Link bait and reciprocal linking programs have quite a bit in common. Without disparaging anyone who engages in link baiting strategies I do believe that many forms of link baiting are just a dressed up version of reciprocal links without the reciprocation. Note here that I said, many forms. I don’t mean all link baiting, but I would guess a bigger slice of the link baiting pie holds no more value than the old fashioned reciprocal link schemes.
A brief history of reciprocal linking
We’ve all heard it said that reciprocal links are dead. Well, they’re not. But some forms of reciprocal linking most certainly are. Remember when Google showed up and started evaluating incoming links as part of the ranking algorithm? This started everybody down the path of seeking to acquire as many links as possible. For awhile, the most efficient way to do this was to simply barter a link exchange. “Hey, if you link to me, I’ll link to you!”
This solution started the trend of websites adding dozens of “reciprocal link” pages to their sites linking out to other sites in which they were able to work a link “partnership” with. And for awhile, this type of reciprocation worked. At least until the search engines learned to identify these non-valuable pages. Of course this led to three and four-way reciprocal linking tactics and the creation of link “directories.” Again, these worked for a while and perhaps still do to a smidgen of a degree.
The basic problem here was one of motivation. It was all about getting a lot of links, many which were largely irrelevant. It was links based on volume and volume alone. Eventually link reciprocates began to target their links a bit more selectively, to be more within the real of relatedness, but still the concept here was on links, not user value.
Along comes link baiting
When you hear people talk about link baiting today, it’s almost as if we are in the early stages of the reciprocal links schemes all over again. It’s all about link volume rather than link relevance. This isn’t always the case but for many, if not most, it is.
Rand has a good series of posts all about how to link bait the linkerati. Essentially, Rand explains how to attract links from the masses of people who are most likely to link to you, not necessarily the ones who are most interested in your product or service. I appreciate Rand’s posts and I believe he, more than most, tries to get relevant links through his link bait, but getting links from linkers, rather than a targeted audience or related websites, is going right back to seeking out links for quantity rather than quality.
As did reciprocal linking, this will work. At least for a while. But sooner or later the search engines will get even smarter about analyzing links. Just as links from reciprocal pages were deemed irrelevant, I believe that links from the “linkerati” will largely be deemed irrelevant as well. Search engines, in their quest to provide the best search results for each query, understand that popular doesn’t necessarily mean relevant. Especially popularity from a group of people who are always interested in what’s popular.
The way sites earn quality links today isn’t the same as the way links were earned several years ago, so too the link baiting of tomorrow isn’t going to be the link baiting of today. True success in link baiting will be from those that learn how to bait their target audience. Some of that will include the linkerati, but most of it won’t. The true skill of link baiting won’t be getting to the top of digg, but getting to the top of the minds of your target audience so they can’t help but want to link to your site.