What Does it Take to Rank in the Credit Card Affiliate Niche?

It’s no surprise that the hardest keywords to rank for are basically the most profitable. Nobody’s trying to hit #1 for “Best Yellow Over-the-ear Headphones” for a reason.

But credit cards? Credit cards are big money. Right up there with car insurance and personal loans, ranking for the big credit card terms is no easy task. Aside from credit cards being a popular term with lots of competition, the big players in the space have old websites with a lot of authority. Think visa.com, and wellsfargo.com.

So what does it take to rank for an elite keyword? That’s what I’m going to break down in this post, specifically for the keyword:

Best Credit Cards: 90,500

Even though the generic term “credit cards” gets 246,000 searches per month, I’ve narrowed the focus to “best credit cards” because it is slightly more action focused, meaning that the person searching for either of the above keywords is *most likely* closer to applying for a credit card then the generic search “credit cards.”

Keyword – Best Credit Cards: An Analysis

Here are the sites that we find in the top 10 for this keyword:

http://www.nerdwallet.com/the-best-credit-cards
http://www.creditcards.com/top-credit-cards.php
https://www.creditkarma.com/shop/creditcards
http://www.thesimpledollar.com/best-credit-cards/
http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/credit-cards/best-credit-card-rewards
https://get.com/best-credit-cards/
http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickclements/2015/04/15/cash-or-miles-how-to-choose-the-best-credit-card/
http://time.com/money/4037389/best-credit-cards-2015/

[Keep in mind that the top 10 can fluctuate based on location, date, and other variables.]

Right away there are some interesting things I notice from this list.

Search Intent

There’s no better SEO teacher than results in Google. You can debate exact match keyword domains and content length for days, but when it comes down to it, search results are the best teacher.

What is Google showing us here?

First, that Google interprets the searcher’s intent behind “best credit cards” to be one of seeking information ABOUT the best credit cards, not a link to actual credit card sites. If that were the case, we’d see the official websites of Visa, Master Card, and Chase—as you would if you searched “apply for a credit card.”

Identifying the intentions of Google tell us that if we were trying to rank for “best credit cards” we would need to create a page that gives information about credit cards vs. trying to get a sign-up right away.

Why is this important?

It’s the SEO equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight. By understanding what Google wants, we make it that much easier to rank.

URL Structure

Similar to how understanding the theme of sites ranking in the top 10 can show us the kind of content Google wants to rank, it’s also helpful to look at the structure of the URLs.
A quick glance shows they are all “inner pages,” not the home page. Five of the pages are subpages (a.k.a. domain.com/page/sub-page).

Compare that with the search for “travel insurance,” where the first five results are all root domain names:

Travel Insurance Domains

Again, discovering the intention will help you determine how to build the page you want to rank. In the case of the travel insurance, you could probably presume that the searcher, when Googling “travel insurance,” wants to buy just that. When the searcher is Googling “best credit cards,” they are looking for advice, so Google is looking to rank general authority sites pertaining to financial matters that have a page on which credit card is the best.

Of course, there are always outliers that you want to either pay special attention to, because they are doing something interesting, or ignore, because they are ranking for reasons that would be hard to reproduce.

Identifying the Outliers

In the case of “best credit cards,” these domains stand out as the ones to focus on:

nerdwallet.com
creditcards.com
creditkarma.com
thesimpledollar.com
moneysavingexpert.com
get.com

The following domains stand out for reasons we’re able to ignore:

time.com
forbes.com

What’s the difference?

In the case of the SERPs for this keyword—a very profitable, competitive keyword, the top three sites are not titans of the finance industry, as we might expect. Instead, they are smaller than the S&P 500 companies we associate with finance or banking or credits cards.

It makes sense that we would want to pay attention to a site ranking so well for this keyword.

Similarly, it’s clear that time.com and forbes.com are ranking on the power of their general authority, as you can see in this image showing number of linking domains to the URL:

credit card niche backlinks

Time.com and forbes.com have about 19 million and 31 million MORE linking domains to the root domain than the next closest competitor in the top 10. So we can (oversimplify it and) sum it up as:

Time.com and forbes.com are ranking because they are authoritative domains, with a lot of links, containing an article relevant to the keyword.

As such, they probably won’t have much to offer in the way of strong on-page SEO, interesting backlinks, content length insights, and so on, like the other sites might.

Digging In to the Content

What kind of content ranks well for our target keyword? In this next section I’m will break it down to see what we can take away from analyzing the top sites.

