When you’re active in internet marketing, you might be tempted to confuse Ranking (for keywords) with Authority, but there’s a clear distinction to be made between both concepts.

To illustrate this affirmation, let’s take the example of three typical review sites which rank for a bunch of keywords but have no authority.

Those are typical examples of “content” sites frequently sold via marketplaces like Flippa, Empire Flippers or Investors Club. We won’t go into specific details but let’s say that they generate between $1250 and $3000 in terms of monthly revenues, through display ads and (Amazon) affiliation. So they’re definitely money makers. But do they have any genuine authority?

No.

We have granular Similarweb estimates for two of them, SoundProof Empire and Boat Basin Café: more than 90% of their traffic comes from search, less than 7 from direct access.

None of those sites has any form of tangible social media presence. The social icons in the footer of Boat Basin Café aren’t even linked to any destination.

Boat Basin Café, no social media
Boat Basin Café social media links, no URL behind the icons…

Additionally, we don’t see any branded query (containing the term(s) of the domain and/or proprietary products/services) in the ahrefs KW list.

No one is searching on purpose for “SoundProof Empire”, “Projectors Geek” or “Boat Basin Café” (at least to find the new site which was built on the domain of a former… outdoor cafe overlooking the Hudson river in NYC).

Boat Basin Café NYC
The real “Boat Basin Café”

Here are the first unbranded keywords for which those review sites are ranking:

Don’t get me wrong: you can learn from the “SEO hacks” deployed by those websites if you have a real brand and want to expand your organic footprint but you should not consider them as the perfect example of online marketing best practices.

How did they manage to generate traffic and revenues?

Well, it’s not rocket science. It boils down to 2 simple concepts:

Note: Boat Basin Cafe started with a legacy of backlinks inherited from the now defunct New York-based location (see Web Archive for details), incl. links from Bloomberg and the New York Times.

How to leverage smart SEO techniques without being penalized?

Let’s say that you’re active in the weightloss vertical. You could write a long series of articles targeting low competition long tail (more than 3 words) keywords. To find those low hanging fruits, simply reverse engineer the KW list of competitors using a tool like ahrefs and semrush. Start with KW with a KD (Keyword Difficulty) under 10 and move up the difficulty ladder when you’ll start noticing some traction. You can go wide and deep in a specific angle, for instance with a detailed guide of calories per food type (writing a fact sheet about each food type). If you already have an established online presence, you’ll start ranking for some keywords in a few weeks. You can expect to reach “ranking maturity” in 6 to 8 months. That’s when you’ll notice a material uptick on your organic curve.

If your writing isn’t just about keyword stuffing but provides genuine value you can set up a systematic outreach to bloggers and other types of online influencers to invite them to feature specific pieces or link to the full section of publications (which, in some cases, can be considered by readers as a tool in its own right. Take for instance a travel series about Secret Haunted Places in a selection of European capital cities, which could be a good fit for a systematic outreach to paranormal blogs).

Genuine Authority Signals

When we review a website, the two most obvious signals for a genuine authority are a strong traffic to KW ratio (2+, the more the better) and the presence of branded queries at the top of the keywords list. Take a strong brand like Peloton for instance. Look at their high-level KPIs on ahrefs.

Peloton Organic KPIs ahrefs

They boast a 12+ traffic to KW ratio! And look at their keywords list.

Peloton Organic Keywords List

Pages and pages of branded queries. The first unbranded query is “stationary bike”, which is around rank #30 in terms of traffic contribution. That’s what we call a strong brand with a genuine authority.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you analyse a more typical review-site-kind-of-KW such as “best stationary bike under $500” you end up with the usual pure SEO players, like yourexercisebike.com, an “exact match domain”. Not the same level of KW yield as Peloton, see below (just under 1 vs 12+). You wouldn’t tell your friends “Check out YourExerciseBike, it rocks.” The social presence of the site is pretty weak, to say the least. Their Youtube channel has one (1) subscriber and no video, their Twitter account has 10 followers and their Pinterest profile only 89 followers. On a side note, as you can see from the organic traffic evolution, the site was hit by a Google update in mid-2020 and has never fully recovered.

Smart SEO hacks can only lead you to a certain point. They can’t be confused with building a genuine online authority, which requires time and significant efforts, developing a real community feel around your brand.

Screenshot 2021 10 15 at 09.34.53
Screenshot 2021 10 15 at 09.36.43
YourExerciseBike was penalized by Google in mid-2020

Lookalikes congregate

Typically if you research one of those pure SEO players on Alexa, you’ll get a competitive landscape mainly consisting of the same kind of zero-authority web properties. In this specific case, we came across indoorsfitness.com, exercisebikesexpert.com and exercisebike.net, the latest boasting the best KW yield (2.5) but no branded queries, their leading KW mainly consisting in “VS” queries (Echelon vs Peloton, Proform vs Peloton, etc.), a smart ambush tactic. exercisebikesexpert.com ranks for 3500 KW generating 838 visits per month and indoorsfitness.com, on a steep downtrend, ranks for 7600 keywords generating 4500 monthly visits.

Should you buy pure SEO players?

As the saying goes, there’s a market for each class of asset.

You can buy penny stocks but they’re a much riskier bet than shares from established companies. Similarly you could acquire unbranded review sites playing the long tail SEO game but you’ll always run the risk of being hit by a Google update, which can wipe out most of the traffic overnight (in a series of forthcoming articles, we will offer post mortem analyzes of this type of websites, to illustrate our words of caution).

If you want to play the long game, it all depends on your level of confidence in terms of your capacity to at least maintain the existing traffic (and revenues) for the period corresponding to the value multiple. Buying a site at 38x its L6M monthly profit means that you’ll have to stabilize the current level of traffic (or grow it to offset any potential downtrend) for the next 3 years, which is a long time on the internet. Who could say today whether Google will still rank this type of smart hacks within 36 months?

Or you could reduce your risk by holding the asset for a much shorter period, growing the site for another 6 months before flipping it with a decent profit (transferring the sustainability challenge to the next owner).

A much more sophisticated approach would be to acquire the unbranded asset, merge it with a branded project or develop a genuine branded destination on the tactical SEO foundations, not considering the ranking / traffic of your acquisition as a standalone asset but as a mechanical contributor to a wider venture.

Be aware of the risk and make up your own mind.