The Ethics of Linkbait. Again.

I’ve been to two search marketing conferences in the past month and asked the crowd the same question at each show. The question was about a real-life example of the bait ‘n switch. There are a few different levels of bait ‘n switch and you’ll come across differing opinions as to which are ethical and which aren’t.

Level One
Popular content is moved via a redirect from its original location to another location on the same site. The content doesn’t change. This barely counts.

Level Two
Popular content is moved via a redirect from its original location to a different site. The content doesn’t change.

Level Three
Popular content is moved via a redirect from its original location to another location on the same site. The content is noticeably different.

Level Four
Popular content is moved via a redirect from its original location to a different site. The content is noticeably different.

By noticeably different, I mean that it no longer represents the content to which hundreds or thousands of independent websites originally linked. As linkers, we take this risk whenever we link to something that we don’t control; however, there is an inherent understanding that people won’t change the content and “force” us to link to something which we didn’t intend.

When the content doesn’t change, I don’t see anything wrong with changing its location. Within reason (commercial reasons included), moving content around makes little difference. Sometimes, a corporate website isn’t the place for linkbait or viral content, but once a social media campaign is complete, the content can be moved to a place on a company’s premier site. The Lenovo Tapes are a good example of this: originally displayed on a separate domain and purposefully disguised as being amateur, the page was eventually moved to Lenovo’s UK site. Sticklers for web etiquette still mightn’t like this, especially if they have a problem linking to corporate domains. However, I see no problem with this type of tactic and if you do, you should avoid linking to anything, ever.

Stickier situations come about when the content changes. If Lenovo had 301 redirected their linkbait to a products page, the situation would be entirely different. I fell for such a tactic recently and it was about this situation that I posed my question to two SMX crowds this April.

Last year, I was writing away at SEOmoz, as I’m prone to do, and I came across a benign but amusing piece of linkbait from a Floridian limousine company. They were featuring pictures of beached limos. Limos that have tried to drive over steep hills in towns like San Francisco and have become high-centred. Nice. Limousines are obscene. Who doesn’t find beached limos funny?

Linkbait success

I linked to the linkbait. I used their most important keyword, “limousines”, in my anchor text. I was perfectly aware that the content was developed with links in mind, but being an SEO and having created similar commercially-minded content, I didn’t have a problem throwing them a followed link. Good on them; they topped Reddit and gave a few thousand people a giggle. Much later, I wanted to use this example in a presentation to highlight how boring businesses with mediocre websites can take advantage of social media. I went back to my own post to find the limousine company’s link.

I ended up at the Miami limousine rentals page, undoubtedly the company’s most profitable market.

Is that okay? Would I feel fine about doing this myself? Should I remove my link at SEOmoz? I felt that I should; however, I forgot to actually do it. I was distracted, probably by something shiny. The link was never removed and never nofollowed. I have the tab open to do it right now, but as per usual, I’m in the middle of a glass of Pinot and will probably forget again. Anyway.

I posed the question to the crowd at SMX Sydney: should I remove the link? Eighty percent of the crowd raised their hands. What an honest bunch of convicts. Either that, or they were just trying to impress us. I flew back to the U.S. and did nothing. A week later, at SMX Social Media in Long Beach, I asked the crowd the same question. Eight people put up their hands. The L.A. crowd didn’t see anything wrong with a 301 redirect being used in this way.

What do you think? I will probably amend the post to nofollow the link and add a note about how the content has changed. Personally, I wouldn’t use a redirect in this way: to me, a 301 should really indicate that a piece of content has moved permanently; doing this changes the content entirely. And it’s not like I’m the most morally upstanding member of society, either. Isn’t that right, Julie?

We had a discussion – one that ended up being around 250 comments in length – at SEOmoz last month about the ethics of widget-bait. Rightly or wrongly, a former colleague of mine is suffering from Google’s crackdown on such practices. How tough would it be for a search engine to recognise the bait ‘n switch and devalue its worth?

I have just decided that every SEO Chicks post I write will conclude with my most entertaining piece of Gmail Adsense from the recent past, as I was quite pleased with that particular post. Here is today’s offering: I always enjoy humour in my email advertising, especially of the self-deprecating variety.

w00t

Until next time!

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34 Responses to “The Ethics of Linkbait. Again.”

  1. Ciaran says:

    Lose the link, you know it makes sense.

  2. Julie Joyce says:

    I can’t stop laughing at the “honest bunch of convicts”…hahahaha. Um and yes, you ARE right Jane. Your morals are about as questionable as the origin of Liza’s supposedly “man” scarf. It’s Esprit. ANYWAY, if I were you, and I would like to have your hair, I’d nofollow. However, I have to also admire the technique involved in this. It’s the kind of thing I would do, if I were indulging in any shady stuff WHICH I AM NOT RIGHT NOW.

