Why Linkbait is a Tactic the Search Engines Will Always Value

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The debate over the potential value of linkbait rages on! Throughout the last few years, the argument over linkbait/viral content strategies and whether or not the use of these tactics will result in rewards from search engines has been on the tip of everyone’s tongues. I believe this methodology will remain profitable in the long run for a number of reasons I’ll get to in a second.

First, for the newbs, a handy definition of linkbait as it pertains to SEO practices:

Linkbait/Viral Content: The practice of crafting web content to attract attention and awareness in the form of natural links given by bloggers, news media, researchers, forum posters and other website contributors. This content can include any combination of static or interactive elements, but is almost always targeted at a specific subset of web audience members who have the ability to influence/create links, share content and spread a message virally (see Linkerati).”

But why talk about it? Pictures are worth, um, thousands of words I once heard. Here are a couple helpful infographics.

social technographics ladder

social participants percent

(SOURCE: Forrester Research via the Groundswell Blog)

Just a few years ago, three to be exact, linkbait users were targeting 30-50% fewer people than today. This doesn’t mean it’s easier, per say, but it does mean the opportunity to influence has risen dramatically. In short, your audience pool has widened.

So why does linkbaiting carry so little risk of penalization or devaluation?

1. Viral content works hand-in-hand with the functioning algorithms of search engines. Since these engines sprung forth in the early 1990s, they have been attempting to use the web’s link graph to identify content that people have found fundamentally interesting and worth sharing. Doesn’t this sound a lot like viral content?

2. Devaluing your linkbait content carries with it a high risk. There is a slippery slope here for these engines. An argument could be made that every piece of content on every website is technically designed to be linkbait and thus, every natural link should be “suspect.” This is, of course, supposing linkbait is considered to be a manipulative tactic which it is not always the case. Creating web content and creating linkbait are one in the same. Quality content attracts eyeballs. Why penalize this?

3. Search engines have always touted the profitability of so-called “natural links.” This means the links are independently created and editorially minded, and thus serve as an honest recommendation for a URL’s worthiness. These are exactly the kinds of links linkbaiting attracts. After all, why linkbait something nobody is going to like? That defeats the entire purpose.

4. Not to beat a dead horse here, but linkbait is simply great content. These are the kinds of links engines and engineers are constantly recommending as the core strategy for good SEO. When a linkbait is heavy on the bait and light on the link, then people simply tune it out. It has to be good content in order to attract the, well, links.

However, there are high risk ways to go about this and there are low risk ways. Popular blogger Matt Inman wrote a post highlighting some of the most dangerous implementations of manipulative link attraction, but these are most definitely the exception rather than the rule. Let’s take a look at a scale of low-to-high risk quantification:

* No Risk – Production of relevant (on-topic and with the site’s offerings) viral content with no manipulative link schemes. These are promoted ethically and organically on and off the web.

* Low Risk – Production of relevant viral content with potentially manipulative promotion (paying those with powerful social media accounts to help “push” the content into visibility).
This is low risk because the links are still created and given organically and editorially. Even if you managed to, for example, bribe Digg into promoting your story on the homepage, if that story attracts natural links from bloggers, writers, journalists, website owners, etc. it’s still fulfilled the search engines’ principles of high quality content that naturally derived editorial links. Not entirely ethical, but still low risk.

* Moderate Risk – Production of somewhat “off-topic” linkbait that is only loosely tied into the content of the site. These links probably won’t be devalued but it’s possible that they won’t provide as much help to the other sections of the site or it’s overall domain authority and ability to push up the rankings universally across the domain. So, not risky per say but potentially a waste of time.

High Risk – The combination of off-topic linkbait and manipulative push practices, possibly with other less-than-honest tactics like manipulative or irrelevant anchor text pointing to the content’s “sponsor” or “creator.” Typically, this is fine to do, but when employing certain types of “off-topic” anchor text, you need to be careful.

Extreme Risk – Creating content that attracts natural adoption of link code that recommends or points to something other than the original piece intended by the link creator. This could happen by crafting micro-sites on a topic, attracting links and redirecting them to off-topic, commercially focused pages/sites; embedding links into a “copy + paste this code” piece that visitors may not realize links to a location they didn’t intend to endorse etc. Basically, this is bad form so why are you doing it anyways? Stick to quality links that go where it says it’s supposed to go.

So, as always, viral content is a good thing when handled and used appropriately. Just stay on the up-and-up and you’ll do fine. To help inspire you, here are some particularly impressive viral content projects:

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