The Psychology of a Linkbait

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It’s important to remember that the best links come from real human beings. In SEO circles, these are referred to as editorial links. Real people running well-read websites which highlight or reference interesting content from around the web. The best links get to the core of the web’s main mission: to highlight and share good content.

Acquiring good links is an artform. Sometimes you’ll have great content that flops. Sometimes you’ll have what you consider mediocre content that hits a nerve and spreads like wildfire. There’s a lot that you can’t control. The good news is that you can increase your chances of success by remembering one simple rule (repeated): the best links come from real human beings.

When building a linkbait it’s important to make it something that real human beings will want to link to. That’s why it’s important to master the psychology of a linkbait. How do you do this?

Evoke Re-active Emotions

Human beings are emotional beings. We are strongly influenced by the way we feel. That’s who we are. It’s part of our psychology. Because of this, the master linkbaiter doesn’t shy away from appealing to the most deep-seated emotions.

1) The Awe Effect

I find the “awe effect” to be the most reliably productive linkbait tactic. The “awe effect” does just that – it creates a sense of awe/inspiration in its readers in the same way that a beautiful sunset or other natural beauty makes us stop and say “wow!” For your reference, here’s a linkbait that I recently promoted using the “awe effect” which managed to gather dozens of quality links from sites like Neatorama and Mental Floss simply because it was inspiring to science and nature lovers: The 15 Coolest Cases of Biomimicry.

If you take a look at the type of articles that do well on Digg, you’ll notice one staple article-type: awe-inspiring photography. A day hardly goes by without a gallery of amazing photographs popping on the front page. And if you take some time to do a backlink analysis of the articles that hit the front page of Digg, you will find that the jaw-dropping photography consistently outperforms almost all other article types.

2) The Overwhelm Effect

Andy Hagans and crew are the masters at creating 100 point linkbait resources (e.g. 100 Best iPhone Apps For College Students). True, these types of articles no longer do very well on social media sites like Digg and Reddit … but who cares. The goal of a linkbait is not to get hundreds of thousands of useless pageviews, but to get dozens if not hundreds of editorial links. If you are looking for traffic, then you will want to create traffic-baits that specifically target social media sites which send lots of traffic. A linkbait can be successful without the traffic that Digg sends. Remember this point: traffic from digg is a one time event but traffic from search engines is long-term (not to mention much more monetizable). Quality links help build the long-term traffic that search engines provide.

So enough of that tangent about the difference between traffic baits and link baits. The “overwhelm effect” is the strategy of creating the biggest and baddest resource in existence about any given topic. Once you’ve built the resource, it should sell itself to the proper audience. Your next task is to go out and find bloggers and publishers who might find it interesting, then spend a good 4-8 hours emailing and using contact forms, and get the resource in front of the people who matter – the real people (editors) behind websties and blogs who create the best kinds of links.

3) The Flatter Effect

Remember what I said at the beginning? The best links come from real people. Well, real people like to be flattered. It’s a major turn on and a surefire way to get a reaction (hopefully in the form of a link). How do you flatter people? How about creating awards or lists of the most influential people in a niche. My experience has been that a flatter bait gets you a 10-20% linkbait. So let’s say you create awards that include 50 different websites. Then you email all the websites letting them know. My experience shows that you will get at least 5-10 links back. And sometimes it can be even more.

Here’s a free idea for flatterbait: 50 Smartest People In The Blogosphere

4) The Sensational Effect

WTF!? That’s just crazy. Totally bizarre. Weird. OMG. As it turns out, the web has become the crucible of all things sensational and over-the-top. Matt Drudge from The Drudge Report has become an enormous influencer and multi-millionaire by exploiting sensational news. Browse through his headlines and you’ll see more than enough examples of sensationalism.

Sensational news is the fuel of the Internet. Just take a look at the hottest searches in Google Trends – they tend to be dominated by sensational topics. Or browse the top articles on digg over the last 7 days. Here are some example titles: “Baby-faced boy is father at 13” “Joaquin Phoenix’s Bizarre Letterman Appearance” “Amazing Dance Caught On Jumbotron.”

Now, it’s pretty hard to orchestrate the sensational effect in a systematic way. However, if you run a news oriented site, it can really pay (in hudnreds of not thousands of links) to get the initial scoop on some bizarre or crazy news story. So your best bet is to just be agressive with time: aim to beat everyone else to the punch, and sooner or later you’ll get credited as the source.

Admittedly, going after the sensational effect is a bit like playing the lottery. But the payoff can be huge. And the odds are much better.

5) The Humor Effect

People love to laugh. Not only does it make us feel good, but it is good for us. It’s not surprise then that funny content has the potential to get passed around and linked to like wild fire. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the most viral content to get passed around from friend to friend via email or even facebook is funny content. Funny content can be manufactured if you know the right people with natural talent. Video skits, comics, jokes, etc.

