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Linkbait Is Not A Content Strategy

John Doherty —  October 23, 2012
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Alright, time for the next installment of “X Is Not A Content Strategy”. I’ve decided to write a few posts around this because of the reception my post from last week, A Blog Is Not A Content Strategy, received from the community.

This week, we’re going to talk about linkbait. Linkbait is a term that was coined, apparently, by Aaron Wall of SEObook back in 2005 when he said if “”you are in a field that can’t build links naturally create linkbait” (source). To be clear, in this post I am talking about one-off linkbait pieces and not linkbait as part of a content strategy.

Linkbait interest spiked in 2007 and has since held at a homeostasis, albeit on a bit of a downward trend:

Here’s my problem with linkbait though: most linkbait fails and linkbait is not scaleable.

Why Linkbait Fails At Life

Linkbait has been seen as the savior of linkbuilding, though in recent days Matt Cutts declared that Google may discount infographics, every SEO’s favorite linkbaiting tactic, in the future. Linkbait fails for many different reasons, including crap design and crap outreach, but I would bet at the end of the day that linkbait fails, especially your first few pieces, because your audience (if you even have one) does not expect it from you. If a plumber goes and creates an awesome visualization of plumbers around the United States, who cares? Who’s going to see it?

Unless the content is amazing and goes viral (which almost never happens), the first few pieces are being used to create an audience which then may (but also may not) push future pieces. No one understands why certain pieces do well and others don’t, though we can decipher some hooks that help, but at the end of the day it often does, as most experiments and risks do. Which brings me to my next point.

Why Linkbait Fails Clients and Agencies

One-off linkbait pieces fail both clients and agencies, in my opinion.

What is the point of linkbait? To get links.

If that’s the point of creating a piece of content, and it goes by the name “linkbait”, then I’d love to see you try to convince a client that you are going to report on a different metric other than links. Therefore, let’s stop calling it “linkbait” and instead call it something like “marketing bait”.

And this is why linkbait fails both clients and agencies. Agencies will often sell a client on linkbait by showing them examples of other content they have produced and done outreach for for other clients (after all, who doesn’t love a good case study), but what is often left out here is the client’s audience, other content they have done, and many other details. Potential clients will get caught up on “hundreds of links” if you’re not careful, and this is what they come to expect, even if they verbally agree that “this content may or may not work as well”. At the end of the day, their expectations have been set. And if you don’t deliver what they’re expecting, then you’ve failed.

A story: The reason I don’t like doing it this way, though I have done it myself in the past, is because of an experience I had back in college when I was a Cutco knives salesperson. Yes, I was one of those guys, selling through the parent company called “Vector”. Basically, I went around trying to sell knives to friends and then get their referrals and try to set up meetings with them to sell them knives. It was a great learning experience for that summer, but the biggest lesson I learned was about setting expectations. One day I was meeting with a family friend (who had money). During my pitch, I mentioned the number “a couple hundred dollars”, but I knew that the set that I wanted to sell them (called the “Homemaker”) cost about $900 at the time. These were some seriously sweet knives.

Now, I sold them the Homemaker and was extremely proud of myself, but the father of the family (a brilliant businessman in his own right) told me after the fact “Now, we were just so happening looking for a new knife set for our new kitchen, but when you told me the price of the Homemaker I had a bit of sticker shock. You telling me about that other knife set that costs a couple of hundred dollars set my expectations.”

I have never forgotten that lesson, though I don’t always adhere to it (and I apologize to those that have been affected by it).

Beyond Linkbait to Top Of Funnel Content

I had the impetus to write this piece because I was thinking of a specific client that is severely lacking in top-of-funnel content (a concept I was introduced to by Kieran in his post over on SEOmoz). Top of funnel content is the content that you produce at the top of your marketing funnel (you know what yours is, right?) that will attract users (yes, and maybe links) to your website and then may get them to buy. The idea is to get users in the door, capture their information, and then remarket them continually until they convert.

Of course, top of funnel content is a marketing idea outside of SEO. This is where SEOs shoot ourselves in the foot - we fail to understand where our work comes into play in the funnel of the broader marketing plan. SEO is not a full marketing plan and must be integrated into the full plan if we are to truly win at helping our clients get more business.

If we want to get access to bigger budgets that creative agencies have (and let’s be honest – our work does a lot more for our clients than a lot of just creative content), we have got to start speaking the C-suite’s language!

I’m not going to go into complete detail here about integrating SEO into a larger marketing strategy (though I will say if you’re agency side you need an awesome in-house person to work with), but I want you to start thinking about it on your own.

If you’re thinking about how to start creating TOFU content, here is a great post over on KonuCreative about it.

