Building Linkbait? Do Your Homework

So you haven’t been happy with the results of your conventional link building or link trading campaign. Or maybe your web site is very new and you want to be discovered quickly. You think linkbait will get you there the easy way. Think again.

There is nothing “easy” about linkbait. For readers new to search engine optimization who haven’t heard the word before, linkbait is content that is interesting enough to inspire many people to link to it and even send links to their friends. Indeed, it is designed with the idea of increasing traffic to a particular web site.

There are several parts to a good campaign that uses linkbait. Every one of them requires a certain amount of work, whether it’s research or writing or programming or what have you. If you’re really clever and creative, you can speed up the process a little. If you’re not afraid to be controversial, and can rant creatively without alienating too many people, you might even be able to speed it up a lot.

In this article I’m going to go over the process of building linkbait. I’ll also discuss several different kinds of linkbait. You may find that certain kinds come more naturally to you than others, whether it’s because of your temperament or the fact that your chosen industry lends itself well to one particular kind of linkbait and poorly to others. Thinking about all of them gives you more options, however.

I’ve seen the subject of linkbait boiled down to three steps: doing the research, being original and creative, and handling the social aspect. I’ve also seen equations that weigh the particular effort, risks and reward potential surrounding particular kinds of linkbait – widgets require a lot of effort to do well, carry a high risk of failure, but also return huge rewards when they work, for example. Frankly, however you look at it, it all boils down to being seen by your target audience, and that’s where all the work comes in.

You’re not going to be seen by your target audience unless you know who they are and what they want. What are they looking for? What concerns them? What makes them laugh? What makes them angry? What do they need? What would they find useful? If you can’t answer these questions, you have your work cut out for you.

If you’re working on a web site focused on your own industry, you really should be able to answer these questions. Let’s assume for a moment that you’re trying to sell gardening tools. What are the concerns of the average person who would be using your tools? Do they have as much time as they want to garden? Do they enjoy their hobby? Are they looking for ways to expand their garden? Do they need a good laugh? Do they face particular gardening challenges?

It also helps to find out where these people hang out online. See what they read, what they talk about, what their concerns are. Eric Lander of the Search Engine Journal recommends checking out Digg, since it’s the most popular social media site around. “To research on Digg, just use their search function or navigate through the various categories for the best match to your sector,” he explains.

Your natural instinct might be to read all the stories that have the most Diggs to get a feel for the cream of the crop. That’s not necessarily the wisest approach. You don’t want to just get lots of “eyeballs;” you’d like your visitors to be engaged, too. So look for stories that get lots of comments – preferably lots of positive and engaged comments. You might also want to consider looking at stories that inspire a lot of back-and-forth comments; a thread with lots of positive and negative comments is a sign of controversy, and that can give you good linkbait if it’s done carefully and well.

It’s not too early to think about where you’re going to be promoting your linkbait, and get a feel for the social media communities. Become an actual member of the communities; read their rules. Social communities and blogs and such aren’t there simply to promote you. Ideally they serve the purposes of their members, and if you want your linkbait to catch on, you will create it with that in mind. That point is so important that it bears repeating: linkbait MUST, in some way, serve the purpose(s) of the user.

Once you know your target audience well enough to know their likes, dislikes, interests and needs, it’s time to start thinking about what kind of linkbait you’re going to build. A blog with regular entries is one of the easiest forms of linkbait. It’s something of a low risk, low reward strategy, at least at first; that can vary significantly with the blogger and the topic. A good blogger can build quite an audience of visitors who return regularly.

Blogs themselves aren’t usually thought of as linkbait. Special entries that require a good bit of work and research can be, though. In one article I wrote recently about linkbait, I mentioned that Danny Sullivan did a comparison study of how well three different services performed at blocking spam. He collected the data and wrote about the results. Now that’s linkbait!

A couple of years ago, Nick Wilson wrote about several different kinds of “hooks” you can use when linkbaiting, and the choices are every bit as valid today. He listed a news hook, contrary hook, attack hook, resource hook, humor hook, etc. Basically, according to him, it boils down to two kinds of hooks: nice and nasty. You need to be very careful with the nasty hooks, because they can backfire and get you into trouble.

But that leaves you with plenty of nice hooks that will help you build your reputation as an expert in your field. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Compile a list of the five best resources on your topic or field. You can even do a series of these: five best books, five best web sites, five best articles, five best videos, five best blogs, etc. Explain why each of these is such a good resource; you can even make it personal by saying what you got out of it.
  • Regularly collect the important news related to your field and do a summary. Or expose a news story as flawed, and explain how it is flawed.
  • Create a tool that will be indispensable to your target audience. Taking our gardening example, one tool might let the user put in certain values – say the state they live in, the amount of space they have, time for gardening, etc. – and then tell them what kind of plants they might consider for their garden. (Such tools probably exist already; I mention it as just one example. If you really want to create a tool or a widget, you should research what is already available).
  • Go with something humorous. The classic examples are lists, such as “Ten things I hate about…” or “You know you’re a [fill in the blank] when…” You’d think people would get tired of such things, but just the other day I received a “You know you’re a Floridian” list in my email; I’ve seen those lists before, but this one still cracked me up.

I’m sure you can think of more ideas, and quite probably much better ones than I did. This is just to help you get started with your own brainstorming.

Now let’s turn to where you’re going to spread word of your linkbait. Remember what I said at the end of the second section of this article? Linkbait must serve the purposes of your target audience. Well, if you’re spreading the word about your linkbait in social media, and what you create isn’t truly original, useful, and/or entertaining, you will get feedback about it – and you won’t like it at all. That’s why it’s so important to know your audience.

Going back to Eric Lander’s article in Search Engine Journal, he noted that you can learn a lot from your target audience by reading the threads and such where they hang out. Using the example of Digg, he said that active members of that community “dislike search marketers and SEO as well as poker and related topics.” Know what sets off your audience, and avoid it, lest they turn their ire upon you.

But you can also talk about your audience in your linkbait, even linking to other people (remember that one of the ideas I listed for linkbait was linking to five blogs that are good resources for your field). Say good things about people and they’ll want to link to you. A certain amount of narcissism is normal – and in this case, feeding it will help you get more links and more traffic.

I’d like to finish up with two thoughts for when you’re ready to spread the word about your linkbait. First, check your linkbait before you spread it to make sure that you’re giving away something that is “deep, useful, targeted content that appeals to your audience,” to quote Gabriel Goldenberg, writing for Pandia. And second – to quote Eric Lander again – “be sure that you are already a contributing member to the greater community. If you show up as the new kid on the block and appear as though you are there to just push content on everyone else, you will have a hard time befriending others in the community.”

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