"Links are still really important for organic search rankings. But the way we go about getting those links has changed… it’s now all about content marketing."
The general premise is that great, "rank-worthy" content gets links, which in turn builds up your site’s authority, which subsequently gives a boost to the search rankings of both that specific content piece and the domain as a whole. And following the same logic, content that does spectacularly well in earning links ought to have spectacular and lasting SEO results.
Sounds great on paper, and it even makes sense when you think about it logically. You build better content that readers enjoy, so the quality of your site goes up, and Google rewards your ever-improving site with better rankings.
Except that’s not what I’m seeing. Not by a long way.
Today I’m going to put across the hypothesis that viral content, at least in certain scenarios, has little to no benefit for domain-wide search engine rankings. Specifically, we’ll be taking a look at some websites that have absolutely smashed it with viral content, including:
Amplifon: What do links from 222 websites do for SEO?
Our first case study is from a hearing aid manufacturer called Amplifon. Back in August 2014, working with the renowned digital marketing agency Epiphany, they created an interactive piece called Sounds of Streetview. Originally hosted on the amplifon.co.uk domain (which has since been redirected over to amplifon.com), this rather nifty piece of content marketing was meant to bring an explorative 3D sound experience to Google Streetview — and the Internet loved it.
According to Majestic, this piece secured 685 backlinks from 222 referring domains. And the results for their organic search rankings? Let’s take a look...
At first glance, there does indeed seem to be a sharp jump in Amplifon’s overall search visibility after the release of the "Sounds of Streetview" on both SearchMetrics and SEMRush. However, upon deeper inspection of SearchMetrics’ keyword-level data (available here), we can see that almost all of this jump has come from new keywords directly related to the "Sounds of Streetview" content piece. Ranking increases and extra traffic from keywords like "street view" and "make your own google" are hardly the kinds of outcomes that businesses yearn for when signing off on large content marketing projects.
Looking at "Money Making" keywords alone, we only see around a 10% jump in SearchMetrics’ Traffic Index for Amplifon SERPs. Moreover, all of that jump comes from a single, very popular keyword ("hearing aids") which moved up by one position. The Traffic Index for all of Amplifon’s other "Money Making" keywords has actually gone down by -76 between July 31 2014 and August 28 2014.
SearchMetrics Organic Visibility Graph for Amplifon.co.uk
SearchMetrics Traffic Index by keyword type for Amplifon.co.uk
SEMRush Organic Traffic Graph for Amplifon.co.uk
SEMRush Number of Ranking Keywords Graph for Amplifon.co.uk. *SEMRush expanded their tracked keyword set for UK in February 2016, but this jump in keywords does not relate to improved real-life traffic for the website.
Simply Business: The perennial content marketing case study
Let’s take a look at the second case study examining Simply Business, a large business insurance broker here in the UK. They’ve been included in almost every conference speech and blog post covering content marketing in the last year. So much so, in fact, that a search on Google for "Simply Business" + "link building" returns 168,000 results.
Released in February 2014, their viral content success came in the shape of Hungry Tech Giants, an interactive guide on how the "big five" tech giants have acquired smaller companies over the past 15 years. According to Majestic, this piece obtained 588 links from 167 linking root domains.
Simply Business has also produced a very successful (in link acquisition terms) suite of business tech guides. Out of a grand total of 20 guides, the two stand-out performers were Wordpress for Small Businesses — released in August 2012, which attracted 1,897 links from 169 linking root domains — and The Small Business Guide to Google Analytics, published in January 2013 and which garnered 3,463 links from 243 sites.
That’s a lot of links!
SearchMetrics Organic Visibility Graph for SimplyBusiness.co.uk
SearchMetrics hasn't picked up any spikes in Simply Business' visibility within a reasonable timeframe after the launch of these three pieces.
SEMRush Organic Traffic Graph for SimplyBusiness.co.uk
SEMRush Number of Ranking Keywords Graph for SimplyBusiness.co.uk. *SEMRush expanded their tracked keyword set for UK in February 2016, but this jump in keywords does not relate to improved real-life traffic for the website.
SEMRush has observed a rankings increase of 10% to 15% around January 2013, but no associated change to the organic traffic. Other than that, no clear signs of growth are coming from the content marketing successes.
