The Social Media Underground

Building links is a struggle we SEOs all face. Of the three pillars of SEO (content, architecture, and links), it’s the “link authority” pillar that i’s usually the weakest. Looking at sites individually, formulating your approach, sending personalized emails, picking up the phone to speak to the webmasters – it’s a lot of hard slog. If only it weren’t so darned difficult and time-consuming to acquire high quality, relevant links! Yet without such links, you won’t be able to earn the trust, authority and importance required to rank, and your optimization efforts will fall short.

There is another approach – a “secret formula” if you will, employed by the SEO elite. One that’s scalable, efficient and high-impact.

It starts with “link bait”. Yes, that overused, industry term that refers to viral content that is irresistible to link to. But link bait by itself isn’t sufficient. You need to “seed” this link bait into social media (such as Digg and StumbleUpon) using power user accounts within those communities. In other words, you need to be (or be able to call in a favor with) a social media insider who has wide-reaching influence within that site’s social community. Without a bevy of friends, followers and fans, it’s much harder to reach “escape velocity” quick enough. That’s because the algorithms for “what’s new and hot” within social news/bookmarking sites take into account the time span within which the positive votes are acquired. A thousand Diggs over a year is a very different thing from a thousand Diggs over 24 hours.

The “secret formula” really is a formula – or should I say, formulaic. Think of it as an assembly line process. Viral ideas are generated. The chosen ideas are researched and written up as articles (or produced as videos), then published to your website. The articles are then seeded into appropriate social sites by influentials within those sites’ communities. The point of all this isn’t to reach your target market directly; these users probably won’t buy anything from you. It’s to reach that small percentage of the stampede to your site that are journalists or bloggers – who will write about and link to your viral content.

Let’s take a look at this process in greater depth.

Ideation: It all starts with a great idea and this step is key: your content/angle must be more than just clever to go viral. Gather a team of your most creative and knowledgeable SEOs and marketers (and/or your outside SEO firm) to brainstorm possible ideas for link bait that will likely resonate within social media. Develop a list of ideas; you can start with a handful and save the others for future use.

Selection and prioritization: Once a solid list has been developed, it’s time to prioritize and select the top several (e.g. three or four) ideas to develop into full-blown articles/blog posts. Be forewarned: you will have to stretch outside of your comfort zone; the edgier (or geekier, or low-brow) the article, the more it will resonate with the 16-year-old alpha geeks on Digg.

Content creation: Flesh out the chosen ideas into full-blown articles/blog posts starting with the research. For example, a topic of “Top 100 Beers from Around the World” will likely require many pages of information to be collected — from each beer’s history, to photos of the bottle/label, to nutrition information.

Make sure to craft a killer headline using this formula from social media marketer Muhammad Saleem: number + adjective + key phrase. e.g. “13 Most Chilling Haunted Hotels” or “16 Incredibly Unconventional Hotel Rooms.” It’s a catchy title that will reel people in. You may also/instead wish to develop video or other visuals to help support your idea.

You really need a “hook” to turn an article idea into something that will have “legs” in the social sphere. For example, consider a contest idea of “win free business cards for life.” Pretty ho-hum, right?

At Netconcepts, we developed a contest for our client What was the angle/spin we added to the free business cards for life idea? Simply this: design Shoemoney’s (Jeremy Schoemaker’s) business card, Jeremy will serve as the judge and the winning entry (as determined by Jeremy) will get “free business cards for life.”

The cost of the contest for our client was negligible – the fine print of the contest stated the winnings were a maximum of 1,000 business cards per year for up to 20 years. Jeremy blogged on his Technorati top 100 blog,, about the contest; he even posted a video about it to YouTube. The link exposure this contest garnered was priceless. Contests prove you don’t have to have a big budget — just a big idea.

Website Prep: Just like you’d prep for surgery, you’d prep your site for a social push. Brent Csutoras describes the process required here as getting your site “social media ready.” For example, if your site is a blog, it would be advisable to distance your site from blogs. Blogs are old and tired and not popular with Digg users anymore. So switch from a bloggy theme to a magazine style theme, and remove the bloggy references, such as date-based archives links and permalinks verbiage.

Also, make sure your site can handle the anticipated traffic. If your server buckles under the load and the site goes dark, your submission doesn’t just get pulled from Digg’s home page, it gets removed from the site altogether -i.e. completely obliterated. With Digg, hitting the front page will generate a traffic spike that will quickly dissipate and then disappear almost completely after 24 to 48 hours.

