Ahrefs was also showing that the site was currently ranking for about 325 keywords which wasn’t too shabby.
- The keywords and traffic were both trending positively which is a good sign of site health. The site was establishing trust with Google, and Google was allowing it to begin ranking for a variety of keywords.
- The backlinks the site already had were pretty clean for the most part. The backlink profile consisted mainly of some simple, white hat links like directories. They also had a few guest posts and PBN links. The links were pretty relevant overall.
- The anchor text used previously was a little bit more aggressive than we like to see with sites at this stage with a good amount of money anchors. The fact that the site was an EMD would at least help to manage this to some extent.
- The site was at least starting to pop up for a lot of its target keywords, however they were not in good positions at the moment. The site’s main keyword was ranking on page 6.
- Most of the existing backlinks were going to the homepage – good.
All in all, it was a good-looking, well-written niche-site with clean on-page and a pretty clean backlink profile at the beginning of its ranking journey.
The anchor text was slightly over-optimized given its current RD count, however it was establishing trust with Google and steadily growing its keywords and rankings… and you can’t really complain about that.
We love seeing sites like this in the MLB program as they are clean, focused, and haven’t created any obstacles for themselves such as messy on-page or a spammy, super aggressive link profile.
Our Proposed Link Building Strategy
We wanted to begin pretty conservatively by building links mainly to the homepage with natural anchors as the site was still at the beginning of its link building journey and was only starting to slowly build trust with Google.
If this were our website, we might have been a little more aggressive. However with client sites, we always follow linking best-practices.
Building to the homepage with natural anchors would take care of the slight over-optimization problem, continue building authority to the site, and lay the foundation for more aggressive link building in the future after additional trust had been built.
As the site was an EMD (Exact Match Domain), building URL and branded anchors to the homepage would be similar to building money anchors – but without the risk. So, we planned on using a good amount of these anchor types to leverage this advantage.
We also planned on doing a little more pillow linking with simple, foundational, white-hat link types in the beginning just to be really sure of a solid, diversified link profile to start building on top of. This would also help with anchor diversification.
After the initial stages, our main tools would be guest posts, niche edits, and maybe a PBN or two. We would vary the authority levels (as this is what occurs naturally) while still using high-authority links to push hard. All links would be relevant.
We would become more aggressive over time in our anchor selection as well as our target selection (meaning we’d start hitting more inner-pages and use more non-URL money anchors).
And as always, we would re-analyze the site at the beginning of each month to ensure our building was based on how the site was currently reacting. If the site needed some additional pillowing or anchor dilution at some point, we would have to revert back to that.
About the Backlinks We Used
Links were “ordered” at the beginning of each month and finished sporadically throughout the month, but in many cases links did not finish building until the end of the month.
This in conjunction with the fact that links can take some time to index and show their effects makes it a little hard to attribute the results analyzed at the end of each month to a particular order of links.
Our teams built all of the backlinks used for this case study, and they can be purchased on our site. You can build these types of backlinks yourself if you have the time, teams, and know-how, or you can also purchase similar links elsewhere from quality, trusted vendors.
I will include brief descriptions of link types/packages used to better illustrate our building decisions, however if you are unfamiliar with some types of backlinks, you can find more information here.
The overall spend during the full 4-month period was about $5,000. The client was also changing their budget every month, so you will notice some months with heavier building than others. This was the client’s decision, not ours.
The analysis that the first month of link building was based on was outlined previously (initial analysis as part of application into the MLB Program).
The general idea for this first month of link building was to do some additional pillowing and naturalness-building. Then, we’d start pushing relevance and authority with natural anchors.
All links would be built to the homepage as the site was still quite early along in the link building process as well as it wanting to rank for its main keyword on the homepage.
The link building budget for this month was $700. Here was the order:
The pillow links pack is a pack of 30 white-hat links that most people can create themselves such as citations, niche directories, web 2.0’s, and forum/social profiles. We like to use these on newer sites or sites that just need to diversify a bit.
This only took a small portion of the budget and was used to diversify the link/anchor profile (only branded, URL, and generic anchors were used).
