We were thrilled to emerge victorious in the recent SEO contest put on by Wix.

First of all, thanks to Wix for the honour of selecting us to compete. The MHC team had a blast and learned a lot throughout this competition.

We also really enjoyed competing against our opponent, Liquid Interactive, who were good sports on social media throughout the contest. They raised some harsh but often fair criticism of our site, Wix’s SEO product, and the contest in general. They built a fast-performing site and produced some quality content that we enjoyed reading.

We were a little bit surprised, however, to read some of the insinuations in Liquid Interactive’s wrap-up article, particularly the suggestion that there was maybe a thumb on the scale — perhaps even some kind of skulduggery on Wix’s behalf at the final hour — to manipulate the search results at the end of the competition.

How conspiracy theories often work is that we line up a number of coincidences surrounding an event that we’re struggling to accept or understand fully and then string together a loosely-evidenced narrative — often with some kind of shadowy actor involved.

We can see that the other side, early on in their article, acknowledged an obvious, verifiable truth — page 2+ search results fluctuate wildly — and then disregarded this truth when it comes to assessing the results at the end of the contest.

In one breath, it’s correctly identified that the rankings should never be considered consistently reliable beyond page 2 (particularly with brand-new domains attempting to rank for a short-tail, fairly generic keyword with fuzzy searcher intent). In the next, it’s implied the only possible explanation is that there had to be some sort of chicanery behind the scenes to explain their sudden drop from page 4 to 7.

Additionally, the suggestion that our late rise was to do with some funny business behind the scenes ignores the real changes undertaken in the final days of the contest (inputs we know to be tied to ranking factors).

Before we list some of what we did in the final days and weeks of the competition, know that some of it is not endorsed by us as sound long-term SEO strategy. However, any SEO professional worth his or her salt will tackle a project by starting with the following questions very early on: What are your goals (and are they realistic)? What timeline are we working with?

Google’s John Mueller has publicly criticized SEO competitions likely for this reason: What might work in a short-run SEO competition a lot of the time bears no relation to sustainably sound SEO — and could actually be counterproductive in the long term. It can be dangerous to extrapolate based on actions that may have led to some short-term success in the SERPs and assume these are good SEO practices to live by going forward. 

As Ice-T said back in 1999, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Really, though, why even hate the game? This SEO contest was a fun opportunity provided by Wix to learn more about their SEO product (and SEO in general), try out some experiments we always wanted to try, and make some money, win or lose. 

As such, we saw this competition as win-win from the beginning. Knowing the difficulty of the task at hand — brand-new domains competing to rank for a short-tail keyword with a lot of competition, with only a few months to work with — we accepted that we were going to land wherever we were going to land at noon on December 19. We wanted to take the opportunity to learn something more than anything else, so we ran some interesting experiments throughout the contest. We saved a few of these for the final days, and we do believe they contributed to us jumping up a couple of pages in the search results in the final hours.

For the purposes of this article, we won’t outline our entire strategy for the Wix site, as it would be too long-winded and frankly a bore to read. We largely did the basics — picked a template that wasn’t among the slowest-performing available, rolled out a good amount of original long-form article content that would be helpful to our target audience, optimized for the chosen keyword, added internal links, and built external links as naturally as possible. We knew we could leverage the authority of MarieHaynes.com and the popularity of the Search News You Can Use newsletter and podcast to drive traffic, links, and engagement on our Wix site.

When it came to our strategy for the final couple of days of the contest: It was going to be a bit of a tossup, but we thought if we could push a lot of engagement and traffic to the site late on, we would see a lift in the SERPs — and hopefully we could time this just right with the end of the contest.

Although this would probably prove to only be a temporary gain (and it was, in fact, as we’ve started to fall again in the days since), the name of the game was to rank highest for the “wix seo” query as of Noon on December 19. Both sides knew this from the beginning — the goal wasn’t to record a higher average position ranking over the duration of the contest; it was to build a site over the course of a few months and have it ranking higher for the “wix seo” query in Google US as of December 19th. 

Page 1 or 2 rankings were going to be beyond our reach with the new domain and the limited timeframe, but we thought we could probably make a good push at the end to jump a couple of pages if we needed to.

We did just that -- we made a big push in order to generate a spike in social traffic, referral traffic, and organic traffic with the idea that increased engagement, more links, and a surge in search clicks would manifest itself in a rise in the rankings as Google picked up on these signals. 

  • We promoted the site in our final newsletter of the year while enticing users to click on a link anchored with “Wix SEO.” We wanted not just for Google to crawl this link — we wanted users to click on it and then truly engage with the Wix site. The idea of a Christmas-themed scavenger hunt was born, with a prize of free subscriptions available to the paid version of our newsletter provided users could find all of the John Mueller-themed “12 Days of Christmas” calendar pieces randomly scattered across various pages on the Wix site. Each contained a letter for users to collect in order to crack the code. This sent a lot of traffic to the Wix site through our new link, with all of these users dwelling on the site for an extended period of time and engaging with dozens of its pages. We also promoted this contest on social media.
  • We added a bunch more links from MarieHaynes.com and a few of our other properties. We felt somewhat iffy about where this stood in terms of the rules of the contest, so we cleared this with the judge first — as we owned those properties and chose to link out to the site with that anchor, he did not see an issue with it. The other side had done the same.
  • We put up some fresh content and shared our content in a bunch of Facebook groups related to Wix, small businesses, and SEO.
  • We encouraged friends, family, and members of various online communities we’re a part of to find us in the Google SERPs via the “wix seo” search, dig through the pages, and click on our site. This is somewhat similar to the strategy some brands have tried in the past with radio and TV ads in order to increase the amount of branded search traffic. We also recalled an experiment Rand Fishkin once ran at an SEO conference where he encouraged all of those in attendance to perform a specific search and click on a particular site; he showed how this site temporarily saw a lift in the SERPs for that query.
  • We compiled a list of webpages containing all of our most important inbound links, added these to a page on mariehaynes.com, and submitted the URL for crawling within GSC, with the idea of forcing a recrawl of all of our valuable backlinks.

Here is the overall traffic snapshot from Google Analytics in the final few days of the competition: 

 Here is the click and impressions data for the site from Google Search Console:

The rise in traffic and engagement across all channels (search, referral, social) along with some added links appeared to work its magic, vaulting us 30 spots ahead of the competition as of Noon on December 19.

So what is the takeaway here? Isn’t this all a little bit “gimmicky”? Perhaps, but to some extent, that’s the nature of these types of contests. Generally speaking, our view on Wix and its SEO viability has not significantly changed throughout our experience: They’ve made major improvements, but there are pluses and minuses with the platform and it really depends on the needs and goals of your website. Knowing it was going to be a couple of ~25-page blog sites competing against one another, our thinking was that we would not be at a disadvantage using Wix. We enjoyed using their site builder and thought that implementing the basic on-page optimizations, providing good content, building authority, and marketing the site effectively were always going to be the most critical factors.

In closing, we again can’t thank Wix enough for this opportunity and greatly appreciated the good-natured rivalry with the talented Liquid Interactive team.