Word Count

You’ve probably heard several times that longer content generally ranks better. No ranking signal, on its own, is solely responsible for a site’s search placement. However, check this graph out:

Best Credit Card Top 10 Content

NerdWallet.com has has a word count several times higher than most of the other sites in the top 10. In fact, all of the domain names that we haven’t excluded have a word count of at least 1,000 words. The overall average wordcount is a whopping 6272 (heavily skewed by two of the domains, but still very high).

The takeaway here is that content matters. It’s one ranking signal among many, but it’s an important one.

Editor’s Note: It is very easy to draw the conclusion that longer content ranks better, go ahead and Google almost any highly-commercial keyword and you will probably see meaty pages ranking well. My argument would be that this doesn’t automatically mean the length of the page is having even the slightest impact on rankings. One possible explanation is that top ranking pages are stewarded by SEO-aware folks who make the assumption that adding meat to pages will help maintain top rankings…and so the circle of life continues as SEOs argue that adding more content to a page helps it rank based on the evidence that top ranking pages have lots of content 🙂

Actual Page Contents

It’s also important to take into account, not just the raw number of words on a page, but what the actual content itself is doing. Is it just a very long essay? Is there a clear pattern of media-rich content? Paying attention to the type of the content in the top ten is important.

Here is a sampling:

top ranking content example 1
Nerd Wallet

top ranking content example 2
CreditCards.com

top ranking content example 3
Credit Karma

top content ranking example 4
Money Saving Expert

…starting to see a pattern?

All of the sites in the top 10 (that we are not excluding) except one have similarly styled content. The word-count-heavy page from TheSimpleDollar.com is the exception here.

If you were going to create a page targeting the keyword “best credit cards,” what kind of content would you look to create?

Looking at the research I’ve put together so far, creating a page on your domain that uses some variation of “best credit card,” is over 1,000 words (though over two or three thousand is a safer bet), instructs the reader by comparing and contrasting different credit cards, and is arranged for easy consumption versus big walls of text would be the smart bet.

Editor’s Note: Another key reason that you may want to consider replicating the successful format of those already competing is because there is a good chance it has been tried and tested so not only will this be a better place to start from in terms of your conversion rate testing but from an SEO standpoint it is likely to yield the best looking user data and from what we’ve seen things like bounce rate and dwell time do have a huge impact on how likely you are to stay ranking for big competition keywords.

Related: The 4 Elements of Successful Content: Read More

Now that we’ve got a solid idea of what kind of URL and content we’re up against, it’s time to look at one of the most important pieces of any SEO campaign:

The All-Important Links

Forget about forum profiles and blog comments, you need some heavy-hitting editorial links to compete in this space.

Here’s a small example of links going to the (exact) ranking URL for the top 3 sites:

huffingtonpost.com
mashable.com
finance.yahoo.com
fool.com
marketwatch.com
thestreet.com
ehow.com
usbank.com

We’re going to dive into three different sections to see what’s going on: domain authority, number of backlinks going to the root domain, and number of backlinks going specifically to the page that is ranking.

Domain Authority

If backlinks are the currency of SEO, trust and authority are the gold that backs the currency. Using majestic.com, I’ve listed the Trust Flow score for each individual root domain:

credit card domains trust score

The biggest thing that stands out here is that domains with lightly lower authority are outranking more authoritative domains. There’s nothing too surprising here, but general domain authority is very broad.

Diving into the backlink profile for both the root domain and the exact page URLs allows us to see what kind of power each domain is packing, and if there are any critical insights that might help us rank better in this niche.

Links to the Page URL

Within the sites we are researching, there’s a pretty wide variation in the number of backlinks going to each page (specifically, the page URL — as opposed to the links to the domain’s root URL). This is not unusual, as the number of backlinks going to an individual URL are but one factor used in Google’s algorithm to determine rankings. Still, it is one of the most important factors, so we’ll go in-depth here to see what each page is doing.

Page URL backlinks

One interesting thing is that the number of links needed for the site to rank where it is, corresponds with the amount of authority the domain has (the lower authority domains have a higher amount of links than the higher authority domains).

This is not a precise correlation, because ranking a site is not a recipe, but it’s interesting that the site with the least amount of overall authority (get.com) has the most amount of links.

As for the types of links that each site has, of course it varies. One commonality is the presence of editorial (in-article-mentions) of the site from very big, authoritative websites, a.k.a. the hardest kind of links to get.

