How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success: Understanding Search Engine Math for Faster Rankings


How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success? Google’s traffic estimates are for Google AdWords users, not bloggers. There are (supposedly) 200 ranking factors to keep in mind.

Then there are multiple updates Google uses that come and go that could mess everything up. But by using search engine math, you can hope to simplify SEO and get a quick idea of the fewest steps to rank content faster in Google.

How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success – What is Search Engine Math?

Search engine math is a simple formula to learn how to increase your return on investment from SEO.

SEO falls under three categories:

  • On-page SEO (or content optimization).
  • Off-page SEO (or link-building).
  • Technical SEO (or all SEO activities excluding content optimization and link-building.

According to the law of diminishing returns, eventually, you will receive less value for the same amount of work you put in.

For example, let’s say it takes five workers to build a car in ten hours and ten workers to build a car in five hours. You might assume adding an 11th worker would increase production at an equal rate. But this doesn’t account for problems that come when the workers get in the way of each other.

Here’s how this applies to SEO: Would an additional 100 outreach emails get five links to help your article rank better in Google? Would it be worth the time to write another guest post? Or should you move on to something else?
SEO math seeks to answer these questions by estimating the optimal way to grow your site.

Let’s begin with the assumptions of SEO math – How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success.

1. Your content quality is equal to, if not better than the competition.

The goal of content marketing is to solve a problem that your potential customer has. As a result, your content needs to be both thorough and useful in answering their problems.

There is no easy way to measure which content is the best. To make things worse when comparing content quality, the IKEA effect can get you to think your content is better than it is.

Therefore, while content quality is important to ranking in search, SEO math does not consider this factor.

2. Your site’s page speed is equal to, if not better than the competition.

When asked the question of how to reverse engineer SEO success, page speed is one of the few ranking signals Google states it uses to rank your site.

Even if it wasn’t a ranking signal, a slow site makes for a bad customer experience. And a bad experience means fewer people are interested in waiting to load your website to read what you wrote.

Believe it or not, 3% of America still uses dial-up. That’s 9.4 million people in the USA. Then when you add in everyone else in the world with a slow connection speed, you can begin to see why 40% of individuals close a website if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load.

Unlike content quality, there are ways to measure page speed using tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool and GTmetrix.

But your page speed can only improve so much before you hit a point of diminishing returns. It can’t load faster than 0 seconds.

3. Your on-page SEO is equal, if not better than the competition.

When you look at the search engine results page (or “SERPs”), it’s clear that on-page SEO plays a large part in how your website ranks in search engines.
Aside from creating great content, on-page SEO refers to how relevant Google believes your content is based on your article:

  • Title tag
  • URL structure (e.g. “
  • Image alt text
  • Amount of unique content

Use keywords throughout your content, including in the meta description.
Again, after a certain point, it’s hard to know who has the better on-page SEO. So if you have your keyword phrase (or a slight variation of it) in the title, URL structure, image alt text, and sprinkled throughout your amazing content, it’s good enough.

4. Your title is equally appealing, if not better than the competition.

To answer the question of how to reverse engineer SEO success title should be taken into consideration. If someone does a Google search, people are more likely to click on your article if the title provides a clear benefit to the reader and creates a powerful emotion.

Which of these titles sounds more appealing to you?

  • A. 15 Stunning Emails Everyone Can Send to Increase Sales 72%
  • B. 15 Emails You Can Send Today

If your goal is to find out how to send marketing emails to increase sales, the first title gives a clear benefit and solves a problem. But after improving your headline using the AMI Headline Analyzer or CoSchedule Headline Analyzer, there isn’t a clear way to know which blog title is best.

5. Your blog’s brand is equally valuable, if not better than the competition.

Over time, people should know what to expect when they connect with your business. People expect Burberry to deliver luxury clothing and accessories. They trust Apple will be sleek and well-designed.

Whether your customers realize it or not, they also have expectations about your content. For example, you can often go to Dan Shure, John Doherty, Ross Hudgens, and a dozen other SEO experts to learn about SEO.

You don’t go to those blogs expecting to learn about viral marketing loops as you would from going to Andrew Chen’s blog. You have to also stop reading SEO articles from the SEMrush blog because nothing you can read on their blog will help you learn more about SEO.

This same thought process goes through the mind of many of your potential customers as they look at the search results on Google.

But since you can’t do much to improve this “score” aside from creating more great content, this should also be temporarily set aside.

