Is Linkbait Good or Bad?

The term “linkbait” has been around at least since 2005. Nick Wilson is sometimes credited with coining the term. It’s a great way to lure visitors to your site, but some SEO authorities now claim that it’s not such a good idea. Who’s right?

This is no small question, because the answer determines where a site owner must invest his time, money and effort. For those who are somewhat lost right now, “linkbait” is content that has been created with the intention of attracting lots of interest. Linkbait creators hope their content is discussed (and linked to) in lots of blogs, submitted to social sites such as Digg, and so forth. Dedicated linkbait creators even participate actively in social sites and post comments on blogs to help spread the word. If their linkbait goes viral, they’re ecstatic.

Aside from a sort of popularity contest aspect, linkbait doesn’t truly have a down side. Or does it? Aaron Wall posted in his blog last month that he believes linkbait is the new version of a reciprocal links page. I’ll get to the details of why he believes that in a moment. Right now, I’m not going to say he’s wrong; he’s been writing about SEO a lot longer than I have, after all, and delved into the subject far more deeply. In short, he’s an expert.

I’m not an expert. I’ve only been writing about SEO for three years or so now. But I think that there are some points that Wall doesn’t take into consideration in his post, and I’m going to go over them here. In answering his points, I also hope to give you at least the outlines of the way you should approach building the linkbait for your own site. 

To some extent, I agree with Wall, but whether linkbait is good or bad is not a cut-and-dried issue (or else I wouldn’t be writing an entire article on the subject!). So while I’m going to disagree with many of the points that Aaron makes, I also plan to make a few of my own that could be perceived as arguing against the use of linkbait. I think it should be used, but it should be used properly, and with full awareness of its risks. Having said that, let’s look at those risks.

Wall quickly points out that linkbait does “have many potential risks that are rarely discussed by most marketers.” Then he focuses on the transience of the kinds of visitors it attracts, saying that they “have a fly-like memory. One visit, one pageview, and they are gone forever.” If you’re trying to build something more permanent, this isn’t the kind of audience you’re looking for, right?

Well, yes and no. The first thing to keep in mind is that good linkbait is content. Yes, you hear a lot about widgets being used as linkbait these days, but many of them simply provide a way for the user to receive content more easily (news, weather, blog posts, etc). Others provide ways for the user to share and/or manipulate data. So in that sense, we’re still talking about information, it’s just the form that has changed.

So those visitors come once for your linkbait and go away? Then make more linkbait. Keep producing stuff those visitors would find useful and interesting, and they’ll keep coming back. At the very least, when you attract them to your site with linkbait, make sure they can easily find more content and other things in which they might be interested. Granted, this may not be easy depending on the kind of linkbait you’re using, but nobody ever said that SEO was easy.

It almost makes me wonder if, by using a specialized term, some have forgotten that “linkbait” is simply a particular type of a much more general term: content. Yes, it’s content that’s designed and built a certain way, with certain very specific goals in mind, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s simply content. That means that the same rules that apply to other kinds of content apply to linkbait – to wit, if you don’t produce it regularly, the search engines will browse you less, and you’ll attract fewer visitors.

True, not every piece of content you add to your web site has to be linkbait. Google likes fresh content whether it’s linkbait or not. But it helps if you can do something regularly that will attract visitors to your site. If you keep attracting some of the same people for that “one visit, one pageview” repeatedly, they might actually bookmark your site and check back from time to time to see what you’re up to.

Don’t be misled here; I’m not actually quoting Google right now, though I’ll probably quote Matt Cutts later. I’m still talking about Wall, who points to a video in his post in which UK search marketer David Naylor expresses his belief that Google is going to begin devaluing linkbait. In the video, Naylor compares the natural growth in links to a web site, which he describes as a smooth upward curve, to what you see with linkbait – lots of spikes. Naylor thinks that Google will begin to look at the average number of links a site gets over set periods of time to judge its importance and position in the SERPs, rather than paying attention to these spikes. In short, if the spikes of links aren’t followed by “an increased baseline growth rate,” according to Wall, Google will begin to discount their value.

After noting that Google hand-edits particularly successful linkbait, Wall says that “A couple of my better friends who are a bit cynical went so far as stating that linkbait is only promoted by search engineers because it is so easy to detect and devalue.” This is what linkbait is supposed to have in common with reciprocal links pages. Are the engineers who build search engines really trying to steer us wrong in this way so they can better tune their systems?

Maybe I’m just lacking in the capacity for cynicism, but that seems unlikely. It’s important to point out that Wall’s post focused on “random one off linkbaits.” Additionally, the David Naylor video seemed to be looking at linkbait that was off-topic for the site or periodic special events. If it was all related to what the company was doing – say one piece of linkbait being a product launch, another one being some big news about the company, and so on – Naylor conceded that it might help increase the general baseline of the number of links a site receives, so Google probably wouldn’t entirely discount the spike of links a site gained from its linkbait.

Besides, the point of linkbait isn’t just ranking higher in Google thanks to all of those links you gained; it’s generating more traffic for the site. In a post on Marketing Pilgrim, Roderick Ioerger considers Wall’s points, but doesn’t find the idea that Google or any search engine might devalue a set of links gained from linkbait to be a compelling reason to avoid creating it. “Links that generate traffic, whether or not a search engine values them, in my mind are still good links,” he asserts.

Wall believes that brand building is an approach that is far superior to using linkbait. He acknowledges that it is slower and more expensive than using linkbait, but it offers you some very significant advantages:

  • If your brand is the keyword, search engines can’t devalue it as they can devalue linkbait.
  • If your brand is the keyword, search engines have to show you at or near the top of the SERPs, or they degrade the user experience – and risk having users go elsewhere because they’re not finding what they’re looking for.
  • Brand building gives your link growth a smooth, natural curve, which helps you rank better for generic phrases and gives the search engines no “spike” of links to target.
  • Search engines can’t penalize a company for creating a real brand.

Those are all excellent points. From where I’m sitting, however, I don’t see why you can’t engage in both linkbaiting and brand building – indeed, why you can’t use one to help the other. Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken” is still one of the classic examples of linkbait; it also helped to build the company’s brand.

About two years ago, Matt Cutts talked about linkbait in his blog, in a post titled “SEO Advice: linkbait and linkbaiting.” He didn’t see it as a bad thing then, and apparently hasn’t changed his opinion. He even gave some great examples. But he was very clear on the point that good linkbait typically requires “sweat-of-the-brow work” or being creative. In one of Cutt’s examples, Danny Sullivan came in for some kudos for checking the spam filtering accuracy of SpamCop, Yahoo Mail, and Gmail – not just once, but three times. “Now Danny doesn’t need any more links than he already has,” Cutts observed, “but it’s producing info-laden content that makes a site or blog well-known over time.”

And that brings me back to the point I made earlier. Linkbait is not some magic pill or panacea; it’s simply content. Or as Cutts put it, “content can be both white-hat and yet still be wonderful ‘bait’ for links…And generating information or ideas that people talk about is a surefire way to generate links.” Approach linkbait with some of the same attitude that you approach content – that is, that you’ll have to keep producing it in order for your visitors and the search engines to keep coming around – and you’re likely to see a more natural rise in your traffic.

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