Hard Thoughts About SEO & Link Bait

19 Sep


Is creating link bait good SEO? Emphatically, yes! If it does not get links it is not link bait. If it does, then people are finding value, which is exactly what the search engines want to reward. Whether you call it white hat or ethical SEO, link bait fits the bill.


But what is link bait, what makes it work and why does it fail?

What Is Link Bait?

Link bait is content designed from conception to go viral. The goal is to produce something so awesome your friends will share it with their friends, your friends’ friends will share it with their friends and so on.

In theory, if you to create the perfect viral link bait, people keep sharing and sharing until everyone on the Internet sees your creation.

Perfect link bait distribution


In the diagram above, you send your link bait to four people. Each of your friends share it with four people. Each of them shares with four more and so on. Four become Sixteen. Sixteen becomes sixty-four. Sixty-four becomes 1,024. In this perfect distribution, 1,108 people will see your content and it keeps growing.

Great link bait earns links. Those links increase domain authority. Higher domain authority generates better search engine rankings. Or at least that’s the SEO theory. But as we are about to discover, one cannot simply decide to publish link bait and have it work.

Just like SEO, making link bait work is difficult. If fact, you’ll quickly realize that link bait means different things to different websites.

Link Bait Strategies

Over the years, link builders have identified a few common link bait strategies. Lists vary, but they generally look like this:

  • News Stories
  • Debate Articles
  • Attack Articles
  • Resource Lists, How-to Articles and Infographs
  • Humorous Stories
  • Incentive Pieces (Contests, Awards)

A good place to learn about each strategy is The Link Baiting Playbook: Hooks Revisited by Todd Malicoat.

Link Bait Is About Links

For SEO purposes, we are interested in sharing. You want people to write about your link bait on their websites, blogs and on their social media accounts. It would be a shame if 10,000 people saw your link bait yet none of them actually linked to it.

While sharing on Twitter and Facebook is a good start, the gold standard is to earn permanent links on websites and blogs. This is why tutorials and infographics are popular. Website owners and editors only link to content that they think their readers will find useful.

Before you spend time and effort on production, identify specific websites that might post and link to your content. The folks at Distilled recommend you get five actual commitments from bloggers before you spend a dime on your link bait. That’s sound advice.

While you want dozens, hundreds or thousands of tweets, shares and links, try thinking like a sniper instead of a B-52 bomber. Every country has snipers. Only a few can drop the bomb.

If Link Bait Is So Terrific, Why Doesn’t Everyone Do It?

The sad truth is even the best link bait flops more often than succeeds. For many, this leads to disillusionment and surrender. To succeed, you must commit to the long-haul up the river into the heart of darkness.

Link bait is like baseball. If a professional ball player gets on base 3 times for every ten at bats, he becomes a star and hall of famer. Today, the on base percentage for the entire Major League is 32%. That means even pro players fail seven out of ten times.

Set reasonable expectations and don’t beat yourself up when you know that you did a good job.

Audience Size & Popularity

If you or I tweeted, Today, do something good for someone you do not know, we might get a handful of retweets. But what if certain other people posted this; what might happen?

Popularity matters because it creates leverage. Having more people to message directly increases the opportunity for content to go viral.

Guy Kawasaki and I could create and publish virtually identical inforgraphs, but Kawasaki’s version is far more likely to go viral because he has over 300,000 followers on Twitter, plus one of the most read blogs on the Internet.

Lady Gaga'a link bait is more popular than your link bait


If you ever wondered where the value is in making connections on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media sites, here is an important example of ROI potential. Your friends and contacts are your first generation. The more friends and contacts you have, the greater your link bait success rate will be, assuming that you publish quality link bait.

The ROI here is not sales, it’s influence. You are publishing and promoting link bait to get links, not to make customers. Influence leads to links. Links lead to rankings. Rankings lead to lead generation. Lead generation leads to sales. The investment, by the way, is networking and friend making.

You don’t have to be Lady Gaga either. Sure she can launch a thousand ships, but her fans don’t create content. Focus your friend making efforts on Web editors and writers in your business space and you will grow the type of influence your need.

Help your link bait travel. Add embedding code and social media sharing icons. Tell people to pass it along. Make it insanely easy for people share your content and give them specific calls to action to do exactly that. Ask three times. Before your link bait, after and alongside your share buttons and embed code.