Recently at BusinessPundit we posted this funny drawing that an elementary school child did as a class assignment. Via stumbleupon, email and facebook referrals the picture has now been viewed close to one million times. It really took off in email and we still get a few thousand email referrals to the article every day.

An Appeal To Reason

Human beings are seekers of true information. It’s in our DNA. Take for example the fact that “the weather” is a very common conversational piece. Or, consider that most of us compulsively devour the latest breaking news. We just want to know things for the sake of knowing, even if those things don’e directly effect our daily lives. Website and blog editors are always interested in learning something new too. So go ahead, let them have it.

1) The Expert Effect

If you establish yourself as an expert on some topic, and build up a following, pretty soon you’ll find that everything you write gets natural links. In my view, the latest crystal clear example of this is Dan Zarella who has established himself as THE scientist of social and viral media. How did Dan rise up in the midst of clouds of noise and chaos? He started collecting and analyzing data in unique and interesting ways that make clear and useful points. Maybe I’m missing something, but as far as I can tell, Dan is now the guy whom I and many others look to for insightful analysis of the social web.

Look. I’m tired of reading the same old rehashed blogging tips. Dan offers something fresh and practical. And he’s the only one doing a good job at it. And because of that he’s become an expert. Everything he writes gets links.

2) The “New Angle” Effect

It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes you just need to help people see the wheel from a new angle. This can be enough to set off that elusive “aha light bulb” and get people to say “brillaint, I wish I had thought of that myself.” Simple, new ways of thinking about an old topic can go a long way.

3) The “Old-Made-New” Effect

Last week I posted an article titled The Stoic Approach to Successful Online Publishing over at Copyblogger and it got a pretty good response and a few quality backlinks. All I did was take some old ideas that I was familiar with and tried to show how they apply to new situations. Interestingly, those who study the history of ideas often note that ideas move in cycles. New scholars discover old idea for the first time, put their own modern twist on those ideas, and then call them their own. There are very few new ideas under the sun. Sometimes it is sufficient to look back over the vast history of ideas to get new inspiration for the present.

4) The “Who Am I” Effect

As I said earlier, human beings desire to know for knowing’s sake. But not just know things about the world. We want to know things about ourselves too. The classic “Who Am I” effect is the quiz or it’s sister the poll. Reveal interesting or funny information about people through a quiz or poll and they will eat it up. Some of the classic viral quizzes of all time include How Many Five Year Old’s Could You Take In A Fight and Which Superhero are you?.

Since people are especially interested in relationship issues (how they relate to others) it can be doubly potent to build a quiz that revolves around relationships (family, dating, marriage, etc.).

5) The “New Info” Effect

This is my catch all category (and my best effort attempt to hit 5 points;-). Scientific discoveries. New movie announcements. Video game release dates. New offers for free products. Breaking news. Celebrity revelations. John Grisham’s latest book. Reviews of the 3rd generation iPhone.

People want new info. If you can provide it first (or close to first) you are likely to get links (assuming that their is a built in public interest).

Polishing It Off

I’m a big believer in taking the time to up the production value on your linkbait. Mind you, it’s not necessary. There are plenty of ugly things that have gone viral and gotten tons of links. But here are three things I recommend for polishing off a linkbait:

1) Make It Scannable

If your article is primarily text, make sure it is broken down into sections with headers and bullet points. If you content is video, consider writing a sentence or two explaining why people should watch through all 5 minutes, or if not, where they should start watching.

2) Make It Intuitive

Make sure that your content is instsantly engageable in a clear way. This is especially true if your content requires further clicking to receive the full effect. Navigation should pop-out and be obvious.

3) Reduce Ad-Clutter

Put the ads up later. It’s that simple. Or, if your site layout has non-obtrusive, well integrated ads in the sidebar, make sure that all ads are outside of the content itself.

4) Quality Site Design

I can’t tell you how many times people have sent me requests for links for content that was actually pretty good, but on butt-ugly, default-theme blogs. Fact of the matter is that people will be much less likely to link to your content if the site does not have a professional grade design.

5) Add Useful Graphics

It’s worth developing your own or paying a graphic designer to create eye-catching graphics (human beings are visual creatures). I typically recommend two types. First, a splash image that sits at the top of the content and brands the content. Second, introduce graphics that compliment the content such as graphs, charts, screenshots, etc.

6) Blink

This is the last phase of polishing off. Close your eyes. Clear your mind. Take on the mind of your target audience for a second. Open your eyes. Pay attention to your initial response. Would you link to it. Does it seem like the work of a professional? Don’t think too much about it. Just go with your gut. And if your gut says it needs more work, put the time in. There’s no rush. The links will wait.

Ryan Caldwell sometimes wishes he had gotten a degree in psychology so that he could have even more insight into the minds of the real human beings who link the web together. If you’d like, Ryan is available for consulting services through his admittedly plain and simple consulting site.

