Developing Linkbait For a Non-Technical Audience

Meet The Linkerati 

The old computer science joke has it that there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those that understand binary, and those that don’t.  There are 10 kinds of people on the Internet, too: those that link, and those that don’t.  Those that link are called the Linkerati, and they have the power to make your business vast sums of money, if only you show them the way.  This post is a wee bit theoretical, a wee bit how-do, and a wee bit of a direct inducement to the Linkerati themselves.  Or, as my college friends would say, “Dude, its, like, meta.”  I promise that they were not under the influence when they said things like that, unless postmodern theory counts as an intoxicant (then again, it probably should).

The Linkerati (what a wonderful word — I believe it was coined in an amazing blog post at SEOMoz which you should read) is the fragment of the online community which disseminates ideas.  I’m a Linkerati — look at us, here I am telling you to go read an amazing blog post and, what’s more, because you trust me and you trust my judgement you’re probably inclined to go off and do it.  Linkerati use Digg, Reddit, and the other social services.  Linkerati own blogs.  At the shallower end of the pool, they IM their friends and email their colleagues links.  They are tremendously influential online, owing to the biggest Linkerati of them all: Google.  Offline, perhaps you would call them “opinion shapers” or “early adopters”.

Google orders its search pages based on a variety of factors, and between the meta tags and URL structure and inbound links they all boil down to this: trust.  Trust is the currency of the web and the currency of SEO.  Linkerati gain trust from their circles of Internet friends, from the one-on-one message in an AIM window to the blogger with a million RSS subscribers, and Google sees physical artifacts of trust (i.e. links) and attributes a bit of that stored trust to the guy on the other end of the link.  This results in you getting higher positioning in the search results for keywords of interest to you, and that translates pretty much directly into money in your pocket.

So what does this have to do with linkbait?

Linkbait is, simply, the act of putting something online to influence the Linkerati.  Typically the desired action is to get them to link to it, write about it, talk it up with their friends, etc.  People who are much smarter and more effective than I am have talked about doing linkbait for the Digg demographic to death.  You know who I’m talking about: 16-24 years old, male, plays World of Warcraft, owns an iPod, can’t tell you what Steve Ballmer’s title is but know he once threw a chair in a meeting, yadda yadda.  This article won’t talk about them because, frankly, they’re not too valuable to me. 

Linkbait For The Rest of Us

I sell simple software which makes bingo cards for elementary school teachers.  Teaching eight year olds to read is crashingly dull to the Digg demographic.  My target demographic is older, 90%+ female, highly well educated, and as a bit of a generalization not extraordinarily technically-minded.  There are Linkerati in my demographic, though.  The challenge is reaching them.

When I was just starting out, I created a few pages of free resources which I knew would appeal to teachers, in the hope that they would come across them and pass them around to folks they knew.  This worked well, but there were some stumbling blocks: because I was engaged in laboriously hand-crafting the free resources, I only ever produced about a dozen of them, and they could be consumed in a single browsing session.  Indeed, 60% of the visitors to my site flitted out within seconds after finding what they were looking for (such as Dolch sight word lists, for example), most never to return.  So one of the main goals of my linkbait project was to make it sticky — to have something which screams to the primordial teacher soul I want to come back here.  Most things which are good enough to come back to are worth recommending to your friends, after all.

Positioning:

Linkbait needs to quickly communicate its value both to the general user and to the Linkerati.  Both demographics consume Internet content at quite a clip and if you can’t grab them in the first thirty seconds you have probably lost them.  Accordingly, you want to have a positioning for your linkbait which informs everything you do: its more than a title, it is the core essence of what you are offering boiled down to a thought fragment.

Ideally, I would love teachers to come visit me daily.  Thus the positioning: Daily Bingo Cards.

Those are three simple words which quickly get across what I am offering: it’s bingo cards, and you want to come back tomorrow because there will be new ones tomorrow!  (Note that I just took 17 words to explain a concept covered in 3 words.  This is why I abandoned my childhood dreams of becoming a newspaper columnist.)

