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March 14, 2007

Calling It Linkbait Doesn’t Make You Less of a Jerk

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There’s a particularly poignant post over at SEOmoz today where an SEM relates an Unsavory Linkbait Dilemma he had with one of his company’s high profile clients – Promises Treatment Center. For those who don’t own a television set, a computer, or have access to a newspaper, that would be the rehab center young Britney Spears is currently residing at.

Naturally, since Britney has taken up residency, the site has experienced a flood of visitors – Uniques are up 4300 percent, page views 3600 percent and they’ve already collected 541 new links, he says. The dilemma he faces is whether or not he should take advantage of Britney’s situation in order to gain more exposure in the search engines. He explains:

"Ideas from the crass (like a “Where in the World is Britney Spears” game) to the noble (a site expressing support for Britney during her treatment at Promises) ran through my head. What better form of linkbait? People are swamping our site – most of them in vain attempts to find out information about her treatment."

I’m going to ignore the incredibly large knot in my stomach those last two sentences gave me and try to look at this intelligently.

From a public relations perspective, I really think any attempt to benefit off this, or a situation like this, hurts your company’s reputation. Masking your linkbait attempt behind a "support" page that tells the paparazzi to back off and let Britney recover in peace could still backfire. In your heart-of-hearts, you know you’re trying to capitalize off someone else’s suffering. Don’t pretend you seriously care that Britney’s privacy is being taken advantage of. (You don’t, and she doesn’t either or she’d stay inside.) Your visitors will see through that and you’ll ruin the emotional aftertaste called branding you’re leaving in their mouth.

Even if you were able to create something "funny" and you gained some links and exposure, the long-term effects could be forever damaging. You’ll lose credibility with your target audience, respect (and links) from your colleagues, and likely tarnish the brand you’ve worked so hard to create. It’s like that guy who writes a blog post flaming someone not because he’s right, but because he can. Publicly, people may comment and laugh, but you know when they turn off their computer at night they’re thinking, "now THAT guy? He’s an ass." If it’s human nature to want to tear someone down, it’s also human nature to despise the person who does the tearing. Even if you enjoyed watching.

Don’t be that guy.

And seriously, what kind of visitors or potential clients are you going to attract with a crass Where in the World is Britney Spears game anyway? The kind of people who used to stuff you in your locker when you were in high school and still hovering around 4’9? Are these the people your company is trying to attract? Do they bring value to your company?

Looking at this from an ethical perspective and stepping away from the Britney angle, you have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go for visibility. Is being crass okay if it’s done in the name of links? Or as Rand Fishkin asks in his comment, "is linkbait the paparazzi of the Web?"

I don’t think linkbait is Internet paparazzi, but I do think each site, company and human must find the how-far-is-too-far line for themselves. And regardless of how crooked or far back your line is, I would hope there’s some level of common decency that is applied to all things. It’s that compass that keeps you from clicking on your competitors PPC ads, from reporting their worthy sites as spam, from spreading rumors about their company on the Internet, and from doing a host of other malicious, sleazy or spammy things.

If you’re saying, publishing, or creating something that hurts others and/or is potentially damaging, to anyone, you’ve crossed the line and you need to reevaluate your business goals. At some point is not about what kind of a site you’re running, but what kind of a person you are. Creating a blog post that defames someone is wrong. Trash talking at conferences is wrong. Take the energy you’d put into that and put it towards creating something worthwhile. It takes just as much energy to do something right as it does to do it wrong.

One of the commenter’s at SEOmoz responded that if you don’t take advantage of the situation, others will. He’s right, but I think that’s a really crappy way to do business, or really, live your life in general.

At the end of the day, your company’s success is not going to be based on your position in the search engines or the hot piece of linkbait you just created. It doesn’t matter how well you rank if you’re known for being an unethical scumbucket. Your company has an image to maintain, as do you. Do you really want to be known as the guy who created the Britney Spears Flash game?

The idea behind social media should be to build a community. You can use that community to serve an array of purposes, but community is really the goal. You don’t achieve that by hurting or bringing down others, especially people who are already suffering.

