How to Rank with Less Links?

Possible to Rank in Google

This is the question that my friend and I have been discussing since last year, which I believe is also the question of many.

While it’s true that marketers don’t need to rely on link building alone to rank on Google, external links is still a big ranking factor, even in cases where webpages rank without links pointing at them.

“You mean external links aren’t valuable anymore?”, some of you might say.

Well, no, that’s not exactly what I meant.

I know it’s confusing.

Allow me to explain.

External link as a ranking factor

In a ranking correlation study conducted by Moz, which is further explained by Cyrus Shepard in his post, Can you Rank in Google Without Links, the top 50 Google search results for 15, 000 keywords were examined.

They found that all websites ranking for competitive search phrases have at least a single external link pointing at them, in fact none of the no-external-links websites ranked. However, there are also instances where individual pages ranked even without external links pointing at them.

To prove this study, I conducted my own research and analysis. For this, I used Canva’s Design School blog.

Since Canva is a quality site, and recently published a blog post which I assumed doesn’t have an external link yet, I was convinced that it’s the perfect website to use.

Using Ahrefs Site Explorer, I checked the backlink profile of Canva’s blog, “50 Most Beautiful Vintage Magazine Covers Ever Designed”.

Canva Design School

As expected, since they just published it, it has no external links yet. But when I searched for “vintage magazine covers” and “vintage magazine cover ideas” keywords, surprisingly, this blog post is ranking.

Canva result 1

Now, it’s not because external link is out of the picture, in fact, it’s still one of the biggest ranking factors.

Like I’ve mentioned before, Canva is a quality website, when I studied the main site’s backlink profile, I got a …

Canva Main Site

Yes, a whopping 135, 000 backlinks and 14, 000 referring domains.

The Design School page alone has:

Design School Backlink Profile

This means that as long as your website (your main site – let’s say your homepage) has external links, individual pages (even without external links) from your site can still rank. This is also proven and very visible on online news sites like CNN, Yahoo News and The New York Times – many times that whenever they publish a new page, which don’t have external links yet, they are still ranking well. And it’s because these sites are quality and have tons of backlinks.

How to rank with less links?

While it’s going to be hard to rank sites without links, there are ways to rank without too much link building efforts.

1. Prioritize quality. Rather than spending time looking for tons of websites where you can get backlinks, why not focus on the quality ones instead?

It’s quite challenging. But building relationships with a few quality websites is better than thousands of irrelevant websites, and in the long-run, you’ll see that it actually saves time.

2. Target more obscure phrases. It’s hard to rank for competitive keywords, especially when you don’t have much quality backlinks, but ranking for long-tail and lower competition keywords is a lot more realistic.

However, since these keywords have lower competition, expect that these have lower number of searches, and in many cases, none.

3. Focus on improving user-experience. Google gives emphasis on user-experience, and highlights the importance of click-through rate, time on-site and dwell time metrics. It’s best to shift majority of your focus on developing great products, services and content.

The future of external links according to Google

Last December 2013, Yandex announced that the search engine will be a “link-free” algorithm, and although this only applies to commercial queries and only works in the Moscow area, marketers couldn’t stop asking, “Will Google apply this, too?”

Well, no.

Here’s part of Matt Cutt’s answer:

“We don’t have a version like that, that is exposed to the public, but we have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much worse. It turns out that backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really big win in terms of quality of search results. So we’ve played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance and, at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical search results.”

-Matt Cutts

This shows that external link is and perhaps will still be one of the many elements of Google’s and other search engine’s ranking factors.

We’re way too far from a “link-free” algorithm!

Double Your Growth.

We curate the best of inbound marketing news and send over the top 10 we know will contribute to your growth - once a month.

  • Another awesome write up and a reminder again about the importance of quality in the content produced. After all it’s the content with images, video, internal and external links which are aimed to provide the best value to users. If it’s good for people, it’ll sooner or later, if not already be good for search engines.

  • Just one word

    But, depends on the keyword competition.

