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Lesson 6: Planning Your Ranking Strategy

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to create a ranking strategy that could boost you to the top of search engines for your target keyword—maybe even positioning you above the high-authority sites that seem to own your keyword.

Fair warning, this isn’t an easy process. But if you follow the steps we share in this lesson, you can increase your chances of ranking.

Before we start, though, I want you to forget most of what you know about getting traffic from Google—because unless you’re an SEO pro, it could be wrong.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The most common approach to getting traffic from Google is this:

  1. Find a good keyword to rank for.
  2. Create a page targeting this keyword.
  3. Figure out ways to promote your page and get people to link to it.

There’s nothing wrong with these steps, but your chances of ranking are very low if you perform them in this order. You see, randomly choosing a keyword and creating content for it without doing any research can be a huge waste of time. It doesn’t give you enough information to be sure your efforts will pay off.

Fortunately, there is a better way—and that’s to develop your ranking strategy first. Then, and only then, should you invest time and resources to create your page, because only then will you know what it will take to make your page rank.

Step 1: See who you’re up against

Your goal is to see the big picture before looking at the details. So you’ll try to get an overview of the sites ranking there, including:

  • Their Domain Rating
  • How many backlinks they have
  • The titles and URLs on these pages
  • Etc.

You could, of course, type your keyword into Google to see who ranks there, but it’s far more convenient to use Ahrefs' SERP overview tool. It gives you the same information you’d get in a Google search without leaving the tool.

Just type your target keyword into Keywords Explorer and scroll down to see the "SERP overview" report.

SERP overview report
See the top10 pages for your target keyword in the SERP Overview.

This report gives you the top-ranking pages for your keyword, plus other important SEO metrics at a glance.

Action steps

  1. Type your target keyword into Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer.
  2. Scroll down to the SERP overview.
  3. Identify the pages that rank at the top of search engines for your keyword.

Step 2: Discover why Google sees them as the best search result

The pages that rank on the front page of Google are there for a reason.

Google evaluates each page against hundreds of ranking factors, and not only have these pages passed inspection, they’ve scored the highest for the factors Google cares about most.

Now, Google is pretty secretive about how they rank pages, but they often remind us that their goal is to serve user intent and provide the best possible experience for a searcher.

That means your first step in dominating Google search results for a certain keyword should be to open each of the top10 pages and figure out why they’re considered the best search results for that a given query.

To do that, simply click on the URL below each listing in the SERP overview.

Review all the top-ranking pages to figure out why they’re “best.”

Scroll through the pages one at a time and pay attention to the information provided, the media included, and the length and depth of each page.

You need to figure out:

  1. What makes these pages special enough to rise to the top of SERPs.
  2. Whether they’re truly relevant to the search query.
  3. If they help people with whatever they had in mind while searching for this keyword.

Once you're done researching these pages, take a moment to think about how you can make your page even more unique and valuable to searchers.

  • What information might be missing from the current top-ranking pages?
  • When your keyword is typed into search, could people be looking for specific information that isn’t provided directly by these pages?
  • Can you provide better information or more details?

It’s important to answer these questions before you start writing, because if you can't imagine your page being better than the current top10, it’s unlikely Google will either. Try to create a page that Google would want to position above the existing pages.

Action steps

  1. One at a time, click on the URL for the pages in the SERP overview.
  2. Scroll through each page to see how it delivers value, and take notes on the information provided, structure, and other details.
  3. Brainstorm ways to create an original page that provides even more value than all these pages.

Step 3: Figure out how many backlinks you’ll need

Let's get back to that "SERP overview" report.

There are many different metrics that Ahrefs will show you there, but the most important of all is the "Domains" column:

While all the metrics are important, when it comes to boosting your rank, the number of linking domains may be the most important.

This column shows you how many unique websites are linking to each of the top-ranking pages.

As a general rule, if you want to rank #1 for a keyword, you need more backlinks than the current top-ranking websites have. That said, you’ll get a bigger boost if hundreds of sites link to you just once than you’ll get from a few sites linking to you over and over again. So rather than focusing on the Backlinks metric, we start with the Domains metric.

In the screenshot above, notice that Moz’s page has links from 560 domains, Wordstream has links from 90 domains, and Wikipedia has links from more than 700 domains. That means we’ll probably need to build links from hundreds of sites to compete.


Referring domains and backlinks aren’t the only factors that Google takes into account when ranking pages, but according to our recent study, they’re the ones that correlate best with ranking .

Backlink factors affect your rank more than on-page factors.

A close look at the SERP overview report confirms that conclusion.

SERP overview report for the keyword “anchor text”.

Looking at this overview, it’s clear that the more backlinks a page has, the higher it tends to rank. But there are exceptions.

As you can see, our Ahrefs’ article, with backlinks from 150 domains, is outranked by a Wordstream article with only 80 linking domains.

So although backlinks matter a lot, a lot of other factors can impact your ranking as well. That’s why we need to develop a ranking strategy in advance. It’s important to figure out what the top-ranking sites are doing to earn their positions, then do at least as well on our own pages.

Action steps

  1. Look at the number of domains linking to each of the top10 pages for your target keyword.
  2. Identify the number of domains you’ll need links from to compete with these pages.
  3. Jot this number down in your spreadsheet.

