What may not be as clear are the contributing factors that elevate one website consistently higher than any other in the category. My hypothesis is simple (1) the content must be impeccable and (2) the sources that reference the site must have trust. The graduation from just another site into industry expert is a crowning achievement.
Instead of building links, if more webmasters focused on who links to you, what anchor text they are using and where the link is pointed (hopefully at the most appropriate page), then acquiring top 10 rankings would not be out of the ordinary. Search engine algorithms are mathematical guardians of the index. Their job is to ensure order and relevance and function transparently behind the scenes of every search.
The first objective is based on the worthiness of your content (creating the ranking criteria that can get you in the top 1000 searches). From there it is a series of on-page and off-page combinations that toggle relevance and affect where you content lands in the search engine result pages. This metric is often easily influenced (particularly when endorsed from authority sources). So, just because you rank in the top 70 for example, does not mean that ranking is etched in stone.
With finesse, you can ascend the rankings, if you back off and do nothing (without claiming the position by reinforcing its relevance) and some other site is gunning for the term, then your rankings are likely to slip. The competition for a phrase determines just how effective your tactics are to insulate the position by reinforcing it using topical internal links from your own site (linking from your most powerful pages contextually) as well as external links from other sources linking to you (and what is in the anchor text).
In order to establish a higher position in search engines, you have to acquire distinguishing characteristics that the other positions above you lack (or rather a combination of favorable factors) to raise the relevance for your pages. One way is through getting a link from a page that is already ranking higher for that term. Ranking by affinity allows you to skip the rankings in between if augmented properly.
Another method, based on my experience in establishing the primary, secondary and subsequent keywords and using them in tandem with key search modifiers to create a landscape of related phrases (both on your pages and in the links from other sites).
Through building a series of links over time, your site can evoke a tremendous amount of link weight to enhance your relevance score. Coupled with consistent information on the topic you intend to rank for (adding content regularly) in tandem with the fact that all of the links and pages are aging, gives them the ability to pass rank amongst themselves and buoyancy occurs as the page rank flows upward back to the root folder.
For example, if you deep link long enough to a specific page, first that page shows up (as the most relevant result), then eventually that page (having sufficiently reached a degree of insulation from attacking pages is anchored as a relevant authority) transfers its authority back to the homepage. Another indicator that shows when deep linking was utilized is when you see a double listing (two related pages showing up in a search result) from having related documents interlinked. For some terms, this only requires a few links, for other more competitive terms it may take months using links from a variety of sources. The end result, however, is ranking stability for the term and additional semantic phrases as the process of “word stemming” occurs and your site get the boost in rankings for those phrases.
Going back to the original point at the onset of the post about doing nothing when another more aggressive site is charging the gate for your targeted keywords is one of the more subtle sides of SEO.
If you have:
1) selected a keyword within your reach and starting developing quality content.
2) provided at least 3 external links to indicate to search engine spiders that the content is worthy of inclusion in the index.
3) interlinked the content in your own site (instead of leaving it out to dry like an orphaned page with sparse link distribution)
4) built enough links externally to get the ranking in the top 100
Then a number of things can occur to elevate your position for that page. For example, sometime you may notice that it is like being up against a brick wall and you have done everything in your power to acquire a ranking, but nothing happens, it just sits there.
This is usually an indicator that you may have (a) veered slightly off topic in context to your supporting infrastructure for your content or (b) you simply need more time before that page can pass the litmus test to gain access to the top 10.
More often than naught, if you just stop building links for that term, leave it alone and focus on creating related quality content, that it moves up (10 positions a month) or sometimes less depending on your overall relevance score for the core term. This is really about link velocity, link diversity and link volume and ensuring that you are allowing a sufficient amount of time for the links to gestate and pass value from other sites.
Sometimes the only way to acquire such rankings is over time. Ironically some phrases shoot right to the top, unchallenged, others creep slowly (which is usually a sign of either fresh content not having enough trust or the links that support them).
So, as far as a strategy to offer to develop this type of pyramid effect, think about your site architecture and if it is conducive to augmentation. Many build links to pages but not sub-folders, try using each as significant ways to spread the link weight evenly throughout your site, then after the internal links mature (and all of your subfolders and subsequent sub-pages are healthy) dynamic defense for your terms and competitive high vertical search terms are within reach.
Then, if you see some young gun or the new kid on the block, or even a more seasoned competitor trying to push you aside from your position in search engines, instead of retaliating harshly and building galore, instead, bid your time, wait and watch and see how long they hold that position. I can assure you, once you have had a taste of a high ranking and it slips, the first thing you do is panic and try to scurry about and build up the term head-on. We slipped from #18 for the word SEO to the 20’s now for our company, so I can speak from experience.
If we were to go and build links blindly without stricture, not only could that get you penalized for excessively using the same anchor text, or trying to push a page even higher in the index unnaturally, the more reasoned approach is to wait, let the pages get indexed across the data centers in Google (since that is what most are concerned with). As many data centers have different versions of your content, if you see the same result for more than 72 hours, then it is time to take action if you must. The higher you rank for a term, the fewer links it requires to keep it there if your pages have authority.
Then once the dust has settled, you can (a) reinvigorate the phrase at the root folder or build another page to link to the page you wish to augment (instead of building additional links to the existing page). Cross-link the two pages and let the new page brings its own stability to reinforce the keyword.
Remember, the more pages you have in your site, the more page rank your site has and you need a healthy supply of link weight (not for the green bars sake, but actual page rank) in order to remain fluid for competitive phrases to unlatch your rankings from a static position (stuck at 30 vs. 30, then 25, then 15, etc.) so they can climb in a moments notice. How each SEO deals with this subtle game of cat and mouse, site age, aging links, content continuity, and relevance is unique. In the end, its all about results and keeping ahead of the next algorithmic curve.
If you stick to basics, rely on quality content allow natural links and strategic interlinking to work on your behalf, you will only have to fight half as hard as the next guy to maintain or acquire a higher position in search engines for your respective competitive phrases.