How To Win Enemies & Influence People By Turning Controversy Into Links

There are a few easy ways for journalists to get their readers’ attention: breaking news, in-depth profiles, tugging emotional heartstrings, or by stirring up some controversy. If you’re doing any kind of link-building, you want to appeal to one of those basic formats.

Most SEO consultants advise you to create fact-dense or emotionally-compelling content. And that absolutely works. But creating controversial content is far, far easier, and often more rewarding.

That’s not to say that making controversial blog posts or business decisions is always the right call. In most cases, it’s a last resort; in other cases, it’s never a good idea in the first place. However, for a marketer who doesn’t have the time or energy for one more densely informative, well-crafted report, a bit of opinion-mongering will do just fine.

The best controversy-courting content is fact-based, but picks a side. This isn’t just the right thing to do; it actually makes it much easier to argue. You can borrow good talking points from your side.

Even better, you’ll give respondents a chance to do a point-by-point rebuttal of your argument, which will likely lead to even more links.

Picking Sides Versus Making Enemies

There are a few great examples of the genre:

  • The Wizards of Bullshit. (Alternative title for people who don’t care about getting links: “I disagree with the way Fortune values private companies.”)
  • SEO is Bullshit. (Alternative title: “… But Linkbait is Awesome!”)
  • If Dropbox Used Github’s Pricing Plan. (Alternative Title: “I wish services I liked didn’t price themselves to make the most money possible from corporate customers with infinite budgets.”)
  • Almost anything by James Altucher, especially July 4th is a scam.
  • Index Investors are Evil Freeloaders. This is one I wrote a while ago; it got a fair amount of attention in the investment community. (Alternative Title: “Index fund investors have found a way to benefit from the stock market. Just like everyone else.”)

A few patterns emerge:

  • Strong language works well.
  • It’s more attention-grabbing to attack a person rather than an idea. Even better, one can attack a person by category.
  • The title is critical, and should make the point as emphatically as possible.

Getting The Most Out Of It: Social Promotion

If an article makes a blatantly unfair point backed up by superficial data, and no one’s around to read it, does it rile anyone up?

Controversy-stirring linkbait is more dependent on social media than other channels. It’s tough to write something in this genre that ranks well—if the topic is broad enough to matter to most people, it’s probably too broad for one incidental article to be the canonical resource.

But social media is highly and indirectly useful: it’s a great way to get your controversial post distributed to the kinds of people who will write angry, denunciatory, link-heavy responses.

It’s usually best to seed this kind of piece in a few general interest communities. If you’re willing to lose a friend or two, Facebook and Google Plus are a good place to start. Twitter also works, although it’s better to retweet the first person to find your article and post it on their own. And social bookmarking sites are also a great venue.

One thing to avoid: don’t get bogged down in arguing with people in the comments. It’s a big waste of time. One trick you can do, though, is to write a follow-up blog post rounding up responses to the original piece, and responding to them in turn. That’s a lower-reward, lower-risk way to get a few extra links.

Run The Numbers: When To Cut It Out

A controversy-courting strategy works very well in some verticals, but it falls flat in others. Here are some guidelines:

  • In pageview-driven sites (i.e. media sites), controversy is a very powerful tool. Just read the headlines at Gawker, Business Insider, or Mediaite.
  • In consumer-focused e-commerce sites, courting controversy is smart because it can give the site more link equity, but few people will do enough research to find controversial views with which they disagree.
  • For B2B sites, it’s worth avoiding unless you have one particular market segment you can target, but only by giving up on others. (For example, an SEO agency could write a post like “Why I’m Firing All my Diet Product Clients.”)
  • In any reputation-dependent context, don’t overdo it. Aside from Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky, nobody gets paid to disagree with everybody.

Getting Started

Courting controversy as an SEO strategy.

Image via Hikingartist on Flickr

What should you write? The possibilities are endless. A few options:

  • Why [popular product used in the industry] is [overrated / absolutely essential / a scam].
  • I Will Never Again [thing people in your industry do every day].
  • The End of [competitor, or, to be more gentle, category of competitors].

With some work—actually, with a lot less work than you’d put into most other categories of linkbait—you can create content that drives fresh links and great social media mentions.

Search engines are leery of using sentiment as a ranking factor, but the average Web writer is sensitive to criticism.

This creates exactly the kind of discrepancy that the SEO industry has learned to take advantage of.

Image used under creative commons via Flickr.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is Co-Founder and CEO of Digital Due Diligence, a research firm that helps investors and acquirers understand the business models of SEO-, PPC-, and social media-dependent companies.

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  • George Michie

    Great piece, Byrne! You are right on as usual. Local TV news has followed this model for years. When I was a kid the weatherman in the summer used to say: “chance of afternoon thunder showers.” (sometime even ‘thunder boomers”). Now they say “SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING”. I wonder if people will become desensitized to strong language at some point. Nevertheless, in the short run, spicy still works, just as marketing copywriters have found it hard to beat “Free’ as a pitch phrase.


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