Build Something Remarkable: 

So you’ve got something which grabs the attention of your targeted Linkerati in the first thirty seconds.  Now you’ve got to get over the hump of getting them to burn a wee bit of their trust with their audience and link to you.  You  do that by providing them something of value which they can’t get elsewhere. 

Back when I was starting out, “something of value” was free bingo card activities and free word lists.  Those are indeed valuable to my niche.  However, they’re not very remarkable — the Internet is full of them, and if the selection at a particular site is limited to a half-dozen you can decide “Eh, not quite what I was looking for” in an instant.  What took “Eh” to “Yeah!” was the decision to take things to an industrial scale.  The idea hit me when I was coming home on the train: what if, instead of handcrafting each set of cards and each page myself, I could somehow create hundreds of cards, for hundreds of activities, of every type and description.  That is, after all, what Bingo Card Creator is all about: an infinite diversity of possible lessons (well, as long as the lesson includes a bingo game), made quick and easy. 

So I created a system to automate the production of web pages about the resources, and I hired a team of freelancers to help me write good word lists.  That let me scale from 15 word lists (what I was able to write myself in a year — obviously not fully devoted to this one aspect of my business) to 70 word lists at launch and a new word list, you guessed it, daily.  (I suppose I could have dribbled them out one at a time, in keeping with the name of the site.  However, why waste the first two months having a site with a handful of word lists when I can just scale straight to the point where the site is remarkable?  No need for foolish consistency when fudging the name a bit makes life better for everyone.) 

The general idea is to so overwhelm my visitor with abundance that they think “Wow, I can’t possibly take it all in right now, but I’m going to remember this place because its sure to come in handy later!” 

On Breadth over Depth:

Like I mentioned, there are hundreds of free bingo activities on the Internet.  Most are collected in ones and twos scattered across a variety of sites, from the extraordinarily influential to the smallest Mrs. Smith’s First Grade Class Home Page.  For some microniches, like Halloween Bingo Cards, the search rankings are quite competitive.  For others, like Astronomy Bingo Cards, they are not competitive at all.  You mark my words, I’ll be in the top 3 on Google for that phrase in a matter of days or weeks.  And I’ll stay there for, well, probably forever, happily picking up a wee little trickle of search engine traffic.  Multiply a wee little trickle by hundreds of parallel pages and it isn’t a trickle anymore.

That is, in my humble opinion, the secret which differentiates linkbait for non-technical audience from linkbait for the Digg crowd.  The Digg crowd has the attention span of an ADHD squirrel on illegal substances and has negative a billion interest in yesterday’s news, with the possible exception of classic Nintendo games. 

You can practically write a mathematical formula for the number of links a post on Digg gets you: 2D/ r  * L, where D is the number of Diggs received, r is the ratio of people visiting to people Digging (so 1/r has the effect of multiplying — incidentally, a ballpark figure is r=.01), and L is how linkable the site is (think a lot less than L=.0001, typically). 

Note the term that isn’t present: time.  Very few Digg posts are relevant 48 hours later.  However, people will play Halloween Bingo in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, etc etc.  That page will essentially never get old.  It will just continue quietly helping searchers out, collecting links, and making me money.  It is an evergreen of value.  If you have a non-technical audience, you are in the evergreen farming business.  Plant them, water them, and watch them grow.    

Of Snowflakes and Snowballs:

Earlier on my blog I talked about snowflake queries, the totally unique but still generalizable search engine queries that comprise the Long Tail of search.  There might only be one teacher in the world searching for “4th grade astronomy bingo” (and, if so, she downloaded Bingo Card Creator yesterday).  However, presenting her with an entire site full of things tangentially related to the thing which directly stimulates her interests might induce her to link to it, or otherwise recommend it.  That link to that one individual resource lifts all of the other pages on the site a wee little bit, and in turn as they rise in the rankings they will attract links themselves, and eventually the site is not a collection of a hundred snowflakes, it is a massive snowball speeding downhill.  It might never be in the top 5 for the competitive “bingo cards” search (I actually hope not — I would hate to out-compete myself!) but it will roll over and crush sites which are not trusted or particularly optimized on those Long Tail queries.  That attracts motivated potential prospects directly to my product.