  • Really Nice article i learnt how to rank website without links also. Thanks for Sharing…

  • Thanks for sharing Pam. Want to share my experience with the backlinks for one of my blogs. It is in a low to moderate competition niche, but all those sites that came on the first page of the google were not dedicated to that particular subject. In other words they just had a post about it, but that’s all – sites with high authority. So I decided to build up a blog from scratch that is entirely dedicated on the niche – or micro niche blog that only contains content on pretty much few keywords. I rolled up my sleeves and did about 95 articles – some long enough (800-1000 words) others much shorter. As you can imagine I only focused on putting up some content. After 1 month and a half, for one of the keywords I’m on 9th position in google, and for another major keyword I’m on the 15th position in google – NO BACK LINKS building whatsoever.
    So in my view, if you have a dedicated blog on one niche, and do a good number of quality posts, you can certainly outrank even sites that have very high PR, thousands of backlinks, and thousands of articles – at least that’s my experience.

    Anyhow, that you Pam for sharing this helpful info – keep my email in your newsletter loop, as I want to be updated of other helpful tips and tricks regarding SEO!


    • I also believe that good content is better than links! Imagine if you can do both! :) Thanks for sharing your experience with us. And yes, you may subscribe here to stay updated with our SEO tips and tricks. ;)

    • Glad to see these results. I’ve been wanting to do something similar with a client site for a while. Just haven’t had the luxury to do so as we can all get really impatient.

  • I’ve been using when I am promoting my site online and when I am ranking my website on Google. But I haven’t try to rank a website without doing link building because I believe that linking websites to one another could create traffic in your website.

  • Great article! Moving forward, I believe “gaining links” or more so “link building” will change in importance to ranking. First, as Matt Cutts points out, it’s very easy to spam or cheat. Second, everyday Google is getting smarter about signals which, in turn, result in the most relevant search results. Thus, algorithmicly, back links will naturally depreciate. As an SEO, I’ve proven over and over again in my niche that Quaility On Page content, combined with proper agreement between on page elements (Title Tag, URL, H-Tags and text/alt-text) and web of trust elements (business name, address, phone number) play a vastly more important roll in SEO and Conversion (CRO). Recent Toyota Dealership SEO campaigns and processes prove this matter as well. Toyota Service SEO, or Toyota Fixed Ops, have really benefitted from this process. We rolled this same method out for Chevy and Ford Dealerships as well. It doesn’t scale as well as straight link building, but our clients reap a much more productive and durable reward be focusing more on page, and a few other signals. Keep up the great work!!

  • Ria

    FYI: Seems that even Yandex now though has come to the same conclusion that Google did. Links FTW.

    • All the more reason to stick with link earning. :)

  • Paul

    Confirms what probably most of us already knew. It’s certainly all about quality, not quantity.

    Individual bloggers spread themselves too thin, try to connect with 1 influencer at a time and move on from that

  • Hi Pam..So I decided to build up a blog from scratch that is entirely dedicated on the niche..keep in touch from INDONESIA.

    • Yay! That is great! Good luck on your new blog. ;)

  • Warren

    The truth is that most people can be dazzled to learn how many links do not truly help them to rank. In order to play within Google’s good graces, one of the best ways here is to grasp Google’s guidelines on manipulative link building, and understand what types of links you avoid.

  • Unblock Minecraft

    Hi Pam,

    Learn new things from this post, great content and great viewpoint.
    Thanks for sharing the useful information! Your blog its really helpful.

  • I think link building has a key role to rank in Google even today. But spamming certainly not a good idea because it is easily identified and Google doesn’t like this.

  • Aanya Rajput

    Thanks for such a great article. I was just searching for this kind of material as one of my friend said to me that there is no need of backlinks as Google stops giving priority on Backlinks but that’s not true for now as Google will do it in future but Backlinks still have something to do with the rankings….

  • Backlink prioritization and use of long-tail keywords are probably the best SEO strategies of present. Google is getting smarter by the day!

  • However, links are still a very important and influential ranking factor. They have been influencing the site authority and will continue influencing in the future.

    Now is the time when a key role belongs not to the backlinks quantity but to their quality. It is better to pay $100 for 1 backlink on a frequently visited site than buy 20 cheap low quality links 5 dollars each.

  • No wonder, I did experience the same. Have seen a website on top of SERP’s with 17 Backlinks & many other websites having 2,000+ backlinks are at the bottom of the results. Anyways thanks Pam for sharing this valuable info as now I knew how it works.

  • Ged Ward

    Great article and thanks for the information :)

  • Hey this is really amazing article, i enjoy to read this article and learn many simple things

  • Is it still ranking?

  • Great article and thanks for the information :)

  • If your website have high Domain Rating (Authority) your pages are more likely to rank higher.