The Dark Side of Viral Content

By Glen Stansberry on 26 August 2011 0 comments
Photo: Yuri_Arcurs

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is typically a very polarizing topic, so when I wrote about it on my site, I created a post with a custom graphic and added a catchy title. The post was picked then up by Hacker News, and the rest, as they say, was history.

For those not in the know, my guide was what's known as "linkbait," which is content created specifically to attract incoming links. And the guide did just that. The article generated (at the time of this writing):

  • 570+ retweets;
  • More than 180 likes on Facebook;
  • Lots of links from other sites around the Web.

Nearly 100,000 people have seen the article, and it was even on the front page of Google's search result for the super-competitive term "seo guide". Go figure.

Possibly the best byproduct of the buzz surrounding the article was the number of people who subscribed to my site. In terms of improving list growth, the linkbait was a fantastic success.

Fast-forward five months later, and the majority of people who expressed interest in my site have mostly moved on. Many who subscribed to my site have either unsubscribed or, worse, marked follow-up emails as "spam" because I haven't written about SEO since then. To top it off, the article received some terrible comments on networking sites, saying I had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe they were right...

This is the dark side of linkbait.

You spend countless hours crafting a bit of content and manage to have it spread virally, only to have any real user traction slip through the virtual cracks. Anyone who has traffic from StumbleUpon or Reddit or any other 3rd party discovery service knows too well that more often than not, the traffic doesn't stay. It's fickle, un-targeted traffic that most likely will bop on to the next flashy thing in under a second. Linkbait traffic is very similar: it typically doesn't linger long.

Crafting Linkbait that Endures

What the experts won't tell you is that linkbait is really good at one thing: getting links. If you're trying to build a community, then linkbait usually isn't as effective as other forms of content.

Yet sometimes linkbait can defy the odds and help grow a readership, convert sales, or any other positive long-term action that you'd like the casual visitor to take. So how do you avoid the dark side of linkbait? How do you avoid the rush of visitors that don't hang around? Here are a few tips.

1. Create really targeted linkbait.

The main problem with my SEO post is that while the actual meat of the article was in line with my site, the headline and graphic weren't. And guess what most people saw first? While the headline and lead graphic were great at generating discussion, the rest of the content really wasn't seen by most visitors. Because I don't write about SEO often, most people who subscribed via this article jumped ship after a few articles.

2. Make it clear what your site is about on subscription pages.

If the goal of your linkbait is to generate subscriptions to RSS or email (like mine was), then you're better off making it very clear what your site is about during the signup process. I had a simple "if you liked this post, why not signup for..." message at the end of my post. It said nothing about what my writing was like, what the site hoped to accomplish, or anything of the sort. So naturally most people assumed that there would be more articles on content marketing. Oops.

3. Don't make a habit of it.

There's nothing wrong with linkbait every now and again. It's fun, and it has the potential to draw in outside readers. Who doesn't love an interesting infographic? Yet regular readers can tire of linkbait quickly. Most people who decide to hang around want meat and potatoes. You've drawn them in with something sugary, but it's the healthy, nutritious content that promotes readership growth. Just like too many sweets can sour a stomach, too much emphasis on linkbait can make regular readers feel cheapened.

Is Linkbait Worth It?

Would I create another linkbait article on my site knowing about its dark side? If I had a choice, would I endure the nastygrams and spikey traffic and disappointed un-subscribers?

Was it really worth it?


Even though 98% of the traffic that came to my site didn't hang around, I still have two percent that did decide to stay. I improved my site's awareness. If some of those visitors find their way back to my site a second or third time, they're much more likely to pay attention. And let's not forget about the search engines. Google sends plenty of people to my site, and the higher I can get my content to rank, the better. More links to my site mean higher rankings, and that post brought in lots of links. It wasn't a total loss. That page continues to be one of my highest-trafficked pages to date.

The question you should ask yourself next is this: Is linkbait a good idea for you? Is it good for your audience or niche? You're the only person who knows best whether or not it will resonate with your audience. (And sometimes you just have to roll the dice and find out for yourself anyway.) Just don't fret when most of the traffic doesn't stick around.

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