Shouldn’t You Put This On Your Main Site? 

If the goal of linkbait is to get hundreds of inbound links, it would certainly make a lot of sense to put it on your main site.  I didn’t, this time, largely to have the freedom to play around with Daily Bingo Cards without worrying about jeaprodizing the business proper.  You see, it is possible to over-do on-page SEO, and I’m probably coming pretty close to the line.   Consider my Halloween bingo cards page:

  • Title is “Halloween Bingo Cards”
  • H1 tag is “Halloween Bingo Cards”
  • Halloween Bingo Cards is bolded
  • The word “Halloween” is on the page six times
  • The alt tag for the image mentions, yep, Halloween bingo cards
  • The URL for the image does, too
  • Did I mention the URL is http://www.dailybingocards.com/bingo-cards/holidays/halloween ?

Yeah, I might be pushing it just a wee bit.  Then again, the page really is about Halloween Bingo Cards, and hopefully Google’s algorithms will understand and appreciate that, rather than deciding “Oh, he is a spammer not contributing value, let us put him in the supplemental index”.  Links from real people are one way to get trusted enough to avoid that.

Should I step over and get all those results kicked out of the main index by Google, I really don’t want that to cost me $1,000 a month.  Six months from now, if the site takes off, I can always 301 redirect it to a subdomain of my main site.

Make It Linkable:

Help the Linkerati link to your site.  The very first barrier is making sure it can be linked to — putting linkbait behind a sign-on or on a page which requires a session ID means you fail, period.  The second barrier, and one which trips up a lot of people, is giving the page a good, accessible URL.

What does accessible mean?  Well, here is a wonderful article by Bob Walsh, who I’m only picking on because he is generally brilliant, is a professional colleague, and has mentioned a few times that he doesn’t get why this is a big deal:

http://www.47hats.com/?p=476

Now quick, without actually reading it, tell me what that article is about.  Kind of a tough task, right?  But that is exactly the kind of link you get when a non-technical person just copies and pastes the link into their blog or IM window, and it tells their audience nothing useful.  You don’t feel any need to go read it right now and miss out on this article, right? 

Now, without clicking on this link, tell me what it offers you:

http://www.dailybingocards.com/bingo-cards/people-and-careers/celebrities

Not a very hard task, is it?  Not only can you tell what is there (hey, bingo cards!  And about what?  Celebrities!  Celebrity Bingo Cards!), but Google and the other search engines give major weight to the words printed in the URL.  Better for your users, better for the Linkerati, better for the search engines — take the extra time to make pretty URLs, you will be happy you did.

As an added bonus, those URLs work exactly how the folder metaphor on the computer has taught people to think that they work: chop off celebrities and you get

http://www.dailybingocards.com/bingo-cards/people-and-careers/

which, like you would expect, gets you bingo cards about People and Careers.  Chop off people and careers, and you get bunches and bunches of Bingo Cards sorted into categories, letting you build your way back to an individual card.  How I did this is an interesting little implementation detail which I will cover in another article later.  (Since that little implementation detail is specific to Ruby on Rails, whose community is absolutely overflowing with Linkerati, I’ll put that article actually on the Daily Bingo Cards site and promote it directly within the community.  Win for them, they learn a good way to improve their own websites, win for me, I get free link juice.)

(Sidenote: If you run WordPress but your URLs look less than helpful, you can do something similar for yourself in thirty seconds: log into your control panel, click Options, click Permalinks, and select “Date and Name based” then hit confirm.  Presto-changeo, instant link readability.)

Grease the skids for repeat visitors:

I want people to bookmark my site and send it to the friends.  Adding “Bookmark this site!” and “Save to del.icio.us” buttons at appropriate places was very easy, and my copy actively encourages folks to come back tomorrow.  Did you know every save on del.icio.us is worth a (minor) inbound link?  I sure wouldn’t mind ending up on the popular bingo card page, and the barrier to getting there (precisely BECAUSE the delicious-using teacher population is tiny) is pretty low.  All I need to do is make a website, add in a dash of discrete text links, and let simmer for a few months.

