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 crushingly 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.
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 three 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 jeopardizing 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
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:
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:
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
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.
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, againstallexpectations, 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 competitors of 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.
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.