Publishing: You will need a place to host your linkbait; it really should be on your site if at all possible. Using a third party website to host the article will result in subpar performance; so hopefully you can tolerate the article living on your website. Remember you don’t have to link to the article from your navigation or sitemap or from anywhere else on your site. Also, you need to be cognizant of the time and day you publish. Publishing on Saturday night would not be a good idea.

Social Media Seeding: Immediately after you have published the viral content, it then needs to be submitted to the appropriate social media site(s). These may include social news sites such as Digg or social bookmarking sites such as

As already alluded to, in order to maximize the chance of success, it’s important that the submitter be a “power user” within these social networks to maximize the chances of hitting the front page or “popular” page, thus driving the most visibility, traffic, and -– eventually –- links. A Digg submission from the great unwashed just won’t get the same traction from the social media community. A power user’s street cred is worth a lot, so be ready to pay for it — in terms of cash or favors.

You can’t be a power user across all the pertinent social media — it requires simply too much work. Power users spend all day and all night at their computer monitoring various oddball news RSS feeds and other social sites for content that will resonate with their targeted social site’s users. Once they find something, they quickly submit the URL along with a killer title and description – before anyone else can. This is how users move up in the pecking order within these social media. The more stories they can get to the front page, the higher their status.

Nearly everything that a top-ranked Digg user touches turns to gold; it’s not atypical for 80+% of their submissions to hit the front page. As you can see, the power user is the key to this equation. If you happen to know one or be one, then you are in luck. If not, you might want to consider hiring a top-notch SEO and social media agency. Also, have a look at the Top 100 list of Diggers for the most popular power users, note however, real names are rarely attached.

Make friends within these groups and call in favors as you need them. In return, be prepared to do the same. Greg Boser says for every hour you spend working on a client in social, you need to spend six hours doing favors in return for those in your elite network with whom you called in a favor. It’s all about reciprocating. The more you vote and submit for others, the more you can ask for in return.

Now let’s talk results; an ideal result is your link bait hitting the front page of Digg and accumulating a thousand-plus links over the following 3 to 6 months. Why does it take so long when a Digg spike is so immediate? Because bloggers don’t blog about your link bait right away. They may keep it in the hopper and not get to it for weeks or even months.

Then, because the blogosphere is one big echo chamber, that blogger’s readership will include other bloggers who will eventually blog about and link to the article too. What would be the yield of really “hitting it out of the park” in terms of this sort of link building? Potentially over 5,000 links with perhaps a hundred of those being PageRank 7 and a half dozen being PageRank 8 (hypothetically). That’s a solid investment.

Link baiting is a critical tactic to have in your SEO “toolkit” because the efforts of just one article hitting the home page of Digg can do wonders for your link authority and thus your Google rankings. Put the time and effort into developing your most linkworthy ideas and go out and negotiate with your power user friends. This combination will ensure your success.

Hope you got some value out of me “spilling the beans” on this secret formula for generating linkbait, acquiring links and measuring success. Many marketers think of social media as a plaything; it would rarely be the tool of choice to generate serious ROI. Sure, social media IS fun, but it’s wrong to think that it can’t pay the bills. Leverage these social media outlets properly, and your link opportunities are endless.

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 the author of Google Power Search, creator of the Science of SEO and co-author of The Art of SEO now in its second edition, both published by O'Reilly. Spencer is also the founder of Netconcepts and inventor of the SEO technology platform GravityStream. He also blogs on his own site, Stephan Spencer's Scatterings.

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  • nickstamoulis

    This is an excellent outline as to how to effectively develop a link bait and viral strategy.

    Before a client gets to this point, I normally recommend an entire other suite of link building activities over time such as: online publicity, social networking, local profiles, industry associations, article marketing, blogging, a few quality directories, etc. The goals of these activities are to build visitors, sales and search engine trust. Once the life cycle of a website and link building program gets to a plateau of visitors and positioning, I think begin to develop and implement more advanced link bait/viral strategies…

    So in other words, I start with the letter “A” before I move on to “Z”…thanks again for a great post! :o)

  • Eric Ward

    Stephan, I rank #1 at all three engines concurrently for the phrase link bait strategies. Check, I can wait…

    With that backdrop, it’s well worth mentioning to the readers that your approach is just one style of link baiting, and frankly you don’t need digg or any other social media “acceptance” in order to succeed with link baiting period. You can succeed by going vertical with meaningful content diggers would scoff at as boring, but those within the vert will share and link to like it is gold, because to them, it is gold.

    I know, because I do it. Every single day.




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