It’s easy to see why this theory is so convincing.
Imagine you’re a journalist or blogger writing an article about piranhas. You do some Googling about piranhas’ hunting habits and find a few high-quality, comprehensive resources right away.
Google does a good job of surfacing helpful content, so you never make it past the first page; in fact, you didn’t even need to scroll down at all. It wasn’t that you were lazy — it’s just that you found the answers to your questions right away, so why would you keep searching?
Then, when it comes time to reference a resource on piranhas’ hunting habits in your upcoming article, the pages you read (i.e., the top-ranking pages) are the ones that you’re going to cite and link back to in your article.
Now imagine hundreds of content creators writing articles about piranhas. They all go through a similar researching process, reading the same great resources in Google’s top pages and linking back to them as references. As a result, those top-ranking articles earn backlinks at a much faster pace than all other pages on the topic.
Since Google’s algorithm emphasizes backlinks as a priority ranking factor — so the theory goes — it becomes nearly impossible for new content to outrank those top-ranking incumbents. It’s, well… a vicious circle.
Recent research from Ahrefs both proves and disproves this theory.
The search engine optimization (SEO) company studied over 10,000 keywords to figure out if the vicious circle of SEO holds true at scale.
On the one hand, the study proved that top-ranking content does earn backlinks at a faster pace than lower-ranking content. But on the other hand, there is no proof that acquiring links at a faster pace leads to better rankings. It’s a classic case of “correlation does not imply causation.”
This finding is an important reminder that backlinks aren’t the end-all, be-all of Google’s algorithm. There are plenty of case studies of small businesses that climb their way to the top of search rankings by simply providing valuable, high-quality content and not focusing on earning backlinks.
In fact, recent research from digital marketer Neil Patel found that top-ranked content doesn’t need a heavy backlink profile or even a specific keyword density. What top-ranked content has in common is that it’s deep, comprehensive and authoritative.
So, How Do We Beat Top-Ranking Content?
What’s the secret to overtaking older content that already has a deep reservoir of backlinks? How can we break out of the vicious circle of SEO?
The answer ultimately comes down to Google’s machine learning algorithm, Rankbrain. Confirmed back in 2015, Rankbrain helps Google sort through search results based on behavioral factors and contextual clues.
Do people click on your content but then quickly press the ‘back’ button and look at other results? That suggests searchers perhaps didn’t quite find what they were looking for. On the other hand, if people hang around on your site for a while after clicking, that level of “dwell time” helps paint a much more positive picture.
A long dwell time can usually be chalked up to a combination of two things: quality content and a pleasurable user experience.
The term ‘quality content’ gets thrown around so much, it’s practically become a punchline. And yet, Google still cares about content quality, perhaps more than any other factor. It’s frustratingly subjective for those who seek a magic formula, but pretty simple in theory for those willing to put in the time and effort to serve their audience well.
A comprehensive guide, for example, is much more likely to answer a searcher’s questions and keep them engaged than a cursory flyover with three quick tips. Similarly, original research tends to perform better than rehashed or recycled points, especially if the other competing content lacks in that area.
Offering a pleasurable user experience is easier than creating the content itself, but no less important for improving dwell time. A comprehensive guide may have terrific information, but if it’s displayed as one giant wall of text, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people to muster the patience to sift through it.
Interstitial pages and advertisements might be a great way to make money, but they frustrate the user from reaching their ultimate goal. Other common frustrations include websites that load slowly, pages that are not optimized for mobile devices, and content displayed in fonts and colors that are difficult to read.
It may require some trial and error to find the factors that boost dwell time best for your own content, but the benefit cannot be overstated. As Google defers more to Rankbrain, complicated behavioral factors that accurately depict content’s value will become more meaningful than easily measured and gamed factors like backlinks and keyword density.
Yes, Google still cares about relevant backlinks. Each link is a little vote of confidence from another site that tells the search engine your content is valuable. But Google also cares about contextual clues, which help to tell a more comprehensive story than a bunch of links ever could.
Put effort into creating high-quality content that encourages people to stick around, and you’ll find many of your SEO problems start to solve themselves. At that point, backlinks will just be icing on the cake.