Thoughts On Linkbait

Two posts about linkbaiting caught my attention last week and given there are still many questions about linkbait and it’s relative worth, I thought I would add a little more to the discussion.

Does Linkbait Need Categorization?

The first post, The Two Kinds of Linkbait, comes from Rand Fishkin. Rand argues there are two completely different types of linkbait each requiring its own definition.

  • Link-Worthy, Linkerati-Targeted Content, which boils down essentially to creating valuable content that others link to because of its value
  • Attracting Link Attention with Controversy, which tends to be more of a derogatory piece designed solely to provoke a reaction just for the linkbait

I’ll let you read the SEOmoz post linked above for Rand’s full definition of each. I think Rand is has the right idea, but I’m not sure the two definitions above are quite adequate. Valuable content can certainly incite or provoke an emotional reaction and there can still be value in a derogatory piece. But Rand is right in that there are different kinds of linkbait and having different terms for each, at least within the industry, is probably a good idea.

The question then is how to categorize the different kinds of linkbait. Nearly a year ago when I first wrote about linkbaiting as a way to build links to your site I had found five accepted categories for linkbait.

  • News Hook
  • Contrary Hook
  • Attack Hook
  • Resource Hook
  • Humor Hook

I’m not sure the above five categories are the best way to define linkbait either, though each is certainly an example of a different kind of linkbait. Still an attack post is just a contrary post taken further. And humor can be injected into any type of linkbait in order to make it more baitworthy.

Is Evoking Emotion Enough To Define Linkbait?

The second post that caught my attention was Aaron Wall’s Linkbaiting or Link Baiting? Aaron’s view is that both of Rand’s definitions belong in the same category, that of evoking emotion. When you evoke emotions you make your content more remarkable and more likely to garner links.

Aaron too makes a lot of sense, but again I’m not quite sure the emotional angle describes all linkbait. I’ll use Aaron’s own Search Engine Marketing Glossary as an example. The glossary itself is clearly linkbait. I’ve linked to it a few times myself already and expect I will continue to link to it for quite some time. I’ll add Rand’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO as another example of what I see as unemotional linkbait.

Neither the glossary or the guide has ever evoked any emotion in me. I just find both very useful and worthy of any links I send their way. The glossary is something I can go to if I’m at a loss to describe a particular aspect of search marketing. It’s easy to point others to on forums since it answer their questions and Aaron has made it extremely easy to link to the specific definition that’s in question. I wouldn’t say I feel any emotion for it, though. At least no more so that I feel for a dictionary or encyclopedia. Similarly for the guide.

The Reaction Against Linkbait

Yet both Rand and Aaron have some valid points. When linkbait first came onto the SEO scene it was hailed as a wonderful thing, but more recently a backlash has risen due to some of the more sensational type of linkbait that’s been appearing. So much backlash in fact that I lashed back against it and discussed why I thought linkbait would ultimately lead to a much improved web.

Much of the reaction against linkbait is really against the kind of linkbait in Rand’s second definition, thus his desire to give it a new name and place it in its own category. Aaron offers up some good advice in his post on some common linkbaiting techniques most of which can be used to make any content more link worthy. They don’t however require the need to categorize the underlying content into different categories.

Linkbait Extremes And The Gray Across The Spectrum

I think anyone in the SEO industry can easily see there are differences in the types of linkbait being created. And again the problem is how or even if those different types should be categorized. The way I see it though is there’s not always a clear demarcation point with one type on one side and another type on the other. It seems to me it’s more of a spectrum with two very distinct extremes.

For lack of better terms I’ll call the two extremes ‘valuable content’ and ‘sensationalized content.’ Highly valuable content needs no sensationalism to gather links to it and highly sensationalized content can draw links to itself regardless of its merit. Most linkbait though will have a measure of both.

Pretend for a moment that I could create a tool where you type in any URL and the tool would instantly tell you exactly how to optimize that URL. It would tell you how to rewrite the page and exactly how many links and from where that your page would need to rank #1 on all search engines. Impossible yes, but we’re pretending. If that tool could exist it wouldn’t need to be sensationalized in any way to gain links. As soon as a handful of people tried it and found it to be accurate word and links would spread quickly.

Still it’s quite possible that the first person who found it simply didn’t use it. What would be so compelling about a search box asking for a URL? You’ve seen a lot of them before and I’m sure there are plenty you pass by quickly. Even if I told you what would happen if you did add your URL and click the submit button you might not believe me. For all I know you wouldn’t click on the result when you saw SEO tool in the search results.

But if I sensationalized things some, maybe with a title like “100% guaranteed #1 ranking with this SEO tool” you might click on the link in the results if only to find out who would be so bold to make that claim. And it might get you to try the tool even if just to prove me wrong. The tool itself may be link worthy, but the sensationalism got you to find out how link worthy it was.

On the other side consider the SEO Black Hat site. Quadzilla can seemingly turn any post into linkbait. Often it’s the sensationalism kind of post he specializes in and on the surface they may not seem to provide all that much value beyond the immediate entertainment. And yet the subtext in some of those posts has taught me more than I would have ever thought. There’s some great value behind that sensationalism.

Most linkbait will have components of each. A high quality article, while link worthy on it’s own, will still spread faster with the right title. It will still spread faster by targeting specific groups of people and altering its content in a way to attract more people and make them want to link to it. When someone writes an article on how to create linkbait they’re often advising on how to do these things better.

Even the most valuable idea can profit from some of these artificial means and become more linkbaitable because of them. And because valuable content can still benefit from these more artificial techniques many valuable linkbait ideas will include a measure of artificiality. It makes it hard to find a demarcation point since likely it’s less of a point and more of a fuzzy gray area in between extremes.

Genuine And Artificial Value In Linkbait

Rand is right in that there are two different categories of linkbait. They are the extremes on the spectrum and it’s not always clear where one type moves into the other. Aaron too is right because any idea can be dressed up and made more linkbaitable. Any idea can evoke more emotion and it’s certainly one way to draw reaction and links. And it’s hard to categorize that dressing up since it can be applied to any type of underlying content.

Yes I’ve seen two clearly different types of linkbait, but they often defy categorization. I’ll settle on ‘genuine value’ and ‘artificial value’ as the best way I can think of to define the two extremes, though ‘sensationalism’ still works for me on the artificial side of the equation. I can’t help but think of the spread of yellow journalism at the start of the 20th century and that sensationalized linkbait often seems similar to me.

But in truth much linkbait will include components of each side of the spectrum and it’s the amount of each that determines which type of linkbait some given content belongs to. I can tell you which category a given piece belongs to when I see it, but I don’t know if I can define a clear line between the two.

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