What Has Edward Bernays Taught Me About Link Building

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Edward Bernays, the original spin doctor, passed away before the term “link building” was coined, yet there aren’t a lot of people who could teach more about how links should be built.

The days of mechanical link building that consisted of directory, article submission and social bookmarking were numbered a while ago. Article submission software and cheap labor can’t compete with online public relations, link baiting and relationship building.

But what does Edward Bernays has to do with that?

He was the person who made bacon and eggs America’s favorite breakfast food, a person who initiated the end of a taboo (women smoking in public) and a person whose actions caused the toppling of a democratically elected government in Guatemala etc…

So, he wasn’t a saint.

What Bernays mastered, was shaping the public opinion by modifying perception of products, services, people, countries – you name it. He made it easy for people to express themselves by performing actions that help accomplish his goals. This is a goal shared with every serious link builder on the planet.

Eddy, as his friends called him, would be a great link builder because he knew how to build the perception of authority, make people express themselves by accomplishing his goals, and how to start conversations that end up benefiting his clients.

He would be a master link builder and a social media genius. Something like Lyndon or Debra, only slightly more evil. I say evil only because Bernays didn’t have a high opinion of human beings.

I forgave him for that because of the valuable lessons he left behind.

1. Influencing the influencers

In one of his most popular books – Propaganda (from 1928) Bernays states:

“If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.”

That message is just timeless. It’s been 82 years since the book was published, and it is still the best piece of advice you will ever get on link building.

People usually don’t question authority figures or entities in their society. This is something that is hard-wired in us.

The web, as a social medium, is not immune to this kind of behavior. Bloggers write about whatever the leaders in their industry already wrote about. Diggers digg whatever their favorite “power user” has dugg. The only tangible difference between human behavior online and offline lies in the fact that web interactions leave a permanent footprint, which makes it rather easy to measure the reach of your campaign.

Influencing the influencers doesn’t mean buying links.

Best link building campaigns have absolutely nothing to do with buying links. I would go so far to say that people who run most influential online media outlets would be offended by brokers trying to negotiate a link deal. Remember the conversation Danny Sullivan had with an idiot broker?

OK, that was a bit extreme, and a lot of times a price would be established and a link would be sold. However, any significant online media outlet that sells links is on the way of losing algorithmic trust and maybe even credibility in the eyes of their readers.

Everybody is biased

Every source of information offline or online is biased to a certain extent. No one can deny that.

Most media outlets that depend on advertising revenue to survive suffer from some form of advertising bias.

If you have an advertising budget, this is perhaps the easiest way to get influencers to link to, or should I say “cover” your story or a website, especially if you are a longtime advertiser or if you spend a lot of money just for the sake of branding.

You don’t have to rely on advertising bias to get editorial links. There are many other ways.

Building personal relationships

Bernays had editors of major newspapers only a phone call away which made it easy for him to achieve desired results fast. He probably didn’t start his career that way, nor did he get where he was by sucking up.

All publishers need material that will get more newspapers sold, more ads clicked, pages viewed, attention grabbed. If you can help them with that, you might be on the fast track to the land of authority links and serious exposure.

Here are some tips to get you on the way:

Get to know the people in your industry so you can learn about their biases and agendas.

Try to be helpful and useful.

You know the drill, tell them if they have browser issues, broken links, missing images. I have built some interesting links by doing this. The funny thing is – I wasn’t always doing it for the links.

Don’t pitch too soon.

There is nothing worse than selfish pitchers unable to delay gratification. Don’t pitch ideas beneficial only to yourself and your clients. If you are only half interested in the web publishing process, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Look for overlapping interests, biases and passion

Essentially, all social interaction is guided by interest, passion and reason. Train yourself to spot where interests, passions and biases overlap. Would you pitch a story about a bug in a random piece of Microsoft software to a blogger that lives and breathes for Apple and Steve Jobs ?

I know I would.

Treat social media power users like royalty

There are plenty of social media users that can generate more exposure for your story than most local news papers ever could. You should learn how to leverage the power these users have.

2. Help people express themselves by linking to you

Back in the day when cigarettes weren’t considered pure evil and women’s status in society wasn’t something to brag about, Bernays was hired by the president of American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill.

Bernays mission was to improve the sales of Lucky Strikes among women.

In 1928/29, that was not an easy task because the taboo against women smoking in public was still strong. But so was the sense of triumph and freedom after the victory of suffrage movement.