In addition to hundreds of links creating a diversified link profile, a handful of those links are powerful, hard to get links that pass on a ton of relevance and authority.

Anchor Text

While there’s no such thing as a hard-and-fast “keep your anchor text under this number” rule, SEOs have definitely seen the recommended percentage creep lower and lower over the years.

Editor’s Note: That’s not to say anchor text isn’t an important factor, you can definitely move the needle in a big way but it is easier than ever to trip the wire that sends a page back down the SERPs.

Here’s the anchor text breakdown for the exact match keyword “best credit cards”:

Nerdwallet: 14%

CreditCards.com: 14%

Credit Karma: 2%

The Simple Dollar 7%

Money Saving Expert: none

Get.com: 59%

To me, 59% from Get.com seems dangerously high, but they are ranking on the first page for a super lucrative keyword. Still, it is a potentially dangerous gambit to have such a high percentage of anchor text for a specific keyword. I’m much more comfortable with 2% – 14% exact match anchor text (and would suggest keeping it as low as you can).

While only the exact-match anchor text is listed above, that is not to say there aren’t other anchor texts that excluded “best credit cards.” In pursuit of an anchor-text profile that looks natural and is diverse, using long-tail keywords and the URL/brand of the site is a safe practice.

Editor’s Note: I personally don’t think there is a set of parameters in percentage terms that you can work between. We’ve seen it vary massively from industry to industry and of course depending upon the website itself. Certain big brands can get away with a lot more than the average affiliate site. One good tactic to ensure everything looks natural is to let the webmaster choose how they link. We find people tend to link like people because they think like humans and not SEOs.

Here’s an example of diversified anchor text profile from TheSimpleDollar.com

The Simple Dollar Anchor Text

You can see that the keyword “best credit cards” are combined with other, natural phrases, such as “best credit cards of 2015,” and “2016 guide for the best credit cards.”

Comparing Referring Domains

For this next part, I’m not going to attach the URL to the screenshot, because I’m not trying to “out” any site, but this was interesting and I wanted to point it out.

Here’s what a natural, long-term SEO campaign looks like (a kind of “best case scenario” for long term site/ranking health):

Credit Card Site Referring Domains 1

 


 

Credit Card Site Referrin Domains 2

Over time, a domain gains authority, and each new links brings more awareness, which in turns creates more links. HOW they get those links (whether an SEO company is driving that awareness, or whether it’s more viral in nature), this is a nice slow and steady climb.

Alternatively, here’s how it looks when someone has hit their campaign with an onslaught of newly built links:

Credit Card Site Referring Domains 4

Going from 0 referring domains in November 2015 to over 40,000 in February is impressive if it’s natural. However, in combing through the referring domains, this site is being linked to from some sketchy-looking sites, and lacks the authoritative editorial style links the other sites in the top 10 have.

The reality is there are all types of SEO that can get you to the top of the SERPs. Whether it’s the slower, safer route, or the more dangerous and many-times-shorter lived aggressive SEO, the path to the front page of Google is many and varied. That’s why diving in and researching a niche is so interesting. Uncover all the different paths.

Putting it All Together

We’ve done research in many different areas, and extracted some interesting things that are working to help rank these sites in the top 10 of Google for this very desirable keyword.

Here are the takeaways for trying to rank well in this niche:

1. Create a page on a financially-related site that uses the main keyword in the URL structure.

2. Write content that compares the different credit cards available.

3. Structure the content so that it is laid out in an easy-to-compare way.

4. Create a substantial page, with well-written content. While out-word-counting the top site won’t guarantee you rankings, writing 500 words or less on the subject will diminish your chances.

5. The backlinks that are going to help you rank a site in this niche need to be a) authoritative, and b) very relevant. Getting editorial links from leading financial sites will give you your best chance.

6. The more quality backlinks you can naturally build to the page you’re trying to rank, the better. The sites with the lowest “referring domains” to the credit card page had the most domain authority.

7. Anchor text has nebulous rules. Anchor text percentage ranged from zero to a whopping 59%. Best practices suggest “the lower the better,” but it’s also worth considering a page that is ranking so well (but seriously, don’t go for 59%).

8. A slow and steady increase in links built is the safest, and most natural way to get (and keep) your rankings. No individual part of this list is a winner on its own, and nothing I’ve written is a guarantee. If your site is weak on content, you can possibly compensate by having more niche-relevant backlinks, or by having more authoritative backlinks, but it’s not a given.

Thanks for reading this breakdown of “what it takes to rank in the credit card niche,” and good luck!

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