The social signals pack (links, likes, and shares of your content on social media) was very cheap as well and was used to simulate buzz across social media.
The majority of the budget for this order was used on a niche edits pack and a guest post.
The “Level 5” niche edits pack is a higher authority pack, and it contains 3 links from relevant domains with 800-1,200 referring domains of their own. The guest post was a mid-authority post from a domain with 20-35 DR.
These two things are what would do most of the heavy lifting by pushing a good amount of authority and relevance. The niche edits pushed more authority while the guest post was able to supply more laser-focused relevance due to higher control over the article.
After the first month of building, the client was very happy to see their main keyword jump from page 6 to #11, right on the border to page 1. They even sent us this screenshot:
And here’s what the site looked like in Ahrefs:
The site was looking nice and healthy. It had almost doubled it’s traffic (which was still very low) and was starting to rank for about 20% more keywords. Trust with Google was building, and it was clear Google knew what the site was about and what to rank it for.
Based on this information, the general idea for the second month’s link building plan was to continue hammering authority and relevance to the homepage. We liked how the site responded the first month, and we wanted to continue this trend.
The budget for this month was $1,000. Here was the order:
The total link amount for this order was smaller than the first month, however you can see it’s a lot more authority as none of the budget was used for pillowing (the client also slightly increased their budget).
Another “Level 5” niche edits pack was used (3 links from domains with 800-1200 RD), and three guest posts with higher authority than the previous month were used as well.
This was a nice balance of authority and relevance while keeping the link profile diverse – the individual signatures of guest posts and niche edits are slightly different (one is new, one is aged), so it’s nice to use them both to avoid too much uniformity.
We also continued to leverage the advantage of the EMD by using a lot of branded and URL anchors to try to boost the rankings for their main keyword as much as possible.
The results after the second month were not as breathtaking as the first month’s results, but progress was still being made.
We were still dealing with low levels of traffic and keywords, but they were growing nicely. Traffic was up about 35% and keywords were up about 32% from the previous month.
Here’s what the keyword tracker looked like for a few of the main keywords:
You can see that a few of the terms were bouncing in and out of page 1, and overall they were just showing a lot of volatility. Nothing had settled on page 1 to stay at this point.
Normally volatility is not something people are happy about. But with link building, volatility usually always comes before more positive movements. You often see big losses before your largest gains. In this case, it was more so just bouncing back and forth.
We were convinced we were on the right track. However, the client was a little worried that something may be wrong – why had there not had been gains as massive as the first month?
Being experienced SEOs, we knew that the real fight was going to begin here at the edge of page 1. This is where you begin to run up against a brick wall of authority and sites with sizeable backlink profiles.
So, we knew at this point we just needed to accumulate authority. The #10 ranking site (last position on page 1) still had 123 RD compared to our 50 RD that Ahrefs was showing, or about 2.5x the amount of referring domains.
Could we beat them with less?
The general plan for this month of link building was to continue pushing authority to the homepage but to mix things up a bit to keep the backlink profile looking natural.
The backlink budget for this month was $1,500. Here was the order:
We decided to go heavier on niche edits this month instead of guest posts due to their cost effectiveness with pushing authority, but really we could have gone with guest posts here and heavier on edits the following month as well.
We used a Level 6 pack which is the highest authority niche edits pack we provide. Linking domains have 1,200+ RD (and sometimes much more). We also used another Level 5 pack (800-1,200 RD) as well as a lower authority Level 2 pack (100-200 RD).
This month, we also used the only PBN link that would be used throughout the entire process. As you probably know, PBNs push a ton of power, and using one also mixed up the link profile a bit by throwing a homepage backlink into the mix. Diversity is always good, and the site had accumulated more than enough RD at this point for a PBN to be used safely.
Social signals were used again to add an extra layer of naturalness and simulate buzz on social media – but again, these make up an extremely small portion of the budget.
We continued to push all links to the homepage with natural anchors, but we mixed up the anchors this time around with less branded/URL anchors and more long-tail, generic, and geo-relevant anchors.
We expected the results from the third month of building to be pretty mediocre. After all, it was just a matter of closing the authority/link gap to be able to compete more seriously with some of the sites on page 1. And that would take time.