Promotion:

If a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it… I forget how the rest of that quote goes, but I am pretty sure it does not continue “then the Linkerati will blog about it”.  Just putting up a site about Daily Bingo Cards doesn’t mean anyone will actually visit it.  However, and here is the meta part of the blog post, I happen to have a decently well-read blog which has many blogging readers and many more transient searching visitors looking for things like Free Bingo Cards.  And if you want free bingo cards, well, you know where to get them!  That is enough to get my snowball rolling… but why do things by half measures.

  • Prepare a sitemap for Google and the other engines (they crawled me on the same day I submitted one, and I’m already in the index for at least the term Daily Bingo Cards (#1), with exactly ONE inbound link in the entire world prior to this post).
  • Talk to your existing customers.  I suppose I technically could mail the 400 people who bought Bingo Card Creator in the last year and say “Hey, I love you guys!  Here is a site full of free bingo cards which you can use with Bingo Card Creator.  Enjoy!”  However, I promised not to spam them and that is pushing it.  I came up with a compromise — when they get bugged to update their software to Bingo Card Creator 2.0 (which includes the daily bingo lists), the page the upgrade takes place on will mention the site and suggest they link to it.
  •   Use niche social sites – like Digg, for people who don’t find 37 Improbable Devices To Run Linux On to be very interesting.   For example, there is a site called qoolsqool.com which is, against allexpectations, actually populated by educators.  I’ll be typing up a brief entry there.  Then a Squidoo lens, yadda yadda you get the drill.
  • Blog it.  It helps if you have readers already, happily, I do.  The “secret” to that is basically linkbait writ small: produce things of value, repeat at regular intervals.

Ditch the ads:

An acquaintance of mine suggested I put AdSense ads on Daily Bingo Cards.  I can’t see how this could possibly be worthwhile: first, to have decently performing AdSense ads you have to either a) have a site which functions as a glorified search engine or b) break your site so that people want to leave it as quickly as possible.  This is not compatible with my overarching strategy, to get people to come back tomorrow!  Much of the Linkerati is also a wee bit anti-commerce (a feature they share with many teachers) and they don’t want to be “tricked” into linking to a billboard.

It is funny, though — the whole site is one gigantic advertisement for how Bingo Card Creator makes your life easier, and I plug it on essentially every page.  But it doesn’t look like what you expect an ad to look like, and the very act of consuming the marketing message is intensely valuable to my target customer!  That has to be the holy grail for marketing — people so want to be marketed to that they’ll come to you for that express purpose and tell their friends!

Finally, while I could extract CPMs in the $2 or so range by selling advertisements to competitorsof Bingo Card Creator (that is what I pay Google for my own advertisements, after all), if this page performs as well as my existing free resources page I’ll have an effective CPM of about $40.  $2 vs $40… not a hard call.  Plus, I expect the page to significantly outperform my free resources page.  If you’re a budding uISV wondering whether you can achieve big profits through advertising, you certainly can, but remember: every cent spent on advertising on the Internet comes out of a dollar that someone made through something that was not advertising.  You can have the cent or you can have the dollar — choose wisely.

Postscript:

I have been putting off this blog post for two weeks.  Every additional delay had a good reason: I was wretchedly ill, I was busy, I was swamped at work, I was entertaining a friend from out of town.  However, I’ve decided to go to back to my core foundational principle and say “You know, when all else fails, launch the sucker.” — it makes little sense for a marketing experiment to go into week four when the product I’m marketing was launched on schedule on day eight!  So consider the sucker launched. 

Now begins the battle of inches, where I test, iterate, and refine while the resource keeps helping people out. 

If you found this article valuable, feel free to tell folks about it.  If you want updates on whether all this theorizing actually amounts to anything, subscribe to the RSS feed because I’ll be giving regular updates on how the site performs (with real traffic numbers and the like — I’m very big on transparency, so if Google hits me with the banstick you’ll see the implosion in transparently painful detail!)  And if you know anybody looking for bingo cards for class, you know where to send them.

