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SEO Case Study: What Does it Cost to Get to Page One?

Raise your hand if it’s your life’s goal to get to page 1?

Any takers? Bueller…bueller?

OK, so no.

It’s true, that getting to page 1 is probably not on the same level of achievement as painting the Mona Lisa.

Nevertheless, it’s certainly a goal for many businesses, because getting to page 1 for the right keywords often equates to getting a lot of traffic and sales.

Plus, it’s something Da Vinci never did. Take that Leonardo!

At Shortlist, we’ve helped a number of clients get that coveted page 1 status, and now it’s time to share the results of what it really took to get there by reviewing 6 different clients and how they improved after their link building orders with us.

We’ll take a look at their initial rankings, the difficulty of their keywords, their budgets, how long they’ve been working with us, how many backlinks they ordered, and of course, where they ended up.

What we won’t be sharing is the client’s website or the keywords themselves. Sorry.

Also note that this case study is purely about backlink building through guest posts, which is a service we provide in house. It’s not about any sort of onsite optimization or clean up or even other types of link building, which are separate services we do provide.

Hold Your Horses, SEO Managers!

I can hear the outrage now.

How can you possibly tell us what it takes to get to page 1?! Blasphemy.

Google has 200+ factors, and their algorithm is secret.

So of course, you’re right. There’s no formula known to man as to what exactly it takes to get to the center of a tootsie roll pop.

However, to play devil’s advocate – it’s not very useful to not be able to give any answer or expectations whatsoever.

I can tell you from first-hand experience, our clients hate that, and it makes it quite difficult to sign new contracts too. Go figure.

So, while you should certainly take the following results with a degree of skepticism, hopefully, there’s enough of a consistent message and useful data to give you a ballpark feeling.

Client 1

Industry: Digital Marketing
Sub-industry: Online marketing and website development agency

Starting point
The client reached out to us wanting to focus on three keywords

  • Keyword 1 (Ahrefs Difficulty 63 / Search Volume 1,100 / Starting Position 87)
  • Keyword 2 (Ahrefs Difficulty 30 / Search Volume 200) / Starting Position 44)
  • Keyword 3 (Ahrefs Difficulty 42 / Search Volume 200) / Starting Position >100)

They had a budget of $3k/month and were committed for 5 months of work.

Main Results
So far, we’ve built 79 backlinks to this customer (to review our standards check this out!) and increased the rankings as follows:


As you can see, after 5 months and $15k, this customer is still not on page 1. However, it’s worth noting that this budget was spread over 13 keywords, the above are just their highest value ones. Plus, these keywords are considered fairly difficult by Ahrefs standards.

Secondary Results

The thing is, link building can have positive effects outside of just the keywords that are being focused on.

According to Ahrefs, the average keyword SERP position of the 13 we considered improved from 82 to 37 and the number of organic keywords in the top 100 search results went from ~3k to ~5k.


That’s, potentially, a lot of value.

Like anything, we can’t take all the credit for this. SEO is complicated and there are a number of variables, but it’s a good takeaway to assume that there will be some ancillary benefits to your campaign outside of the few keywords you might be focusing on!

Client 2

Industry: Software as a service
Sub-industry: App development platform

Starting point
Here’s an interesting case of a client that was already on page one, but looking to move higher up for some very difficult words, albeit with very high search volumes.

  • Keyword 1 (Ahrefs Difficulty 77 / Search Volume 48,000 / Starting Position 4)
  • Keyword 2 (Ahrefs Difficulty 76 / Search Volume 55,000 / Starting Position 6)
  • Keyword 3 (Ahrefs Difficulty 90 / Search Volume 25,000 / Starting Position 4)

Similar to the last client, we’ve been working with them for 5 months with a monthly budget of $3,250. However, seeing as they were already ranking quite high, we focused on higher quality premium links and therefore built less compared to the previous client.

Main results

With 55 backlinks built to the client’s website here’s where we ended up:


Not bad – even a 1 spot! Of course, it might not look like a huge difference at first glance, however, it’s well known that the click-through rates vary tremendously on page 1. For example, the difference between ranking 1 and 4 could be something like 23%.

And so, I would definitely put this one in the “win” column, especially knowing the LTV of trial sign-ups for this particular SaaS.

Client 3

Industry: Real estate
Sub-industry: Mortgage broker

Starting point
Let’s try another one, but this time focusing on keywords that aren’t quite so difficult.

  • Keyword 1 (Ahrefs Difficulty 13 / Volume 150) – starting position 66
  • Keyword 2 (Ahrefs Difficulty 13 / Volume 90) – starting position out of top 100
  • Keyword 3 (Ahrefs Difficulty 13 / Volume 50) – starting position out of top 100

This client had a smaller budget of around $2k, and, commissioned us for, you guessed it, 5 months of work!