Ryan Caldwell
Ryan Caldwell, along with many other things, is currently working with a good friend to build a web hosting review site that actually matters and helps users (rather than simply pimping the highest paying affiliate). It's a big challenge (lot's of competition) and a long road ahead, but the path will be marked by the concepts in this post. One of the things we intend to do to "make the site matter" is to produce annual hosting awards that web hosts actually care about, by maintaining clear editorial separation from revenue considerations.
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  • james poole

    Brilliant read that was, one of the best posts in a long time on here.

    i agree with the human effect, to get links you must provoke a response(like me writing here) i will link to this now on various outlets.

  • Chris Crum

    Fantastic article. I’ll be linking to it myself. Well-done.

  • facundo corradini

    That was an amazing post, Ryan!

    Im CEO at ExitoWeb, an argentina-based web development company.

    I wonder if i could translate your article to Spanish and post it in our blog, of course we would cite the source and any of your request.

    plz mail me back at: info (at) exitoweb (dot) com (dot) ar

  • Seth

    Human linking is always far more effective. The human link is more likely to be well placed, effective and backed with excitement and maybe a post. Thanks for the insight!

  • Promo2

    I’ve never tryed to see on linkbaiting from this point. Thank you, Ryan.

  • Rasmus

    amazing article.. really great. You are missing the “odd” effect though

  • Missy

    As bloggers we are ALWAYS on the hunt for material to link to. I mean it is practically in the job description to link out.

    That’s what we bloggers do. So (as Ryan says) we can and should be targeting bloggers.

    I blog for green site Keetsa, and as a newsy type site, i’m ALWAYS on the lookout for good green stuff. And since we are a PR 5 blog, a link from us is pretty sweet juice.

    This is a great article by Ryan. Abit long. LoL. But good stuff. I will have to save this one and refer back to it, as i need/want to do some linkbait pieces for some of my personal blogs.

    Gold baby gold.

  • Vern at AimforAwesome

    What would be a good reason NOT to kill a guy that kidnapped, raped, and cut off a 7 yr old’s head with a butter knife? (mentioned in my article on feb 17 post at my blog)

    That was my twitter post 10 minutes ago before I saw Darren Rowse’s link to this amazing page. I don’t use crazy headlines much – linkbait? I don’t know what it is. I try to make my titles interesting and catchy – but, I your post is going to help me a lot to craft each post title with something unique and more likely to get looked at.

    Most of us that write blog articles have a few hundred people that see our post in a feed reader like Google reader. If the title doesn’t jump out – it doesn’t even get read. Anyone in my feed is competing with about 140 articles each time I check my feed reader. I typically read about 10 articles. If your post title sucks – guess what? I’m not reading it and probably few others are either.

    Great post. Great call by Darren to tweet this. And, I’m grabbing your RSS as a result.

  • soccer

    absolutely right, human do it better when it comes to link building, all the expensive auto submitter flops with a thud, when u r looking for links to specific topic.

  • Phaoloo

    Really helpful and amazing article.

  • mcdamas

    absolutely not only informative but also inspiring. It is such a great post I have ever read.

  • Gil

    Wonderful article. I am always looking for ways to get links, because the cosmetic dental field is very competitive. I especially liked the “Create a best of something list” which is the first idea of yours I will attempt to gather new links.

    I really liked your “15 Coolest Cases….” If you do a sequel 15 list, you might want to check out nature’s original “grinding wheel”–the crystalline style of the oyster.

  • Michelle

    Great article. Gave a lot to think about

  • Raphael – Top Web Templates

    Great and very helpful article, thanks a lot.

  • R. Greg Osmond

    OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO Shut Up! Sure glad your mother didn’t say that to you.

    Seriously, thanks for all the great info. I have subscribed to you blog. I am like a dry sponge right now and you gave me lots to soak up.


  • Onliner

    This post is the PERFECT linkbait material. It has:
    1) The Expert Effect
    2) The “New Angle” Effect
    3) The “Old-Made-New” Effect

    I bookmarked it immediately. Really great.

  • promotions

    great post, nice information, it will help me a great deal. thanks

  • nike dunk

    Psychology. need study more and read more.

  • fgdff
  • soccer

    thanks for the great info, much appriciated

  • izmir somine

    good nice post thank site

  • Boston SEO

    That was an incredibly in depth and well thought out post. There was so much on point information in just that short article. I specifically liked your paragraph on the Overwhelm effect.

  • Home Biz’preneur

    I was especially intrigued by your assertion that using awe-inspiring pictures in an article increase its linkbait appeal. Of course, finding such pictures to include with your article is another matter; I mean, using Google Images just doesn’t cut it anymore so if anyone has any ideas where to get

  • SNC

    Great article, I agree with you. Sometimes he have to be more creative in order to get natural back links to our sites.