Think Before You Linkbait

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It’s fairly safe to assume that your website will benefit from having more inbound links pointing to it rather than less. This is especially true if the links pointing to your site originate from high-quality, trusted sources/sites. There’s nothing complicated here, and I doubt any of you are screaming “eureka!” It’s as simple as more quality links are better than fewer quality links.

Caveat: Yes, it’s true that in certain instances your site’s inbound links might do more harm than good. But this is only likely to happen if you’ve voluntarily engaged in link farms or link spam networks, and left a trail showing that you have done so willingly. For this column, I’m referring to quality links, which I define as links that search engines have algorithmically deduced to be trustworthy.

Linkbait, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention the past couple years, is an approach to building links by creating some type of content, tool, software, freeware, or widget (the bait) that will inspire other people to write about it online (and, of course, link to it). People can link to your content via their website, a blog, email, or any online venue where your content can be shared, bookmarked, digg’ed, etc. In simple terms, linkbait is content designed to attract attention in the form of links.

The intent behind linkbait creation is usually improved search rank. People hope that if they create some type of content that inspires a couple of hundred (or thousands) of links, search engines will reward them for these links in the form of higher search rankings than their site would have without those links. This is true, but not always, and while I have seen instances where linkbait designed to improved search rank did exactly that, I have also seen poorly thought out linkbait accomplish absolutely nothing except costing the creator time and money.

Search rank isn’t the only goal of linkbait. If enough people like what you’ve got and use social sharing/tagging/voting sites (e.g., digg, del.icio.us, newsvine, Netscape) to tell others, the effect can be increased click traffic. There’s also the “trickledown linking” effect of linkbait – getting your site in front of a huge audience, even if only for a day or two, means your site is seen by enough people that a few of them may like your content enough to link to it, blog about it, remember it, or even bookmark it. It’s similar to how a TV commercial for diapers seen by millions of people matters most to those few that have a baby with a serious need for a diaper change at the time they see that commercial.

While I am a big fan of linkbait as part of your overall linking strategy, linkbait is not a strategy that will make sense for all sites. To be clear, any site can implement a linkbait strategy, but not every site should. Anyone can wear platform shoes and a white disco suit, but not everyone should. John Travolta? Yes. John Wayne? Probably not.

I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in several successful linkbaiting campaigns. The one common trait to all of them is we didn’t think of what we were doing as linkbait. The term wasn’t coined yet. For instance, you know the Windows Media Player you have on your computer? It was originally called Netshow, and we “linkbaited” for its download page back in September of 1997, with the first live web broadcast of the Silicon Valley Marathon. Do a Google Groups search on the phrase “silicon valley marathon netshow” and you can still find the original announcement. I remember reaching out via email to owners of running club websites and marathon training sites, and all of them linked to the Netshow site, and all of them helped spread the word within the online running enthusiast community.

The truth is the Netshow software had nothing to do specifically with running, but the race represented an affinity group (runners) that would be far more inclined to care about the bait (MS Netshow) because they could watch the marathon with it. You could say the bait was the marathon itself, and the software just the means by which to watch it. If it had been the Daytona 500 rather than the Silicon Valley Marathon, I’d have linkbaited a different audience, but the intent would have been the same: increase traffic, and downloads, of MS Netshow.

Linkbait for Mitosis or Head Shaving?

The point of this historical tale is to show that whatever your linkbait is, it will appeal to a certain type of person. The video of Britney Spears getting her head shaved (1,000,000+ views at YouTube) will attract links from a different online population than a video of animal cell mitosis (10,000 views, or go to cellsalive.com/mitosis.htm). Your site probably falls somewhere between mitosis and head shaving in terms of its intended audience and linkbait potential.

If you are considering implementing a linkbait strategy, remember who you built your site for in the first place and create content accordingly. Sure, you could try to create controversial or sensational linkbait, but does that make sense if your site sells agricultural fungicides? Probably not. That said, even a site with content about agricultural fungicides has linkbait opportunities. See the Weed ID Guide From BASF at http://www.agproducts.basf.com/information/weed-id-guide.asp. Now look at how it attracts links from high trust sites like this one from Purdue University at http://www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/corn/desktop/weeds.html.

BASF’s Weed ID Guide is a prime example of vertical/topical linkbait. Who cares if it only attracts a couple of hundred links? Those are the EXACT links that are most useful to BASF in the first place.

The most helpful inbound links for any web content are completely different depending on the subject matter of that content. Most linkbait strategies I see ignore this fundamental concept. When I was seeking links for the first underwater webcam (Jason Project), I approached the process in a far different way than I did for the Children’s Hospital Boston Virtual Stem Cell Laboratory.

Do Your Homework

Before you spend a dime creating linkbait, do some homework and ask some questions, including …

1) What is my goal for this linkbait/content? Improved search rankings? Click traffic? Both? Am I dreaming?

2) Am I seeking short-term buzz and a flurry of traffic, or a slow and steady trickle of traffic from a targeted audience? Both have their place, but trying to accomplish everything with one piece of linkbait is nearly impossible.

3) Who is the most likely person to link to my content? A general blogger? A reference librarian? A reporter? A newsletter editor? A Digg user?

4) Where can this person be found and how do I reach out to them properly when seeking a link?

The answers to these questions can help steer your content creation/linkbait decisions. While most people think of linkbait as a loud, in-your-face tactic, linkbait is actually more effective when it’s subtle, like a whisper, to the right person at the right time.

About the Author

Andrey Milyan was the first editor-in-chief of Search Marketing Standard, the leading print publication covering the search marketing industry. He has been following and reporting on industry developments for over 10 years. Andrey now works in the paid search sector of a prominent search marketing agency.