(Update added beneath post)
Good linkbait is the holy grail of online marketing. The right post or web article can spread through social media sites, or sometimes mainstream news sites, to point potentially hundreds of valuable links back to you.
But what is the “right” article and is it “anything goes” to create a story that captures the web?
Online marketer Lyndon Antcliff recently helped a client achieve over 1500 inbound links in under a week with a story designed to grab attention.
The article – 13 Year Old Steals Dad’s Credit Card to Buy Hookers – appeared on money.co.uk as part of Lyndon’s linkbaiting campaign, and it was certainly successful.
The story soon appeared around the world. Digg users pumped it up to a total 2452 diggs, driving tons of traffic to the page. Then news outlets started leaping on the story. In Australia News.com.au, The Daily Telegraph, and more all publicised the story (Update: these are now deleted), driving hundreds of links and thousands of site visitors back. Back in the UK, best selling newspaper The Sun published the story in their pages. News services loved the story of what American teens can get up to. In the states, Fox News aired the story, later spread wide through YouTube.
But the whole article was fiction.
Tricking the Media
On announcing the hoax on his own website, Lyndon was both buoyed by congratulations and surprised at the criticisms. Online marketers were all very quick to split into two camps on a topic that could have serious repercussions for the industry.
If producing highly successful linkbait requires nothing more than fabricating a salacious news story, then online marketing presents a serious danger to the integrity of online news. It is no secret that news outlets trawl the net looking for interesting tit-bits for their readers. It is also true that they should at least attempt to check the facts before publication. But does the truth that many websites don’t adequately check small stories exempt an online marketer from responsibility in producing fabricated news?
In conversation with Lyndon this morning on Twitter, he insisted continually that he is not a journalist and that it is not his responsibility that news sites chose to run with the story. Yet many critics – me included – voiced their dismay that Lyndon could deny responsibility when the whole purpose of the linkbait piece was to convince others to link back.
There is no doubt that the piece was written in a journalistic style so as to encourage readers to accept the story as truth. If readers understood the piece to be fiction, there is no likelihood it would receive any traction on Digg, or any other site for that matter. Short stories don’t get shared much on social media sites. The piece only has value by mimicking fact.
Readers are conditioned to accept journalism under a different set of rules to, for example, fiction or comedy. Although readers may question the bias or agenda behind journalism, it is assumed the facts contained within a journalistic article are correct, even if they may only represent part of a larger story. To deliberately misrepresent facts in journalism can land the writer in court. This leads to an inherent authenticity embedded in any piece that apes a journalistic style without any hints to the contrary.
Trust Me – Not Everything I Write is Fake
Lyndon maintains the piece is satire or comedy rather than journalism, despite admitting to using a journalistic style. But as the host site and Lyndon’s client, money.co.uk, is not a satirical or comedy site but is actually a large British financial advisor, a reader is given no reason to suspect the fiction.
After all, if this article is incorrect, how can a reader trust any of the financial advice contained on the site?
This element of trust is most at stake with Lyndon’s tactic. The website loses the trust of readers and also the wider online community who will be less likely to treat any press releases or information from the business seriously again.
But – and this is why so many marketers are worried – it also calls into question the trustworthiness of any linkbait articles produced by all marketers.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
If my client has a wonderful news story based on some statistics, it could form a great linkbait piece. But if the wider online community develops a view of online marketing as untrustworthy, they may not believe the statistics or facts, regardless of how accurate they are.
One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that the media is a powerful beast. It can carry you and your goals a long way, but if the media realises it has been duped or misrepresented, it can bite back ferociously.
Marketers, both offline and online, have long understood the line between journalism and marketing. Adverts that mimic news pieces traditionally have to appear with a disclaimer clearly identifying it as a sponsored advertorial. Incorrect statements of fact within the media are often ordered to be corrected with a full apology at the earliest opportunity.
Blogging and web development is open to everyone, which is the beauty of the communal nature of the internet. But that freedom comes at a price. If unregulated marketers start muddying the waters of online communication, there is a risk that we may end up inviting the regulation we have long avoided.
This recent development demonstrates that online marketing may also soon need an international code of conduct to protect the integrity of online information.
Which side of the fence are you on?
Since originally writing this post, the ‘linkbait-gate’ debate (try saying that three times fast) exploded across online marketing websites as webmasters and linkbaiters argued over the points raised here. I continued to report on and shape the debate and the subsequent posts are worth reading for the full story and final outcome.
MediaWatch on ABC Television in Australia then entered the fray with a detailed report.
The final outcome for the website in question was covered on Blogstorm.