Words get misused all the time for all sorts of reasons. In some cases overuse of a word results in the dilution of its meaning, like the word “awesome.” In our society the adjective “awesome” can be used to describe both the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon and the dollar menu at McDonalds. “Two Apple Pies for a dollar? Awesome!”
I’m pretty sure “link bait” is the new “awesome.”
Love, Hate, Link Bait
Link bait gets hated on pretty hard sometimes, but it all comes down to how you actually define and classify link bait. If you break it down to the most fundamental definition, “link bait” would be: content designed to attract links.
That premise on its own has no connotation positive or negative. It’s all about what we make it.
If you ask me, link bait is both good and bad. It's like “The Force.” Dark, light – it all depends on who's using it. Link bait, can be a really well done piece of content, something that took weeks or months to compile, or link bait can be an obvious attempt to be contrary, outrageous, or shocking.
Beyond those extremes you have a third variety. The term link bait is often applied incorrectly (usually by the creator) to mediocre content that is satisfactory, but not outstanding. This is actually my least favorite kind.
The fact is, the vast majority of content is about as close to “link bait” as a zucchini is to a wagon wheel. Not everything we put out there is a home run. Sometimes it’s a double or even a walk. Just like those plays are essential to the game of baseball, average content is integral to the web. It plays a role but, it’s not all link bait.
Take a site like, oh say Search Engine Watch, for a random example. They publish articles of all different kinds, and they don’t try to claim that each and every one is “link bait.” But certainly some posts qualify.
According to a literal definition, technically, both are. But do we have to lump it all together under the title "link bait"?
So Which One is Shinola Again?
Being used so much in so many different contexts has left the term "link bait" completely immersed in ambiguity due to arbitrary usage. The phrase “link bait” itself was most likely coined as a response to the kind of inflammatory content that most people associate with the term.
We can condemn and denounce the practice of negative link baiting, but glorifying things we find distasteful is a staple of our culture. Yeah, I’m looking at you, “Jersey Shore.”
The thing we need to remember is that link bait isn’t link bait if it fails to get links. So we may complain about the uglier side of "link bait" but it's those who respond to it, get angry about it, and link to it that perpetuate the system.
It’s a situation that is wildly counter intuitive. Any 15-year-old babysitter can tell you that bad behavior shouldn’t be rewarded, and yet when it comes to negative link bait, it is. When someone writes something with the intention of touching a sore spot in a community just to get a reaction, a lot of times... they get the reaction they want!
Why do we do it? Great question, I’ll fax it over to Dr. Freud. But in the meantime I’ll take a shot in the dark.
It seems that most people absolutely can’t resist sharing gossip or calling a crackpot a crackpot. I’m totally guilty. It's sort of the "Oh No He Didn't!" effect, because, yeah he did, and we can't wait to tell everyone else. Even when we see the incendiary attempt for what it is, we still give the link, even if only to say, “Look at this ridiculous link bait…that I just linked to.”
But who are you going to be mad at: the guy that wrote the thing, or all of the people who bought in? If there's a loophole in a system, everyone who exploits it exaggerates the problem. But the responsibility must be shared by the system that created it, and everyone who stood idly by saying, “Hey, we oughta fix that loophole one of these days."
Thing is, I love the good link bait in the world. The really clever stuff, the intellectual work, the research, the studies, even the well planned, well executed videos, comics, and infographics.
Certain attributes shine through in that kind of work. You know the difference when you’re reading something that is inspired, well thought out, creative, or insightful.
We laugh when something surprises us or presents a familiar situation in an absurd light. We learn when someone breaks down a high-level concept into comprehensible pieces. We benefit when someone aggregates the best or most useful information into one collection to save us the time of doing it. These efforts are entitled to the links they bring in. If something makes the information world richer the links are absolutely justified.
So it’s sort of up to us – the readers, linkers, and learners – to set the bar higher. Can we stop feeding the trolls and feeding the cycle? And can we start trying to make some sort of distinction between good link bait and bad link bait?
If a piece of work has been given a legitimate effort and the right amount of due diligence, it deserves links, and the title of link bait.
If it's common content that serves a purpose but can't be considered extraordinary, it's not link bait, it's just content.
If something is inflammatory or derogatory, it doesn't deserve to be called link bait. We should call it attention whoring. Or even "rubber necking." Seriously, because whatever inclination makes us share and respond to nonsense has got to be the same trigger that compels us slow down on the highway to look at an accident.
At the very least, can we start classifying link bait as positive and negative?
I realize I live in a little SEO-topia. But a girl can dream right? And I didn’t even get to talk about the risks and rewards of actively trying to use positive and negative link bait to get links. But don’t worry, I will. Next month.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!