There haven’t been any new guides added to Simply Business' guides section since August 2015.
Concert Hotels: But what if you "make it" really big, thrice?
Our final case study is Concert Hotels, a hotel booking website. Back in November 2013 they released the first of their mega-successful content pieces: 100 Years of Rock. This piece brought in a hugely impressive 8,358 links from 521 linking root domains (Majestic).
In May 2014 they released the second big hitter: Vocal Ranges of the World’s Greatest Singers. According to Majestic, this piece managed to procure 2,839 backlinks from a whopping 590 linking root domains. Not bad going!
The company followed this up with a piece called Got Rhythm in June 2015. Although not as successful as its predecessors, it still managed to accumulate 899 backlinks from 236 linking root domains (source: Majestic). Still not half bad.
So in total that’s over 12,096 backlinks from over 1,347 linking root domains. And the impact on organic search traffic?
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
JustPark: 5 million visits aren't all they're cracked up to be
Disclaimer: I was in charge of JustPark’s digital marketing when we kicked off our content marketing effects, and hopefully I can give you some insider insight on what we saw (or, more accurately, didn’t see) on the back of our activities.
Back in spring 2015 we identified domain authority as a clear SEO priority for JustPark, the UK’s largest parking marketplace. Domain-level linking root domains of the top competitors were 3 to 6 times higher than ours and correlated very well with their organic visibility.
Seeing the big authority building challenge ahead of us and knowing that we don't want to engage in any risky, shady activities, we decided to invest in content marketing-led link building. Deep inside we all harbored the hope of striking content marketing gold and having one of our pieces going viral.
We selected Distilled as our partner for producing 5 "big content" pieces, and alongside this we also planned out multiple smaller interactive projects to be developed in-house.
After releasing 5 content marketing projects with average success over September and October, we kicked off on the piece that was going beat all of our expectations: Emergency Stop Game.
After a quiet launch and a few small spikes of traffic, we decided to seed the content on Reddit in early November. All of a sudden its popularity started snowballing, with traffic (and referrals!) going up by the hour. Coverage started coming in from top-tier news publications around the world, and when the piece appeared on IFLScience (and took our servers down) we knew we were on to a big one.
By the time all of this madness had died down, the piece had accumulated 400k+ Facebook shares and 5 million+ visits. But what was all that worth?
As domain authority was our overall goal, we watched the build-up of linking root domains — many of them of very high quality — with great excitement. In total, Emergency Stop Game attracted links from more than 600 sites (by now 1,141 links from 389 linking root domains are left in Majestic’s fresh index), which doubled the total link profile of the whole JustPark website. Suffice to say, we expected to see a big change in our SEO performance.
The big surprise came when, week after week, we were looking at the SEO traffic to the core product side of the website (excluding the viral piece itself) and there was no boost to be seen.
They do report improvements in Traffic and Visibility that dissipate over time, but the improvements that they've picked up likely have more to do with the gained visibility in (surprisingly popular) "reaction time testing" searches, rather than money-making keywords that drive traffic to the core website.
It’s easy to see how an underwhelming boost to the SEO bottom line by otherwise successful marketing projects might be kept under wraps. Nobody wants to be the one to rain on the parade, especially when those projects have earned visibility and kudos from the community at large. I invite anyone with contradicting (or reaffirming) case studies to openly share their learnings and help inform our industry.
In the meantime, I will take the liberty of making some generalizations as to what these case studies might imply.
Large amounts of links to a single page (with the possible exclusion of the homepage) might not pass that much SEO value to the rest of the website, especially if:
...the single page is not particularly on-topic
...many of the links have appeared within a short period of time
...most of the links are from news websites, as opposed to sites focused on your product / service / industry
...many links are from international sources whilst the website is nationally focused
...the single page uses different page structure (headers, footer, menus, etc.) from the rest of the site
...the single page is not well-interlinked with the rest of the site
My main aim in writing this article was to spark a conversation and critical evaluation of the current industry-wide assumptions on content marketing. If you agree with the above, great. If you disagree — even better! Come forth with your observations and let’s see what learnings we can extract from them.
A special thanks to Ben Johnson — a previous colleague and now a freelance SEO and PPC consultant — for his help with this article.