May 28, 2008
When the term "linkbait" first appeared on the search marketing scene a few years ago, I wasn't too keen on it because it has a lot of negative connotations. In fishing, bait is not really a good thing (to the fish). One minute the fish thinks he's going to have a tasty meal, and the next minute he IS the tasty meal! Works out nicely for the fisherman, however.
Eventually, I came to grips with the linkbait term, as I twisted it to my own definition – i.e., you provide something tasty for your fish, and in return they want to tell all the other fish about it. I saw it as basically the same thing as viral or word-of-mouth marketing.
But apparently I got it wrong.
A few weeks ago I learned that linkbait is not in fact like viral marketing, although there are some similarities. Linkbait, like fish bait, is just a trick. What woke me up to this realization was a thread on Sphinn about a well-known linkbaiter who had made up a story about a kid stealing his dad's credit card to enlist the services of prostitutes. There was no truth to the story whatsoever, yet the linkbaiter had it published to his client's financial news website (money.co.uk) as if it were news. Granted, many clues in the story should have set off red flags that it was fabricated, but the fact that it was published on an actual news website as opposed to a satire site gave it a level of credibility that caused other news outlets to believe it, republish it, and also link to it. The story became so popular that it even made the TV news in many places, including Fox News.
Score one for the linkbaiter. He certainly did his job. He put the worm on the hook and the dumb fish bit like crazy. The linkbaiter was even congratulated far and wide by others in the industry for a job well done.
But at what cost?
Some might say that the linkbaiter's only mistake was bragging about his great feat. Had he been smart, he would have just kept quiet and people would be none the wiser. While that might be true, there are wider implications for this type of fraudulent marketing.
Don't search marketers have a bad enough reputation without adding fraud to the list? Do we really want to be known as "those folks who make up stories just to get links"? I don't know about you, but I certainly don't. I'm still getting adjusted to being known as "those folks who ruin web pages by stuffing them full of keywords." We don't need yet another misconception about what we do, if you ask me.
Money.co.uk has since denounced the fraud and, after nearly 2 weeks, put a disclaimer on the original article – labeling it as fiction. They even claim they are no longer associated with the perpetrator of the linkbait. The linkbaiter himself is in damage-control mode, trying to save (or spin) his reputation by now saying that the whole thing was just a hoax. Google has weighed in via Matt Cutts by saying that links obtained through deception would most certainly go against their webmaster guidelines. And most of the world has already forgotten the story.
You (my long-time readers) know I am often naďve and starry-eyed when it comes to the Internet and search marketing in general. It's something I love and am passionate about and hate to see ruined. That's why this whole episode, and linkbait in general, bothers me so much.
We all know that the mainstream media are already screwed up and are basically just there for entertainment value, rather than to provide actual news. And I don't watch TV news or read the newspaper because of that. But the Internet is supposed to be different. And yet I fear that it too will soon be ruined (if it's not already) if linkbait of this sort becomes the norm. Anyone can make up fake stories and pass them off as true. But how many can make stuff truly worth linking to? And therein lies the problem. It's a whole lot easier to do the former than the latter.
Many articles and posts about this situation have appeared over the past few weeks. Rather than gathering them up and linking to them all, I'll point you to a few that should get you started.
My rant, over on the SEMNE blog:
Have Search Marketers Sunk to a New Low?
Our High Rankings forum thread discussing my SEMNE blog post.
Great summary of the events by Jonathan Crossfield:
Linkbait-Gate: Examining the Fallout
I highly suggest reading all of Jonathan's posts on the subject. Everything he has said so far on this topic echoes my sentiments exactly.
The links above will lead you to loads of Sphinn comments and other articles of interest. I'm sure you'll notice that I'm not providing an unbiased view of this situation, nor am I presenting both sides of the story. I'm simply voicing my opinion. You will find lots of differing opinions over at Sphinn.com, as (sadly) my views seem to be somewhat in the minority. Be aware that the long threads there are taking forever to load and locking up computers everywhere, which is why I'm not linking to them at this time. (I do hope Sphinn fixes that problem soon!)