Bernays used this to present cigarettes as “torches of freedom” for women, and smoking in public as a way to express desire for equality.

Now, I am not an advocate of smoking, nor am I going to pass moral judgement, but I will say this:

The best way to build links is to make your content a tool of self expression.

Salary.com made it easy to express how hard and under-appreciated a job of a mommy is, with their mommy salary wizard.

Jason Calacanis and Derek Powazek made themselves easy linking targets for half of the SEO blogosphere.

Even the SEO bloggers, faces of the industry, couldn’t escape the effect. Just like mommy bloggers made Salary.com’s linkbait a raging success. It seems that we, as humans, can’t help but to express ourselves even when partially aware that we’re a part of a social experiment.

What has worked almost a century ago, works today on the web. Technology only made things faster and easier to quantify.

Nothing else has changed.

Vedran Tomic is a local search marketing blogger and an in-house SEO manager. He’s also a link building enthusiast.

Vedran Tomic

Vedran Tomic

Vedran Tomic is a local internet marketer passionate about helping people integrate offline & online marketing with their overall business strategy.
Vedran Tomic
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  • Jeremy Ashburn

    Great tip about helping people express yourself by linking to you. I’ve recently discovered that if find and pursue your passion it will become easily transparent to whomever you work with and relate to. My passion to computer repair and newest technology. I’m formed a blog that makes recommendations for those shopping for a new laptop or desktop. I just created forums on my site that will hopefully allow pepole to express themselves fully, link with me, and enjoy their experience while on my site.

  • Monique

    Wow, great post! I too agree that the days of link building directories are/should be over. Link worthy content should be a key component to any online strategy, and yet so many times, people miss the boat.

    I learned about Bernays in my marketing college courses, but never thought to apply his lessons to link building. You’re totally right, he would be a social media guru if he was still around today.

    Love this line: “The best way to build links is to make your content a tool of self expression.” Thanks for the getting my brain stirrin’ on a Friday!

  • Joanna Batten

    I like how you brought Bernays back! Good read

  • JuiceeLinks

    I would say great post, but it is much better than that. In many ways, technology has made it so simple to apply distilled marketing theory and technique.

    If Bernays were alive today, no doubt the entire world would be smoking.

  • Vedran


    Keep it up, Jeremy! Passion always makes a difference.
    People who share your passion will follow you and eventually link to you if you reinforce what they stand for.

  • Vedran


    Edward Bernays would probably be the best link builder of all time 🙂

    On a more serious note, I really think that everyone who’s into link building and online public relations should read his stuff first, and then Lee Oden’s blog.

  • Vedran

    @ Joanna,

    Bernays is my hero 🙂

  • Vedran

    @ JuiceeLinks,

    You are absolutely right!

    Technology makes it easy to measure reach and influence, which makes it even more interesting to do what we do.
    You can measure how influential a blogger is with very simple and easy-to-understand metrics, like the number of subscribers, Twitter followers, links etc.

    Gotta love the age that we live in!

  • Kawika

    Great post! An interesting read, for sure, on the whole point of linkbuilding – to obtain mindshare.

  • aGreenSupply

    Great article. It makes me rethink how should I apply my linking methods.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Tubs

    Interesting reading Vedran, in particular the tip about helping people express themselves by linking to you.

  • Arrow SEO

    Great article on link building. Very interesting read. Thanks

  • Tom

    Interesting comparisons, however what I would say is I think that sometimes it is hard to comply with some of these points, dependant on the industry. Lets not forget that in order for Online PR to work effectively you need to constantly have something interesting to discuss and this is fine in ever changing and interesting industries but not so easy in uninteresting (some would say boring) ones.

    There is still a place for paid links, paid reviews and in-links and I think there will be for some time to come yet. However, the best strategy in my eyes is to use a combination of the two methods wherever possible.

  • Paul Doffman

    Really great article. Is great what history can teach us. The way people behave doesn’t change much just the things we interact with.

  • Connect Free

    Nice read…
    I didnt know of Edward Bernays (embrassing I know) but I’ve had a look at some of his stuff and you really were able to relate it very well to link building.
    Thanks for learning something new!

  • danny

    Hey Vedran..great post!

    I’m going to get ‘Propaganda’ and give that a read. Great advice on link building and making people feel like they connect to a bigger picture.