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SEO Website Audit

Will Linkbait Ruin the Internet?

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!)

Jill
 
 
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 Barry Mills said:
I think your concerns about this particular activity are valid Jill, but you are way off the mark branding all linkbait as trickery. Just because one linkbaiter is a fraudster doesn't mean all linkbaiters are bad. Linkbait is a great term and I'd hate to see it ruined by having it's meaning morphed into just fraud and trickery.

Good linkbait to me means identifying and filling a gap in the market, for information, for a useful download maybe, or images - whatever works in your market. The tricksters may win in the short term, just as cloaked and keyword stuffed pages can win in the short term, but neither of these is any way to build a brand.

If companies took all the money and time they spend on trickery, link buying and other malpractices that many SEOs claim are essential for good rankings, and instead invested it in making their web sites more useful and interesting, they would usually find that over time they got better rnakings. They'd certainly get better quality traffic from their links directly, and more positive PR and word of mouth. That's proper link bait, and it works on exactly the same principle as your newsletter - give something of value away, spread the word, and reap the rewards later.
 JR said:
"But the Internet is supposed to be different"

I've *always* viewed the Internet as the "Wild Wild West", when it was snake oil salesmen and buyer beware!
 Link Bait said:
Wikipedia categorizes link bait into sub-categories: (taken from Wikipedia.org)
* Informational Hooks - Provide information that a reader may find very useful. Some rare tips and tricks or any personal experience through which readers can benefit.
* News Hooks - Provide fresh information and garner citations and links as the news spreads.
* Humor Hooks - Tell a funny story or a joke. A bizarre picture of your subject or mocking cartoons can also prove to be link bait.
* Evil Hooks - Saying something unpopular or mean may also yield a lot of attention. Writing about something that is not appealing about a product or a popular blogger. Provide strong reasons for it.
* Tool Hooks - Create some sort of tool that is useful enough that people link to it.
 Gerard Gravallese said:
I agree with both you and Barry. I find it difficult to believe, though, that Money.co.uk didn't know they had published a made-up article on their site.

The site owners should take responsibility for what they published.

Your point is well taken though, Jill. We, as industry professionals, should be more discerning. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is unfortunately, an effective way to get links these days. But isn't good, true and useful content worth linking too as well?

I'm glad you called this out. I had a similar reaction to the boasting and congratulating done on Sphinn.

This is a good article, well written, and true. I hope you get lots of links for it.
 Judd Exley said:
Linkbait seems to be just another one of those things that someone stumbled across, talked about, and all the jackwads took and ran wild with it.

Though, like you, I'm still a bit starry-eyed too and throw up in my mouth a little bit when I see a tweet by one of The Bigs calling their latest blog post "linkbait". Sucks when the respect metre dips so drastically.

Nuthin' but mad respect for you though Jill, you're a champion.
 1DMF said:
I refuse to accept this as true ‘link bait’, even with fishing there is a reward to the ‘biter’ , the juicy worm.

Surely true ‘link bait’ offers those who link a reward of some kind, a thank you for linking, be it a free download, commission or any other incentive dangled as bait.

writting fraudulent articles so people link to them is just simply deception and fraud.

Don’t get upset Jill, these SEOs who stoop to such levels as to release false articles are just simply con artists not professionals such as yourself.

It also goes to show how G! needs to change it’s entire premise on how to rank pages.

Quantity of links, as this proves, does not equate to quality of content, regardless of how popular the page seems to be, if the content is a lie, who cares how many people have linked to it!
 Bonnie Parrish-Kell said:
This link bait hoax illustrates the continuing decline of the integrity of the news media. Let's skip the fact-checking argument for the moment. Look at the story – a titillating subject practically guaranteeing the attention of media outlets like Fox News.

IMO - believing in and practicing integrity as I do - Money.co.uk should have replaced the story at that link with their “apology”. Instead, they are still receiving traffic to that page, stating that the story is a parody and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Which leads back to the fact-checking question. Given the nature of the story, you gotta wonder why no one at the website questioned it. Seems that would be pretty natural, wouldn’t it? Who’s to say there isn’t more behind this than what we’ve read so far? Hmmm.

Keep up the good fight, Jill. We’re all in this thing together!
 Jill said:
Thanks for all your comments so far! Interestingly enough, since this happened, I've found myself not believing any story I hear about whether online or off. My husband was telling me about some crazy story he heard about and I told him I no longer believed any story. He said, "no this was on Fox News"! And I was like, "so was the linkbait fraud"! He was like, "oh yeah."
 Robert @ Medulla Arts LLC said:
Salutations for the down to earth common sense! I have been schooling myself on the whole search engine scenario and do see deceiving practices more everyday. It is sad enough that the conglomorates e.g., mainstream media will cash in on anything thus givng the axe to the little guy. No different than the Walmarts that wiped away the warm neighborhood connection of small biz owners. Linkbaiting looks no different than fraudulent advertizing and the watch dogs agencies are back-logged of which is why it is going rampant. That is what the scammers count on... besides folks who are misled in news hype; who should put their pants down around their ankles and stand counted.
 Dorcas Mulcahy said:
"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."

Love your site and the information you provide, but - considering the preponderance of garbage found throughout the web, that is one very screwed up way of looking at the world.
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks for your thoughts, Dorcas.

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