Examples

I’d like to give a few examples of content that qualifies as this “top of funnel” content in the marketing lifecycle. I’d rather do this than talk about content that hasn’t worked so that you’re actually given something to work towards/off of.

First, Hubspot does a great job of this with their Internet Marketing Whitepapers:

Another company doing it well, that I have talked about recently, is Salesforce with their Social Media Success series:

Another company doing a great job is SimplyBusiness with their Knowledge section:

Mailchimp does it well with their Email Marketing Resources section:

And Grovo is doing it pretty well with their Resources section:


I sincerely believe that if SEOs are going to start being integrated into the larger marketing plan and budget, we need to understand what users are looking for and the different stages of the marketing funnel. Completely gone are the days of building links from anywhere and ranking for important terms. The web and internet marketing are becoming more integrated than that.

Either we adapt and survive and thrive, or we hold onto our stubborn ways and don’t get the budgets and slowly become obsolete.

And thanks to my coworker Adria, you have the beginnings of a winning content marketing strategy:

You’re welcome.

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

16 responses to Linkbait Is Not A Content Strategy

  1. I think the definition of linkbait, as with all aspects of SEO has changed though. If your aim is solely to get links then I have the feeling that google is going to make it harder and harder for you. Top quality linkbait these days requires far more user engagement.

    • Dave –

      I totally agree with you, which is why I think we need to call it something else. YOU may understand that there is a lot more to linkbait, but if you call it LINKbait to a client, they’re going to expect a ton of links and aren’t going to be satisfied with social shares, etc. It’s all about setting expectations, in my opinion.

  2. Hi John,

    I think you have hit the nail on the head with your last two posts. There seems to be confusion between strategy and the tactics these days. To often you see a supposed strategy which is actually just a tactic. Whether it be a content “strategy” which is just a blog, or a link building “strategy” that is purely guest posting.

    To avoid confusion to those reading these posts I think your next article should be titled: Writing Multiple Articles Titled X is Not a Content Strategy is Not a Content Strategy :)

    Thanks,

    Ben

  3. Hi John,

    Another epic post!

    People need to take a step back and understand the true purpose/objective investing time and effort with a linkbait. Majority of people jump on the linkbait bandwagon because they’ve read it somewhere that it works and generates links.

    A true linkbait is something that should provide value and addresses users’ need. Dave made a good point – User Engagement!

    Looking forward to your next post.

  4. Setting up expectations is (imo) invaluable. This is something that I try to do 100% of the time with my own clients. Without proper expectations, clients become extremely hard to please.

  5. Great Post! The Link-Building checklist is an awesome resource.

    I’d really appreciate an example or two of short and long-term link building goals. For example, specific target sites, or just some goals regarding x number of sites with a PR of X or above?

    Thanks!

    • Glad you found the checklist helpful. Short term goals for link building is almost invariably always acquiring links. This is a short term baby step to the long term goal of improving rankings and this hopefully traffic and conversions.

      Per your example, you could also have a short term goal of, say, getting coverage on a high value site. And maybe the long term is to build a solid relationship with the site owner in order to do x. Whatever your goals it’s usually best to have short and long term with link building bc usually short term goals won’t result in bottom- line changing activity, and all long term goals usually need short term goal success to be reached.

  6. One of the reasons why LinkBait fails as a content strategy, or any strategy, is that websites have stopped credit the creator of the bait. It looks like so many website owners have either policies in place not to link out, or have become afraid of the Google…

    Sites like Techcrunch or Mashable should be ashamed for their policies in place. Not linking to the original creator of the content they get to repost! Breaking the Internet one link at the time.

    Time for a BlackHole SEO Google algo update…

  7. Hi John,
    Enthralling post!
    Love the facts through which you have explained the importance of building one-off link baits which are client oriented in its true sense.
    Looking forward to read your future posts.
    Thanks.

  8. This blog post hooks into something I was thinking about earlier today.

    Prior to moving into the world of infographics, me and my team just used to create tons of inkbait articles. Top 10, 12 Most, Bizarre X..etc

    2 years ago this stuff worked amazingly.. in fact I built an entire site around “linkbait” and earned a sizebale chunk of change by utilizing the links to rank for certain key-phrases.

    Fast forward to today and linkbaits are getting trickier to push. People don’t just check out Digg or one of the major aggregator sites to find content for their blog.

    They now have Twitter and a mistrust of linking to unknown people (thanks to Google) and using Twitter can connect regularly with people in their niche who they trust.

    I’m not saying that linkbait is dead – it’s far from it. But the old methods of just building on a site with no audience is really hard unless you have something really freaking awesome.

    If you build an audience first and then feed them linkbait or infographic or just anything cool.. the links flow easily.

    Great post John.

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