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How he got the backlink is the SEO-version of a freak accident:
There is an obscure industry association, which has a print catalogue once a year with a circulation of 300 pieces! In the 2003 issue of this catalogue my competitor had a paid advertising. Chairmanship for this association went from a German university to one of the big US universities, and as an outworldly consequence the associations website moved there as well. They also put all the past issues of the catalogue on the new website, including hyperlinks to all the paid advertisers. There you go! He invested 200 US$ two years ago and now has an edu-backlink! Talk about long term revenue... He might not even KNOW that he's #1 in SERPS, and even if he does, he probably wonders why.
Advertising prices have moved to 500 US$ in the meantime. I'm probably going to buy and ad in the 2005 issue, hoping to have my edu-backlink hopefully still this year, or in 2006 at the latest.
To keep a long story short: edu-backlinks still seem to be the holy grail of link building.
I have no way of seeing in detailed if the backlinks have changed. I only know for SURE that the edu-backlinks weren't there before. And the cached page for the edu-backlink-site is of Feb 15.
It got spidered twice since then. But still it is #2, and the content-poor-mostly-images page of my competitor is #1. I am convinced that it is only the edu-backlink!
A while back we got a back link from some obscure student site at MIT. Not sure if it contributed much to our site, but for a long time that almost empty site would show up in the top 3 in google for some of the same keywords that we use.
Not sure, but it seems to under-rank for links from .gov sites.
The page never changes and although on topic is far too specific a page to top a general keyword search term.
What has always interested me is that it too has hardly any content beyond 20-30 very slow loading images! With the keyword it ranks #1 appearing in every alt image tag.
It has no links to it beyond internal ones too.
It was your comment about your competitor being top with image heavy content that caught my attention.
I NEED AN EDU BACKLINK!
One of our sites competes with sites with mainly .gov and .edu links in and still beat them due to us having greater number of sites linking to us with correct anchor and more powerful pr behind some of those links. We also have more internal links and a bigger site.
Yahoo gives a pretty detailed listing of links that Google won't.
But unless you knew in detail what links they had before this jump to #1, you won't have anything to compare too...