All that to say, search engine math focuses on three things:

  • Keyword Research
  • Page Authority (PA)
  • Domain Authority (DA)
  • Let’s dive into each and talk about what you need to do to assess how fast you can rank in Google quickly.

How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success – Improve Your Keyword Research

There is very little SEO math used in keyword research. However, proper keyword research will make the other two areas of SEO math easier, so let’s discuss this topic.

Keyword research is a process marketers use to find search terms that people enter into search engines.

Ideally, marketers look for high-traffic search terms with a high likelihood to rank on page one or two of Google. If you cannot get listed on the first two pages of Google, you probably will not receive any clicks from your search results.

So there is a limit to what you can do to optimize your keyword research process. Here are three simple guidelines you can use:

1. Some traffic is better than no traffic.

How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success? Focus on the traffic of course. One concern you may have about doing keyword research is the ROI of the work.

Let’s say you find a keyword that has 50 searches a month. You might think that even if you were to get in spot #1, you’d maybe get 20 visitors a month, or 240 people in a year. With a 2% conversion rate, that’s about five sales a year. And at a lifetime value of $100, you spent 15-20 hours for $500 revenue.

That’s no good.

The reality is, even a keyword phrase that gets 50 visitors/month may receive 10x the monthly traffic compared to the estimate.

Dan Shure coached a writer to create an article with a keyword that said it would get 70 visitors a month. In the first 90 days, that article received 2,284 clicks. Given the first few months are the slowest, that article could bring in 25,000-50,000 visitors a year.

There are ways to get organic traffic from keyword phrases with 0 traffic. This is possible when you rank for a keyword before Google analyzes the data to give an estimate, such as talking about a new trend.

But unless you are good at trendspotting, it’s better to keep things simple and target keywords that get at least 10 searches a month. Typically you use Keywords Everywhere to find this estimate, although you have to also use UberSuggest,, and Ahrefs in different circumstances.

2. More traffic is better than less traffic.

This sounds obvious, and it is.

Most SEO marketers know that if you target one keyword, you will also get traffic from several other keywords. This is known as a keyword footprint.
Here’s where it can be tempting to start complicating something simple.
Rather than evaluating the traffic of one keyword, some SEO marketers try to estimate the traffic of the footprint. While this is possible to estimate, the easier solution is to compare the traffic potential of every main term you think you can rank on page one of Google.

3. It’s best to find low-competition keywords to rank in Google faster.

Did you find a social site like Facebook, Pinterest, or Quora in the SERPs? This is a great sign you will rank your article fast.

Heck, even if you see a harder site to beat like Wikipedia in the SERPs, you don’t necessarily need to back down. It will take some effort, but websites beat Wikipedia in the SERPs all the time.

If you use a tool that correlates the difficulty to rank for a term, like Ahrefs keyword explorer, you can quickly find out how likely it is to rank on page one. That said, you need to make sure you do keyword research correctly.

It’s also worth emphasizing that you don’t need to be in position 1 to get a high ROI. Or even page 1. If you look back at Dan’s tweet, the average position of the article was 18.1. As crazy as it is, apparently people do go to page 2 to get answers to their questions. Weird, but true.

It takes time and practice to find solid keywords to rank fast. There is a lot to know to master keyword research, so we won’t go over that here, but there are a few guides on the subject that can help you, such as here, here, and here.

But if you want a quick way to find relevant keywords with low competition, try this out:

Use a keyword research tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush.

  • Find the keywords that websites like Quora or Pinterest are ranking for.
  • Find relevant keywords they are getting organic traffic from.
  • Or you can use those two tools and use their difficulty score to get an idea of how easy it will be to rank faster, then look at the results by hand.

How to Use Search Engine Math to Beat Your Competitor’s Page Authority, Quickly and Efficiently

Page Authority (or “PA”) is another important ranking factor. In short, PA compares the number and quality of links from other websites to your website. This is why a profession started to build backlinks, called link-building.

Because PA is on a 100-point logarithmic scale, that means it’s easier to grow from a PA of 20 to 30 than to grow from a PA of 70 to 80.

Here’s how to quickly estimate how many links you need to beat the competition:

  • Look at the domain authority of the links pointing to your competitor’s article, such as with Open Site Explorer.
  • Find out the DA of each link, such as with the Moz toolbar.

