In a recent video (“How to Rank #1 in Google [New Step-by-Step Case Study]”), Brian presented a case study around ranking for the term “list building” where he revealed a bunch of SEO tactics and the results that those tactics generated.

What I want to do first is take a look at two specific claims he made in the video because there are a few things about them that don’t add up.

First, here’s the video if you want to watch it…

Okay, now let’s tackle the claims and the data…

Brian’s 1st Claim…

I targeted the term “list building” … the keyword “list building” is insanely competitive. Think about it, every email marketing company in the world wants to rank for this keyword and I’m a one-man show going head to head against giant companies like MailChimp, Aweber, and Infusionsoft. So, at first I wasn’t sure I’d be able to outrank these big brands for such a competitive keyword. But, thanks to the process I’m about to show you…

Okay, we’ll stop there for now because there’s more than one head scratcher in this part alone.

First of all, the keyword “list building” isn’t “insanely” competitive. These claims, along with his later results claims, can be easily vetted (I’m sure he knows this, which makes it even more baffling).

Here’s the data, straight from AHREFs…


It’s not an easy keyword to rank for, by any means. But I wouldn’t say it’s “insanely” competitive.

Sure, all the sites ranking for it have high authority, but so does Backlinko. And he knew going into it that he was going to be able to acquire more than 11 referring domains.

Now, he also says that “every email marketing company in the world wants to rank for this keyword.” And while I’m sure he’s probably right in general, there’s no indication that the ones he mentioned (the really big names) care all that much.

Here’s a site search of Mailchimp’s efforts…

What about Aweber and Infusionsoft? They both have list building articles, but it doesn’t look like they put a ton of effort into them (Aweber’s is from 2016 with no updates). Maybe they just don’t know what they’re doing?

Alas, none of the top 3 spots (excluding position zero on some incidents) are “giant email marketing companies.”

“But Kevin, he’s just trying to make a point. And the companies that do rank are bigger than him.”

Okay, fine. We’ll move on then. The point was that he’s using all of these claims to build massive hype for the tactics he’s about to show.

In a way, that’s fine to some degree. I don’t have a huge problem with it. What I have a huge problem with is the “results” that don’t add up…

Brian’s 2nd Claim…

My post also ranks in Google for dozens of related keywords like list building tips, list building strategies, and more…and thanks to all these first-page rankings, that single piece of content has brought in 79,807 visits since I first published it. Okay, enough bragging…

As you can see, Brian explicitly claims that his Google rankings for these keywords have driven this traffic. This is where things just don’t make any sense.

I have articles in other niches that rank #1 for target keywords that get 50,000 searches a month and rank for hundreds of related keywords on top of the target that aren’t pulling the traffic he claims to be pulling from a target keyword that only gets 1100 searches a month with a 46% organic click rate.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. AHREFs clearly doesn’t agree either…

brian dean backlinko organic traffic

That’s right, according to AHREFs (which I admit is typically a low-ball estimate) he’s pulling less than 1000 visitors a month from organic search to that article.

The related keywords aren’t helping him either…

related keywords - backlinko


The Most Likely Scenario

Most likely, the 79,000 number Brian is giving us is the total traffic to the article since the publication date, which includes all the traffic he’s received from social and from the sites that link to him.

Based on the available data, organic search traffic is only a small sliver of that total (contrary to his claim that it’s almost all of it).

Here’s why I have a problem with this…

If Brian Dean wasn’t Brian Dean and Backlinko wasn’t Backlinko, that article:

  1. Probably wouldn’t be ranking in the top 10 at all.
  2. Even if it was ranking #1, it wouldn’t be pulling tons of traffic.

The only reason that article is pulling traffic is because of the Backlinko brand, which was leveraged to achieve massive social reach and backlinks, which effectively drive tons of raw traffic (try to get 168 unique domains to link to your content when you’re a nobody and let me know how that works out for you).

The fact that he ranks #1 is only like 10% of the reason he’s achieved the numbers he’s achieved with that article, yet he’s passing this all off as if his SEO efforts created the success for this article.

But what does any of this have to do with SEO? He picked a competitive keyword with very low traffic potential and got an article to rank #1. That’s fantastic, but it’s more of an example of bad SEO work in my opinion.

“Huh? How the hell is ranking #1 for a competitive keyword bad?”

It’s bad because a good SEO wouldn’t go through the trouble of ranking for a keyword that difficult with such relatively low traffic potential in the first place. I mean, look at how depressing this is…

backlinko list building traffic potential

“But Kevin, that’s still an important keyword to rank for regardless.”

Right, but a good SEO can see that there are better variations…

backlinko missed keyword opportunity

“How to build an email list” has the same relative difficulty with 4x the real traffic potential and 4x the CPC value.

Does Brian rank for that simply because he also ranks for “list building?”

Nope. He’s nowhere to be found on page 1 for “how to build an email list.”

Want to know who is – and who objectively did SEO better in this case? shows up for both keywords.

Even though Derek’s (Social Triggers) article on list building doesn’t rank #1 for either term, he’s pulling in way more organic traffic (3x) at a much greater traffic value (8x) because he’s targeting both properly.

social triggers list building traffic derek halpurn

That’s a really important lesson here, but it’s lost in the noise of Brian claiming he got all this success from the three specific SEO tactics he shares in the video.

Brian Dean is Brilliant & Backlinko is a Force to be Reckoned With

To be clear, I’m not just shitting on Brian Dean here for no reason. I’m legitimately confused.

I have a lot of respect for what Brian has accomplished with Backlinko and there’s no doubt that he’s a killer when it comes to SEO and building a successful blog.

Even the video in question, which I’m being highly critical of, is a powerful resource. Every tip and tactic he mentioned in the video is a solid tip and tactic that I use myself and recommend to others. I have no problem with any of that.

One big concern of mine is that SEO is confusing enough as it is. Brian doesn’t do SEO for people (at least I don’t think he does), but as an SEO specialist, I do. And it’s important to me that people’s expectations are in alignment with reality.

You can get huge wins like the one Brian is describing through SEO. That’s not in question. In fact, it’s one of the core reasons for focusing so much time, attention, and money on SEO, but the bottom line is that this particular “case study” is *not* an example of that.

This particular case study is a better example of what’s possible *after* you build a powerful brand.

What I’d like to see Brian do a case study on is how he can get a low authority site to rank for a competitive keyword that actually has serious real-world traffic potential.

Wouldn’t we all like to see that? Drop a comment if you vote for that case study!

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