In 2009, most people would have called Tim Chen, the founder of Nerdwallet, crazy for even trying to take on the titans of the credit card industry. As the only employee at his company, that also had no funding, how could he possibly manage to garner the attention of consumers when his competition consisted of companies with billions of dollars at their disposal?
Within seven years, though, his company grew to be worth $500 million and his website, Nerdwallet.com, attracts millions of visitors per month who look for credit card information and personal finance-related content.
How was he able to accomplish such an incredible feat? The short answer? Data-driven content marketing.
This “David vs. Goliath” story may sound like a silicon valley fluke, but Nerdwallet’s content-first strategy has been replicated by other small companies in a variety of verticals, helping them achieve stunning success.
Whether it’s personal finance, home security, college admissions, student loans, travel, or any other industry, incumbents are slowly seeing one of their most valuable channels -- organic search -- getting taken over by these unexpected and new content players as they deliver valuable information through Google search and accumulate domain authority.
This article will investigate the specific content marketing strategy Nerdwallet used to take on the industry titans. Specifically, we’ll look at two aspects of this strategy:
First, we’ll look at how Nerdwallet leveraged content to attract press attention and, in turn, large volumes of authoritative links.
Second, we’ll look at how much content Nerdwallet produced and the strategies they used to make sure their content was actually valuable to searchers and prospects.
As a result, leveraging this strategy has allowed Nerdwallet to do something most would have predicted to be impossible.
Nerdwallet: From $0 to $500 million in 7 years
The credit card space has long been dominated by the major providers of credit cards themselves, like Capital One, Discover, Wells Fargo, Chase, and Bank of America.
However, in recent years, several new challengers have taken on these titans, snapping up the majority of the organic search market share of some of the world’s biggest brands.
For instance, if you search for nearly any credit card related query -- especially high-intent searches -- you’ll notice that more than half of the top 20 results are not credit card providers, Instead, they’re companies like, Nerdwallet.com, Wallethub.com, CreditCards.com, Credit.com, Valuepenguin.com, and Thepointsguy.com.
These sites are “information providers.” They make money as middlemen, leveraging affiliate marketing to earn a commission when people click through to their site and apply for credit cards with banks.
Nerdwallet is one of the best examples of an information provider who took over the organic search space in the credit card industry.
Founded in 2009 as a bootstrapped startup, Nerdwallet has grown at an exponential pace, from 283 users per month in 2009 to 2.2 million users per month in 2014, plus many more today.
After some early struggles to get any traction for Nerdwallet, founder Tim Chen realized organic search was the only customer acquisition channel that had enough volume to boost his site’s awareness and eventually compete with the big players in the space. He also knew it was the only channel that could be bootstrapped and grow incrementally.
With this singular focus, Tim got to work. Below is a slide from a talk about his realization about organic search's potential and how he became laser-focused on content as his vehicle for success.
As Tim outlines, Nerdwallet’s main strategy had a two-pronged approach.
Create large volumes of valuable content
Use content to attract large volumes of authoritative backlinks
Let’s take a look at how this strategy progressed.
Creating Quality Content
Attracting organic search traffic relies first and foremost on creating high-quality content that fits search queries. Generally, the more high-quality content you publish, the more opportunities there are to rank for keywords.
Tim knew this and made sure it was a core pillar of his strategy. So early on, he set a goal of creating 500 pieces of quality content per month. This was certainly a tall order, but it was necessary if he wanted to take on the entrenched behemoths in his industry.
By looking at the Archive.org view of Nerwallet's pages over time, we can see that Tim stuck to his plan, producing up to 500 pieces of content per month between 2011-2012, and then ramping up his volume and peaking at as many as a few thousand new pieces of content per month in 2014 and 2015.
To drive organic growth, Tim needed to avoid Google’s algorithm penalties, so it’s important to note that quality was pivotal for his success. Each piece of content Tim created needed to provide as much or more value than the content currently ranking for the keywords and themes he was planning to cover.
As of today, Nerdwallet has more than 36,000 indexed pages, giving them the chance to rank for an enormous amount of longtail keywords and capture a disproportionate percentage of the search sphere for all things personal finance and credit cards. And it works.
Nerdwallet ranks for nearly three times as many keywords as their closest bank competitor. When you consider that 30-50% of these banks’ organic search traffic is brand-related keyword searches, you start to realize just how far ahead Nerdwallet has outpaced their competitors.
The number of keywords Nerdwallet and Big Banks rank for:
Bank of America: 621k
Wells Fargo: 594k
Capital One: 327k
Building Quality Links
For Nerdwallet, creating a high volume of great content over the past seven years was only possible if they were sure the content they produced would eventually rank at the top of SERPs.
Surely, the vast amount of content they produced helped them build domain authority -- a lot of it could be considered a resource, and they naturally earned links and authority over time.
But their success with organic search can mostly be attributed to creating and promoting quality content with a specific goal and mission in mind: earning a large number of links from high authority publishers and their syndication networks.
Data-Driven Stories + Good Design + High-Touch Outreach = Press, Links, and Improved Ranking Ability
To give you a solid understanding of just how important creating data-driven, newsworthy stories was for Nerdwallet, take a look at the chart below.
We used Media Cloud to log Nerdwallet’s brand mentions over time. Above, you can see that Nerdwallet’s data-driven content stories received more press mentions than Capital One did for a period of time.
This is an incredible feat, considering the number of resources Capital One has at their fingertips and the fact that any financial announcement from Capital One is virtually guaranteed to generate press.
What Types of Content Helped Nerdwallet Build So Many High-Authority Links?
The main reason why Nerdwallet’s content attracted a significant number of Unique Linking Domains or ULDs that had high-authority link equity is because their content was rooted in data. Specifically, data analyzed by Nerdwallet themselves or existing authoritative government data they synthesized.
Using this data, they created newsworthy content that fell into several categories. “State of” studies, location studies, and tools or calculators leveraging existing or new data sets have been their bread and butter.
Together, this content is responsible for a huge majority of their high authority backlinks. Some of the best examples of their newsworthy content are provided below:
Links from: fool.com, mic.com, usatoday.com, bangordailynews.com, dozens of industry publications.
The chart below is a visualization of the backlinks that Nerdwallet earned over time. Their data-driven content strategy, paired with their digital public relations strategy, is the reason they were able to consistently attract a large number of backlinks.
What We Can Learn From Nerdwallet about Ranking on Google and Organic Search
With a dual approach of creating massive amounts of quality, data-driven content and attracting valuable press mentions, Nerdwallet was able to outpace and overtake all of the incumbents in their industry over a relatively short period of time.
The rapid rise of Nerdwallet is a testament to considering a new, guided approach to SEO. Through the process of creating high-quality, data-driven content and building links with this newsworthy content, Nerdwallet was able to scurry up the digital ranks.
Focusing on high volume and high quality, Nerdwallet set a new standard for digital marketers. Their results solidified the importance of creating high-quality content and intentional link-building to strengthen your brand and impact.
By committing to this strategy, Tim Chen discovered the key to his success was two-pronged: create large volumes of valuable content and leverage it to earn large volumes of authoritative links. This ultimately allowed his tiny startup, Nerwallet, to compete with and eventually overtake the credit card industry’s behemoths.
Originally published Nov 14, 2018 6:00:00 AM, updated November 14 2018