Use this table to estimate the # of DA 40 links you need to build:

Domain Authority – DA 40 Links Needed
DA 0-9 Ignore these links
DA 10-19 Ignore these links
DA 20-29.5 DA 40 links
DA 30-39 1 DA 40 link
DA 40-49 1.5 DA 40 links
DA 50-59 1.5 DA 40 links
DA 60-69 2 DA 40 links
DA 70-79 3 DA 40 links
DA 80-89 5 DA 40 links
DA 90-100 7 DA 40 links

Questions About How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success

Now, before the SEO experts pick up their pitchforks, let me answer some of your questions:

1. SEO isn’t that simple.

That’s not a question.

Google isn’t going to tell you everything you need to know. Or everything you don’t need to know. Their goal is to get more people to use their tool because it can find better content. Not to get your site more traffic.

That said, you can agree there is more to SEO than just building DA 40 links.
The goal of search engine math is to help simplify the complex. This is especially important for small-to-medium businesses that don’t have a lot of bandwidth. If you have a six-figure marketing budget, it may be worth it to optimize the small stuff.

2. Why DA 40?

From my experience doing link-building, there are a ton of blogs with DA 40-49. At the same time, those are valuable enough links to go after.
Guest post for them, give them an infographic, massage their back… whatever you want to do, just make it happen to get the link.

Do a happy dance! You have one of three options:

  • Ignore that the link is higher than DA 40.
  • Use the higher DA link to cancel out a smaller DA link (for example, use a DA 61 to beat a DA 52).
  • Use the column on the left to estimate how many DA 40 links it is worth (for example, if you got a DA 72 link, count it as three DA 40 links).

We would not recommend coming up with your algorithm for each DA range. Remember the goal is to keep things simple.

The goal of this system is to beat your competitor’s links. As such, sometimes you only need a slight edge to beat your competitors.

If your total number ends with .5, round the number up.

5. Does this system guarantee search results?

No, this is just a theory to help you do so.

Because Google is smart, many factors tailor each person’s search results to that person. For example, if you read articles from, Google will assume you would like more articles from them than

So even if you have stellar content and get “enough” links, you still may not rank first in Google.

To keep it simple. Also because these sites are new, many will disappear in a year. Not to mention their SEO value is small.

If it’s a full moon today and 80 degrees outside, then count them.
In all seriousness, it depends. You can build nofollow links on sites like Inc Magazine. You can view those as very valuable and count them as a dofollow link.

There are also nofollow links like those from which you can ignore.
Whatever you decide to do, just remember to keep it simple.

8. Is Search Engine Math Necessary to Compare Domain Authority?

Short answer – Not really.
Longer answer – It depends on how much you want to simplify your life.
Full answer – When using search engine math to compare your DA with your competitors, there are two things you should think about:

  • Your DA today.
  • Your DA down the road, say in a couple of years.

If you are a new site, it’s more important to focus on getting your content ranked today rather than a year. This is because SEO creates a flywheel effect. The faster you get organic traffic, the faster you can use that momentum to your advantage.

But keep in mind, you are also building links. In time, your domain authority will go up. So eventually, you will beat the competition.

Even better, if you do keyword research effectively, it will be easier to rank. And as your articles get higher in the SERPs, if you created great content, people will naturally link to your articles.

Another SEO theory is that links from the same website decrease the value of a link.

To keep things simple, if two links point to the same article, cut the DA value in half. Also, only look at unique website links for a given page, not the entire website.

So if “” and “” has a DA of 50 and both link to “,” then count the second link as a DA 25.

But if “” points to “” and “” points to “”, don’t penalize the two links.

How to Reverse Engineer SEO Success – A Simple Summary

Search engine math is used to help you get better results faster from SEO, although it cannot guarantee rankings. The primary factors SEO math takes into consideration are:

  • Quality content and a quality website.
  • Keyword Research
  • Page Authority
  • Domain Authority (important, but less so)

The rules of keyword research: some traffic is better than no traffic, more traffic is better than less traffic, and find low-competition keywords to rank faster. Remember that solid keyword research decreases the number of links you need than if you do poor keyword research. Focus on this step, write great content, and build fewer links.

To beat your competitor’s page authority, look at the back links of the article you are trying to beat. Use a base of DA 40 to know how many links you need and get ‘em.

Domain authority is an important consideration, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rank if your DA is too low. There are articles out there with a DA 30 blog that beat out sites with double the DA score.

This theory is still a work in progress. As such, we would love to get your honest feedback, questions, and polite criticisms to stress-test this theory.

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