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No Responses to “Developing Linkbait For a Non-Technical Audience”

  1. Bob Walsh October 21, 2007 at 5:12 pm #

    [hand hitting head - smack!] NOW I get what you mean Patrick! – two questions.
    How do I make this happen in my own WP blog? How do I apply it to existing posts?

  2. Patrick October 21, 2007 at 5:49 pm #

    It will happen automatically for old posts (without breaking old URLs) when you do this setting: log into your wp-admin interface (same place you make posts, etc). Click the Options tab. There is a subtab called Permalinks. Click it. You’ll be given three preset options and one option for creating your own link structure — you want what is probably preset option #2, called something like “Date And Title based”, which produces links like the one this blog uses (http://microisvjournal.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/developing-linkbait-for-a-non-technical-audience/).

  3. Eric D. Burdo October 21, 2007 at 5:59 pm #

    Excellent article Patrick. I figured you were up to something like this… :)

    Keep us updated on how the site performs.

    @Bob – If you apply the change (using the options that Patrick mentioned in the body of his post), it should apply to ALL posts on your site.

    And the nice thing is, people can still get to your article using the old link. So you won’t lose traffic.

  4. Alex October 21, 2007 at 7:30 pm #

    The comment from “Nintendo” is trackback spam. You might consider removing that to maintain the quality of your blog here.

  5. Jason Hiltz-Laforge October 21, 2007 at 9:20 pm #

    Brilliant. Really. And an excellent writeup to boot.

    This post, and the snowflake query one, have really made me think hard about how to effectively reach the audience for a forthcoming product. Thanks for the kick in the brain.

    And +1 to readable URLs! Now, if we only get rid of TinyURL… ;-)

    Thanks again for a great blog and keep us posted on how well this experiment works out. My prediction is that your monthly sales will double within four months and triple in six. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a beer if I ever make it to Japan!

  6. Patrick October 21, 2007 at 10:49 pm #

    >>
    If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a beer
    >>

    My potentially lethal allergy to alcohol makes that a sort of dicey proposition, but I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless. :)

  7. Jason Hiltz-Laforge October 22, 2007 at 12:21 am #

    >>
    My potentially lethal allergy to alcohol…
    >>

    Must’ve missed that post…I’m too lazy to grok what looks to be a hip, non-alcoholic Japanese drink (bubble tea? what the heck is that??), so we’ll just make it juice :-)

  8. Patrick October 22, 2007 at 3:06 am #

    Bubble tea is a fairly recent sensation which took Asia by storm. Essentially, its tapioca balls added to an iced drink (milk tea in the most popular formulation, but the drink can really be anything). You buy it at special little mini-kiosks at the mall for about $3-4 a cup, in my area. Presumably its a heck of a lot cheaper in China and Taiwan.

    But no, while I will certainly drink bubble tea when out with my friends, the socially appropriate drink for a man my age who can’t get smashed is oolong tea. I have had uncounted swimming pools of the stuff at drinking parties, so much that I actually grew to like it (it was a bit of an aquired taste, since at first brush it reminds me of nothing so much as burnt bark water).

  9. Steve Moyer October 22, 2007 at 10:55 am #

    Patrick:

    As usual, this is a brilliant post. Thus far, I’ve considered you the perfect embodiment of how to properly boot-strap and run a uISV. If Bob provided the documentation of the process, you’ve written the example application. It’s hard for me to fathom how you’ve missed such a huge opportunity to extend your marketing. I’ll start with a use-case (maybe not so common as it used to be, but I’ll bet it still applies) … and I’ll bet you realize what my recommendation is before you finish it.

    “A teacher, searching for a non-repugnant halloween activity logs into Google and finds a masterfully created set of halloween bingo cards produced by a small software company. This teacher then does what she always does … prints them out, makes a copy of the printouts (which she later cuts up and uses in class) and stores the originals in her filing cabinet full of master copies. In fact it’s this filing cabinet of masters that has so endeared her to her colleagues.”