Step 4: Discover the top link-acquisition patterns

The raw number of linking domains gives you an idea of the number of links you need to build for your new page, but you need to know 2 more things before you can create a good ranking strategy:

  • Where the top10 pages’ backlinks are coming from.
  • Whether you can easily replicate them.

In Step 3, you set a target number of domains you need backlinks from. Some of these backlinks may be built manually. Others could come from promotional efforts. But a fair share of them can be acquired naturally as people discover your page and link to it from their own content.

To put together a smart ranking strategy, you need to see how the top10 pages got their links. So your goal now is to identify the prevailing link acquisition patterns of these pages.

As you might guess, this can be time consuming—and there are no shortcuts. You’ll need to review the backlinks for each page and see if you can identify their linking strategy.

Luckily, you don't need to go through EVERY backlink, but you do need to study enough of their best links to identify a pattern. To do this, you’ll be asking yourself questions like these:

  • Did the page acquire its links through manual "link building"?
  • Did people link to the page naturally because something on that page motivated them to do so?

Here’s what to do...

One at a time, enter the URL of the top-ranking pages into the Site Explorer tool. You can use one of 2 reports: the Referring Domains report or the Top Referring Content report.

  1. The Referring Domains report lets you look at links from the best websites. By default it’s sorted by the Domain Rank, so you see the most authoritative sites first.
  2. The Top Referring Content report lets you look at links from the best pages. It’s sorted by the social power of each page, so you’ll need to click on UR (or URL Rank) to put the highest value pages on top.

For this lesson, we’ll use the Top Referring Content report.


Click “UR” to sort the report by the URL rank. Then open the first referring page in the report. Scroll down till you see the anchor text of this backlink. Look at the context around the link to see how and why it was made.

For example:

  • Did they share a statistic or graphic from your article?
  • Is the article referenced as the source of an idea they’re talking about?
  • Did they share the article as a great source for more information?
  • Is the article one of several in a list, or is it the only one mentioned?

Keep reviewing the your competitors’ best backlinks until you get that "AHA" moment when you realize how the majority of their backlinks were acquired. Then note your findings for future reference.

Action steps

  1. Copy the URL from a top listing in your SERP overview report and paste it into Site Explorer.
  2. Open the Top Referring Content report and click UR to put the most valuable pages at the top of the report.
  3. Open each of the pages linking to the URL you’re researching. Find the anchor text for the link, and take note of how the link was made.
  4. Do this for each of the top10 pages, reviewing their backlinks until you can see a pattern for how they acquired the links.
  5. Export the Top Referring sites report for each URL. Add your findings to the report about how or why the links were created. You may be able to use this information when you promote your page.
  6. Once you’ve done this for all of the top10 pages, decide how you’ll get links for your new page. Your goal is to replicate the methods used by the top10.

Step 5: Create your page with these link-acquisition patterns in mind

Once you've done your homework, thoroughly researching the content and link-building methods for the top10 pages, you should be able to easily answer the following questions:

  1. Why would my page be a better search result than any of the pages already there?
  2. How am I going to promote my page?
  3. What can I include on my page to ensure people want to link to it?

If you have great answers to all these questions, start working on your page. Create the best, most comprehensive page you can for your keyword.

If not, keep researching until you have a good answer to these questions.

The good news: It does get easier! At first, it can take a ton of time to figure out how you can make your page special and how to get backlinks to it afterwards. But once you’ve gone through this process a few times, you'll be able to answer these questions with just a few minutes of research.

Action steps

  1. Consider how you’ll create the best page on the web for your target keyword. In particular, think about how you can provide more value than the current top10 pages.
  2. Create a ranking strategy that’s based on the patterns you found among the top10 pages. Be sure to write out your plan. Documenting your decisions makes them more concrete—exposing gaps and ensuring it actually gets done.
  3. Outline your page, including information searchers are looking for and linkable elements that could attract backlinks.
  4. Create the best page possible for your keyword.

Step 6: Piggyback on your competitors’ links

Once you publish a page that’s guaranteed to deliver value and attract backlinks, it’s time to promote it to people you know are interested in the topic.

Fortunately, you’ve already done the research—why not show it to everyone currently linking to your competitors’ pages? Since you created your page to be at least as good as the top10, these sites may want to reference your page too.

Here are a few tips:

You could be up-front and ask people for a link. But in most cases, that won't work because they won’t have time (or the inclination) to edit their pages just so you can get a mention.

Another option is to ask people for feedback on your article. That’s a smaller “ask” and could get them to check out your page. Once that happens, there’s half a chance you’ll get mentioned in the future whenever they talk about the topic again.

As a bonus, if you do get some feedback from people, you can use their ideas to improve the page and make it the web’s best resource on your topic.

Action steps

  1. Promote your page to everyone who linked to your competitors’ pages.
  2. Stay positive. Not everyone will say yes. Only a small percentage of people will respond to you, much less add a link to their page.
  3. Create a Mentions Alert with your keyword so you can promote your page to anyone who talks about your topic in the future. Review Lesson 1 if you need help remembering how to do that.

Further reading:

Blogger outreach is an art. To learn what works (and what doesn’t), check out this article on the Ahrefs’ blog.

Next lesson

Finding New Backlink Opportunities on Autopilot