Yes and no.
First thing, let’s talk a bit about what makes a page rank first on search results.
Even if Google has reportedly more than 200 ranking factors, only 3 factors control the search results ranking as we see it on Google’s search results:
- 1 & 2 are the content quality and backlinks
- 3 RankBrain algorithm
The content and backlinks are considered equality influential when ranking search results.
That’s why you sometimes find quality content with no backlinks ranking first. And other times, very low-quality content with a bunch of solid backlinks ranking first.
Ideally, you need a mix of both to make sure you have a shot to be on the top 5, or at least on top 10.
RankBrain is an algorithm based on AI and Machine Learning. This ranking factor can’t be controlled.
Back to the answer:
Yes, you can rank first without backlinks if you are targetting low competition keywords and the other search results have weak or no backlinks. This can work well when you target longtail keywords.
No, you can’t rank first without backlinks if your competition has an equal or superior content quality and on-page SEO and if they have strong backlinks from known authoritative websites. This usually applies to competitive keywords where everyone listed on the search results is geared to win the first spot.