    Here’s the point … it’s time for you to start using print advertising. Before you complain that it’s a dying media (and as I said above, I suspect you already have my point), realize that it won’t cost you a dime. You should be printing your web site’s URL (and maybe company name) on every sheet that your program prints out (or in this case, every PDF file on Daily Bingo Cards). The teachers will naturally share your pages, but only the one who originally downloaded your cards has the opportunity to be a purchaser.

    You might argue that including this advertising on the cards is too invasive, but every commercially printed bingo card I’ve ever seen has this same information on it (along with copyrights, etc). At least put the information “outside the cuts”.

    BTW: I agree that Oolong is an acquired taste, but at least it’s a roasted tea (sounds like yours is too roasted). If you like earthy teas, Yunnan Bo Nay (or one of its variants) is similar but unroasted. Wonder what a cup of soil tastes like … brew some (though the dirt taste test was required of us males at around age 4).

    In any case, great idea, great article and good luck!

  10. Patrick October 22, 2007 at 12:01 pm #

    That is an excellent idea, and I had planned doing it whenever I figured out a convenient way to do so. My printing code causes me to wake up screaming every time I contemplate it.

  11. Steve Moyer October 22, 2007 at 12:41 pm #

    “My printing code causes me to wake up screaming every time I contemplate it.”

    Yeah … that’s a language and platform independent problem!

  12. Rich October 22, 2007 at 1:09 pm #

    “Yeah … that’s a language and platform independent problem!”

    Well, yeah–but Java just gives you that extra bit of terror.

    This post is currently #2 for astronomy bingo cards. Not what you had in mind, but give it time, I guess.

  13. Bob Walsh October 22, 2007 at 4:17 pm #

    Outstanding Pat (and Eric) – done! Looking forward to that rails implementation article too!

  14. BradC October 22, 2007 at 9:20 pm #

    I don’t know if its just me, but every single “Download Eight Cards” link is broken! (doesn’t do anything on my machine, just re-loads the page).

    Windows XP, IE 7.0, Foxit PDF Viewer

  15. Patrick October 22, 2007 at 10:07 pm #

    Ah hah, I have an idea. To prevent folks from hotlinking the PDFs I have the server do a referrer check to see if you were referred from my site or not. If not, you get redirected to the page instead. If your machine or a firewall or something is stripping referers from your HTTP headers you’ll get infinite looped there. Let me try a work around to fix that.

  16. Grok2 October 22, 2007 at 11:26 pm #

    Nice article. One recommendation. Ensure that the anchor words of your linkbait are relevant too. Check out this post by Scott Wainner: http://www.wrevenue.com/2007/10/17/seo-the-importance-of-anchor-text-in-backlinks/.

  17. John Sandell October 27, 2007 at 1:18 am #

    Patrick -

    Great blog. But a bit more care in editing could benefit you. For example, in this post, you say “what I am offering: its bingo cards” when it should say “what I am offering: it’s bingo cards”. (it’s = it is; its = possessive: his, hers, theirs, its).

    supplimental should be supplemental

    Way back you had “targetting”. Should be targeting.

    I used to think these things didn’t matter, until I began writing manuals, and the reviewers, who should have been checking for technical accuracy, began pointing ou t my mistakes in spelling and grammar.

    Interestingly enough, a technically deficient manual gets easy approval if there are no speeling and grammar errors!

  18. Patrick October 27, 2007 at 6:08 am #

    Thank you for pointing out the errors. I will fix them. What can I say, writing quality English at 2 AM in the morning is not my strong suit.

  19. Dan Hite January 2, 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    This sounds like great stuff and I can see how you can capture the long tail with your snowflake page but I don’t see anything demonstrating that your linkbaiting is working. I took your Halloween cards URL and did a Yahoo search on link:http://www.bingocardcreator.com/bingo-cards/holidays/halloween. I found only one link from a site that isn’t yours and THAT page tries to install malware when I go to it. Did you do a follow-up post on the results of your linkbaiting campaign?

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