And we were right! Here’s where the site landed after the 3rd month:
The traffic and keywords continued to grow, but they were still at pretty low numbers. This was a relatively small niche-site after all, and nothing had really landed onto page 1 to push these numbers higher yet.
Traffic was up about 30% from the previous month, or about 300% since we started building links to the site.
Keywords were up about 15% from last month, or about 76% from when we started.
The overall plan for the fourth month of building was to continue pushing authority to the homepage to try to close the authority gap while switching up the types of links used.
We’d also add a higher number of cheaper links to help diversify the anchor profile as we had been building a pretty fair amount of URL/branded anchors.
The budget for links this month was $2,000 (we had a 25% off special this month, so the total was more like $2,500). Here was the order:
The majority of the budget this round went towards the highest authority guest posts we have. We made use of strong anchors with these links to make the most use out of them.
We used another high authority niche edits pack as well (Level 6, 1,200+ RD). We sent these to a few inner-pages for the first time since building to push a few new terms with money anchors and a variation.
The remainder of the links were from a Barrage niche edits pack which contains a large amount (15-20) of lower authority links (10-50 RD per domain).
We love using these links to diversify anchors as they are cheaper – you usually don’t want to diversify with expensive links as they are more for maintenance. We added in a bunch of much needed generic and branded variation anchors to make things look more natural.
Wait, what? Wasn’t the keyword supposed to hit #1 after 4 months?
Here’s what things looked like after the 4th month:
You can see a large spike in traffic in Ahrefs which is the main keyword landing on page 1 and staying there without bouncing back off. Traffic had almost doubled again, and keywords were up another 15% from the previous month.
It was a nice win to finally get the main keyword on page 1 for good, and we kept marching forward with building backlinks.
However, I’ll leave that off of this case study because before any of those links could be finished, the rankings jumped to #1 for the main keyword.
Here’s what that looked like:
The main keyword jumping to #1 as well as the big gains in other keywords at the same time resulted in an overnight traffic increase of about 2,000% (160 to 3,337), or an 11,000% (30 to 3,337) increase since we started building 4 months prior.
The amount of keywords the site was ranking for was also double from where we started.
That’s us at the top now. Note the smaller amount of links, RD, and authority overall the site has in comparison to the other top rankers!
It’s been almost a month now from this development, and the main keyword still holds the number 1 position with no sign of dropping.
But that is just one keyword. There is still a ton of untapped traffic to go after.
We continue to build links focused at raising the rankings for other important keywords to bring in additional targeted traffic to the site. The site owner is also dusting off their blog and starting to add more fresh content that can also be ranked.
So, what have we learned from this?
Link building remains an incredibly powerful tool. When executed correctly, you can beat out sites with a lot more links than you, and you don’t NEED a massive amount of PBN links to get the job done (although they sure can help!). Different strokes for different folks.
Diversity is key. This goes for both link types and anchor text. Following the principle of diversity ensures your backlink profile and anchor profile emulates that of 100% natural profiles. This keeps you safe and away from penalties.
EMD’s are still very powerful. While we normally stay away from them ourselves, they can still be used to snipe competitive terms much more efficiently. Building a lot of branded and URL anchors to these domains makes the most use of them.
Authority acts as a wall, but you may be able to jump over it. Smart use of relevance, anchors, link types, domains, on-page, and so on can let you bypass massive amounts of authority with less links than you might think.
Relevance, relevance, relevance. While not every link needs to be laser-focused as far as relevance is concerned, you should aim for most of them to be relevant at least at the parent-niche level.
At the end of the day, most of the tactics we used here really fall under link building fundamentals and best-practices. We didn’t use any crazy new strategy or ultra-black-hat tactics, and in most cases you don’t need to.
If these concepts and methods aren’t already part of your game-plan, they should be for the sake of your wallet, your rankings, and your sites’ health.
If you have any questions or comments, leave them below!
Chris Tzitzis is an SEO and a Co-Founder of SirLinksalot.co. He has extensive experience with Affiliate SEO and running an SEO Agency.
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