The social Web is a busy place. Chances are good that you scan through posts and messages, looking for things that grab your eyes. Your time is limited so the more friends you have online the less carefully you scan. Those posts you pass over, I call noise.

Noise can turn this:

Perfect link bait distribution

Into this:

Imperfect link bait distribution


When it comes to link bait your content must stand out above the noise. There is no average, just outstanding or meh.

Noise increases over time too. When I began promoting events and content on Facebook I was a lone pioneer. Today Facebook feels like a raging river of marketing messages. I can barely keep my head above the torrent. Twitter is the same.

Is your link bait truly delicious? If you cannot be your own harshest critic, then make sure you have blunt, honest advisors to run your ideas and drafts past.

All link bait gets accompanied by messaging. Whether it is on your blog or social media account, make certain you make your accompanying text as enticing as your link bait.


Be careful if you use social media to promote your link bait. If you are not on Twitter when a friend posts, you may never see it. The half-life of a bitly link is three hours. This is why people carefully select when they post important links.

Some strategies involve tweeting when Twitter is busiest so more people will see the posts. Other strategies prefer tweeting during off-peak traffic times or in weekends, with the hope that less people posting will make it easier for a message to get seen.

Pre-write and schedule your posts. I like to tweet important links three times — morning, noon and evening. However, I am not going to tell you that my strategy is the best for you. Every market is different. Watch you social media space, try different strategies and figure out what will work.

There are tools that automatically schedule tweets and other social media post for you, supposedly when they will be seen by the most people. I don’t trust them. Apparently they work for some people, but I think this is because using the tools make them change their behavior and tweet more often.

Hope & Prayer

I see a lot of link bait released into the wild with a hope and a prayer. People who do this know they don’t have a big audience to get the viral snowball rolling. What they are praying for is this:

Link bait distribution through an influencer


They want an influencer, someone with a large audience, to see and share their link bait with her audience. Because so much content gets put out on the Web every day, this is a low percentage gamble.

By now, you probably know what I am about to advise. Invest the time to connect with influencers and get to know them well enough to ask if they will share something before you even roll-up your sleeves and work on your link bait.

Who should you connect with? Watch Twitter and see which influencers converse with their friends. Neil Gaiman is a huge influencer, except he has over 1.6 million followers, so it’s going to be rather difficult to enjoy a virtual cup of tea with him. Look for people like Ian Lurie who has eight-thousand followers, engages in conversations and links to cool stuff.

Do Not Campaign

Lots of marketing is done as campaigns. It has a start and an end. Social media is not a campaign. You cannot decide to turn-on social media, drop a dozen link baits, then turn your social media off.

Just like you cannot ignore the friends you go to bars and ball games with, you must keep nurturing your online relationships. This is why I call social media networking friend making.

Know The Value Of A Link

While it is practically impossible to know the actual value of a link, this is important because you’re spending actual money on your link bait.

At some point, the value you receive must exceed your costs. Since link bait is for SEO, links are the best measure of success. Therefore you have to know the value of your links.

There are lots of ways to price links, none of them perfect. But try telling that to the CFO. I suggest estimating how much it would cost to place each link as small banner ad since this is a white hat approximation.

Get an experienced Internet media buyer to do this estimate for you and only count links on actual article pages. Your link will fall off any page that changes over time.

Since link bait is for SEO, treat any sale from a link bait referral like a direct credit. Add the amount of any sales to your earned-links ROI estimate.

Don’t be afraid to make up-front investments, especially when you are starting out. But at some point, though, you need to look at your wins and losses and decide whether or not you are having a winning season.

If you spend $10k and get 1,000 links, that’s $100 per link and a steep price to pay. If you get 30,000 links you spent 34₵ a link, much more palatable. 100,000 links? 10₵ a link.

Last Word

I have one last thought for you. All infographs may be link bait, but not all link bait are infographs. They may be all the rage right now, but infographs are expensive, few designers do them well and there’s a heck of a lot of competition out there.

Why not start with some excellent blog articles with some outstanding images? If you ask ahead of time for some link commitments it will be just as effective and much cheaper. That could save you from burning out before achieving success.


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