There are plenty of people on the Web already exploiting the misfortunes of others. My advice is to encourage your company to aim higher. Don’t take the road to easy links; take the road that offers value to your customers. You want to be known, but you want to be known for the right reasons.





11 responses to “Calling It Linkbait Doesn’t Make You Less of a Jerk”

  1. Glen writes:

    Great post, certainly food for thought

  2. graywolf writes:

    I think taking advantage of the situation would be just evil. However leaving the visitors wandering about the site in vain isn’t good for usablity.
    Put up a page that says something like “We can confirm that Britney is a guest of our center, and we understand your concern for news about her condition. However to protect the privacy of our patients we can’t reveal the details of her treatment. Thanks you for your understanding, blah blah blah”
    Obviously I hope they have publicist or PR person who can be a little more eloquent than I am.

  3. Lisa writes:

    Why does Promises have to say anything about Britney being there? It’s common knowledge at this point, but is it really necessary for them to confirm it on their Web site? I feel like even that is taking advantage, not to mention deterring people from entering their program. Imagine if every celebrity got their own “Yup, they’re here” rehab page? It’d be like rehab Wikipedia.

    She’s there. We know she’s there. If we didn’t know she was there, we wouldn’t be visiting the Promises’ site to begin with. Leave the girl alone.

  4. graywolf writes:

    wise man say it is better to light a candle than to fumble in the dark.
    By saying she’s here but we aren’t saying anything you can stop most people from wasting time clicking around on your website in futility.
    Unless of course you want their URL passing through the toolbars influencing personalized SERP’s

  5. David Temple writes:

    “Don’t be that guy.” I love it. Huge mistake to say anything, period. Confidentiality should be a rehab facility’s first priority. Okay everyone knows where everyone is but you still say squat.

    “We can’t deny or confirm whether Miss Spears is either here or there, nor can we say we say if she’s neither there or here. Either way we can’t say, so blog that.”

  6. Halfdeck writes:

    I agree 100% with you, Lisa. Your statement “The idea behind social media should be to build a community” is dead-on. I’ve been fixated on raising visibility, but now I’m convinced that’s just a rung on the web 2.0 ladder.

  7. SEO Portland writes:

    Who cares where Britney is? I mean seriously, why are people troubling themselves over that tripe?

    As for the guy at the treatment center, he obviously needs a quick smack down for wanting to crossover to the dark side of marketing.

    (note to self: must remember not to make The Lisa mad or she writes posts like this)

  8. Tech Mentat writes:

    Few thoughts;

    1. They already have traffic pouring in and a flood of links (without doing anything). Isn’t that the point/goal of linkbaiting? If you organization is part of a hot news/social topic – the work is already done for you.
    2. I think what he (Geektime) is looking for isn’t linkbaiting tactics but a stickiness factor.
    3. I know I will sound like a real jerk BUT I don’t actually have a problem with all this. If the company was to create a place where Britney could communicate with users – where they could get glimpse of what it’s like for her to go through rehab (humanizing her) then I am totally ok with it. I think the problem is that the SEM verbalized this concern and thus it comes under scrutiny.
    4. Having said that, I don’t really like the fact “linkbaiting” and “rehab center” ended up in the same post. Again, I just don’t think he wants linkbaiting but community (which can be positive).
  9. Stuart writes:

    Lisa I applaud your position

    Tech Mentat – when a person enters rehab or a place where they can be treated for depression the very last thing they need is further exposure to what put them there in the first place.

    And as for even thinking about putting something up on the site – I can’t believe that any normal, compassionate human being would do that. On some occasions there is a level of discretion and privacy needed to protect someone who is incapable of protecting themselves and this is one of those occasions wehre no one – not even a search engine marketer – should step over.

    Since when was a link more important that the well-being of another human being?

  10. Faris writes:

    Nicely summed up in four words…”Don’t be that guy.”

  11. s_jenkins writes:

    given the fact that linkbaiting creates a network of sorts, does google have any actions against linkbaiting?



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