It's hard to read a search engine marketing blog these days without spotting the term "link bait" somewhere. It's even harder to have a conversation with a search marketing professional without hearing it. In fact, link bait was one of the phrases I heard most often among speakers and attendees at the last Search Engine Strategies conference. About the only term that popped up more often was social bookmarking (but that's a whole other article.)
That leaves many marketers and many site owners scratching their heads asking themselves if they need to start focusing on link baiting or if this is just another passing fad. I for one can assure you that link baiting is here to stay. In fact, it's not really even anything new (more on this later.) What isn't here to say is that attitude with which link baiting is being approached. To that end, I'll declare that the companies that get past the sexy, over-hyped nature of link baiting and start thinking more critically about the concepts behind it will find themselves in a much better position down the road.
First, let's make it clear that link baiting is not a new idea. It's simply a new name for an old concept. Look back into the archive of any web site or forum that discusses search engine marketing and you'll find people talking about the need to build good quality content that attracts links. Link experts like Eric Ward and Debra Mastetler have long encouraged site owners to find out what type of content attracts links (and conversions) and to then come up with a plan for getting that content on their sites. Organic search marketers like Jill Whalen, Danny Sullivan and Jim Wilson spent plenty of time encouraging marketers to focus on the long-term impact of anything they put on their site, pointing out that by delivering a good experience for your users, you'll also end up providing a good experience for the search engines.
So really, the idea of putting together quality content that will attract tons of links isn't a new thing. The phrase link baiting simply brought new attention to the idea by highlighting some of the new technologies and marketing ideas that help move this link building along a little faster. Social media sites like Digg and Reditt, the explosion of blogs and discussion forums and the reminder that everyone loves it when you talk about them has propelled link building back into the forefront of search marketing. It's a position that quite frankly, it never should have left.
The real issue here isn't whether link baiting is a good idea, it's about working through the hype to discover the best way to go about building those links. Let's take a look at a few examples of how link baiting tends to work these days.
Made up awards
This is a popular one right now. You'll find a million and one "Top 5" or "Top 10" or "Best of the X" type awards showing up on blogs and web sites. The idea here is that if you take the time to come up with a list of other sites that are popular, well-respected resources, and you post it on your site...those popular, well-respected resources will notice that you mentioned them and will make a post on their OWN site about the "award." The longer the awards list, the more chances you have to score links back to your site. Leave out a few key individuals or companies that obviously SHOULD be on the list and it's even better. Why? Because then even the folks that didn't make the list will write about (and link to) your list so that they can point out how very wrong you are.
The problem with this? Well, if you are ONLY in it for links, there is no problem. You'll probably score plenty. I suppose this is also a valid way to get some folks to look at your site that might not otherwise have checked it out...but if your goal is to create more business, you have to ask yourself how likely it is that that will happen.
I think this one started off as unintentional link baiting, but then people discovered the power of it. Anyone that attended a U.S. high school or spent any time with a group of females will know how quickly gossip spreads. Add the lightening speed of the Internet where a single comment can fly from Toronto to Tokyo in a matter of seconds and you've got a pretty powerful medium. Start some gossip about the right topic and you'll be front and center of a link building explosion.
But again, how are these links going to help your business?
While this sort of ties into number two, it's a little more above the board. Controversy is pretty easy to start in any industry. For awhile in the search world, it was people declaring organic search dead. Then it was declaring that there was no sandbox (guilty as charged, though I stand by my words), then it was declaring social media the next big SEM tactic, in the past month, it's been the claim of one major search firm that SEO is a one-time expense.
Sometimes creating a little controversy is a good thing. It can be a way to educate readers, to challenge the status quo, to move an industry forward. It can also simply be a way to get people talking about you and linking to you. Link baiters know this and they exploit it. Once again I ask, how does this directly help their business?
This one is the flavor of the month in the search industry right now. Sure it's fun, but it gets old pretty quick. After all, if you're outside the industry, do you really care who is popular enough to get tagged early and often or would you rather just get back to the previously scheduled program so that you can continue learning how to promote your business. It's a quick way to spread around some link love, but as with the previous three examples, it really doesn't do much to move your business forward.
The issue with these types of link baiting techniques is that they don't produce long-term results as far as building your business. Really, modern-day link baiting is sort of a game of "how do I prove that I'm the most popular." While popularity is good, it doesn't pay the bills. As with many other "trendy" tactics, those of us within the industry often forget that what works in the tech blog environment doesn't always carry over to the real world with much effectiveness.
That's why companies that want to get in on the link baiting game need to get past that sexy exterior and start looking at the bone structure underneath. Building links is a good thing, both in terms of raising your search engine rankings and in delivering new traffic and potential customers to your web site. The thing to remember is that when you've got limited amounts of time, dollars and energy to devote to a project, you've got to make everything count.
So focus on the good old-fashioned basics. Build and offer excellent free tools that are related to your products and services. Conduct research and share the results in a white paper. Write up detailed product reviews, usage instructions and other pieces of information that your readers will value. Build a community where people can come and brainstorm together about how to use your products. Offer great customer service and a unique buying experience. Make sure that your products are of better quality than your competitors.
Basically, run your business and run it well. Link baiting shouldn't be about building links, it should be about building valuable content. Offer up resources that will make your customers value you. Find ways to combine good quality content with sales messages. Building links for your business shouldn't be about sheer volume. It should be about offering up the content that will earn quality links naturally and that will provide new business as well.
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Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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