Main results

We built 42 backlinks and did quite well!


This client will likely be on page 1 for all of these keywords in another month or two, and it highlights the difference with the past clients that you can achieve page 1 status with a modest budget in about 6 months IF the keywords aren’t too difficult.

Of course, the search volumes are quite low here, so this would only make sense if you felt the value of the leads was really high, which in the case of a mortgage broker is true.

Secondary results

In total, we actually worked with 7 keywords for this client, and they increased their average keyword position and the number of keywords in the top 100 significantly.


Client 4

Industry: Web Design & Development

Sub-industry: WordPress themes and plugins

Starting point
Tired of seeing this yet?

  • Keyword 1 (Ahrefs Difficulty 78 / Search Volume 2,700 / Starting Position 31)
  • Keyword 2 (Ahrefs Difficulty 37 /  Search Volume 2,500 / Starting Position 21)
  • Keyword 3 (Ahrefs Difficulty 6 /  Search Volume 400 / Starting Position 22)

This one’s interesting because the difficulty is super varied for each of the three keywords. Additionally, they had a small budget of just over $1k, but have been with us for 9 months. Let’s see what happened….

Main results

In 9 months we created 77 backlinks


I put this one in the “pretty good if I do say so myself category”. Of course the starting points were a lot more generous to work with, seeing as the client was already on page 3 and 4 (we like to call these low hanging fruit and they’re perfect targets for a backlink campaign).

Nevertheless, some great progress.

Secondary results

And of course, some great “secondary” results as well.


Client 5

Industry: Home Improvement
Sub-industry: Home repair job platform

Starting point
Just two more to look at, you’re almost there!

  • Keyword 1 (Ahrefs Difficulty 12 / Search Volume 7,800 / Starting Position 40)
  • Keyword 2 (Ahrefs Difficulty 14 /  Search Volume 3,400 / Starting Position 19)
  • Keyword 3 (Ahrefs Difficulty 18 /  Search Volume 3,400 / Starting Position 20)

This client was on the verge of page 1 for all of their keywords. They had a budget of $2300 and put in a consistent effort with us over the course of 11 months.

Main results

We built a total of 94 backlinks to the client’s website, however, we were targeting 39 different keywords.


Wham. Bam. Thank you…

Two number 1’s and a 6, not too shabby, especially considering the search volumes and the total number of keywords we targeted.

Secondary results

On top of this, the number of organic keywords they had a ranking in the top 100 more than doubled.

Should we even be calling these secondary results at this point, because this looks like main course food to me…


Client 6

Industry: Online Marketplace

Sub-industry: Website brokerage

Starting point
You made it. Last, but not least.

  • Keyword 1 (Ahrefs Difficulty 45 / Search Volume 10,000 / Starting Position 20)
  • Keyword 2 (Ahrefs Difficulty 13 / Search Volume 6,500 / Starting Position 16)
  • Keyword 3 (Ahrefs Difficulty 13 / Search Volume 1,600 / Starting Position 20)

Main results

Of all the clients, I would say, this is the one we “struggled” with the most. With 108 links built over the course of 12 months and a budget of $2300 a month, plus decent starting positions, we still haven’t cracked page 1 for all of their primary keywords. Sometimes SEO isn’t fair.


Secondary results

But again, they did see some respectable movement on other metrics.


High-Level Summary


Here’s everything combined. As you can see, every client achieved better rankings at the end than they had at the beginning. Most of them also saw better average ending positions for their keywords in general, more organic traffic, and an increase in the strength of their domains.

5 Final SEO Takeaways

  1. LinkBuilding Works! It’s our opinion that the dozens of backlinks we built for these clients, who, in most cases were not doing any other kind of SEO work, was pivotal in achieving the results we saw such as increased rankings, organic traffic, and stronger domains. That said, there are no guarantees in SEO or marketing in general (or anything, in life, right?).
  2. SEO takes time and money. Sorry but it’s true. Not a single client in this case study worked with us for less than 5 months and a budget of less than $1k a month. In most cases, it was closer to 2k or 3k.
  3. Don’t spread your budget too thin. One thing that wasn’t captured well was that with most of these clients we were working on more than just 3 keywords. The average was around 20 keywords targeted and that certainly played a role in the end result for their primary keywords.
  4. Don’t ignore difficulty and starting position. It’s hard to know exactly what the correlation/effect is, but in our experience it is fair to say that more competitive keywords are harder to rank for, taking more time and money. Even more so the higher up you’re starting. Be realistic with your budget and expectations!
  5. Work with a reputable agency. It goes without saying that if you want results you have to work with individuals or agencies that have a proven track record of ranking websites.

Would you like to be the 7th client in this case study?
Schedule a call with our SEO experts today!

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