    And the woot ad is simply brilliant. I’m going to buy today’s woot shirt, no matter how dorky.

  3. Jane Copland says:

    I’ve nofollowed the link and made a note of it :)

  4. Camilla says:

    Great post!
    I’d lose the link. They earned that link through interesting content, they can’t expect to dump the content at the end of the link and still have people linking to it.
    And lmao, i LOVE the Woot ad! I’m going to visit them right now, for no apparent reason other than their sense of humour being awesome.

  5. It’s absolutely about the content. A redirect is intended to pass on the message that a particular resource has been relocated, not a particular resource’s link juice. I say shame on those Southern California ne’er-do-wells.

  6. kid disco says:

    I think your edit & update is perfect, since you wrote this post. If this post didn’t exist, I would just remove the link. Gotta think about your user’s… right? ;)

  7. kid disco says:

    EDIT: users not user’s :P

  8. g1smd says:

    Most “quality” directories would see that bait’n'switch tactic as gaming their system.

    I’d lose the link from your site.

  9. TheMadHat says:

    Lose the link or not, the purpose was achieved. They now have a bunch of links with their targeted phrase.

    -Ethical? Pfft. Don’t care
    -Illegal? No
    -Risky? Yes
    -Should they get the Google Hammer of Doom? It’s a lot shadier than a zombie quiz.
    -Should they cloak and make it less obvious? Yes
    -Would I do it? Yes
    -Would I redirect to Matt Cutts to make a point? Absolutely
    -Would I immediately bribe Jane not to out me? Send me your address, shiny things will be in the mail.

  10. Can I propose a time limit? I think the switch is perfectly legitimate after 3 months of putting the bait out there. Site redesign happens all the time. It’s expected that content will change over time. Redirects will happen. I don’t think Google should/does punish site owners for that.

    Doing a quick and dirty bait and switch is more noticeable and more likely punished.

  11. Julie Joyce says:

    @TheMadHat: Jane likes Scotch.

  12. Jane says:

    I basically have “lost” the link in that it’s nofollowed, so the generous anchor text means nothing.

    Would I have done what they did? No, I wouldn’t have gone that far but I may well have optimised the shit out of the page once social media traffic dried up a bit. At the most, I would have redirected the page to a more commercially advantageous location, but kept the content there. What they’ve ended up doing is “making” people link to a commercial page that they never would have otherwise. Not quite something I’d do and still feel good about myself.

    And I’m not exactly the most ethical link baiter, so I feel really good about my morals right now :P

  13. TheMadHat says:

    1982 Saint Magdalene single malt. I’ll pack some for the next conference and regale all with tall tales of “ip delivery”

  14. Kiowa Jackson says:

    @ Tanya: I agree. This example was obviously done with evil in mind, but just because someone links to a page doesn’t mean it has to stay the same forever.

  15. Julie Joyce says:

    @TheMadHat: Jane’s good friend, and most likely mentor, is me, Julie. I like vodka. Jane likes for me to have vodka. Just a thought…

  16. TheMadHat says:

    Very well, I’ll throw in a bottle of Hanger One, my preferred brand :D

  17. @Jane I can kind of see your point. But, when you link to something, you know it can be “here today, gone tomorrow.” Nature of the web. I’d rather a site owner redirect a page than delete it…leaving me with a broken link. The limousine’s bait&switch was particular shady because he redirected to an internal commercial page. I think redirecting to the homepage would have been more acceptable.

    It would have been even cooler if he had left a prominent link…”Looking for Beached Limousines?”

  18. Julie Joyce says:

    @TheMadHat: good job. That should do it.

    @Jane: I love the way you refuse to use American spellings for things like optimize…makes me wipe away a tear of pride even though Uncle Hank’s a patriot.

  19. Jane Copland says:

    Yes, the only American spellings I use on occasion are enter and center as opposed to entre and centre because I think the “er” makes way more sense and my brain wants to say the “re” words like they were French and then I’d sound like a tool.

    I also have an unfounded bias against the letter z.

  20. We New Englanders still occasionally use the Brit spelling of those words (mostly because we’re kind of snotty), and there is a tiny bit of logic behind it: centre is related to central, not centeral. Similarly, you’ve got theatrical coming from theatre, metric from metre, etc. If they called it the “Meteric System” meter would make more sense to me.

  21. Jane says:

    You know what, Bob? I had not thought of that and I am going to abandon my use of “center” and “enter” for thei British counterparts, starting today. I just edited my Moz draft accordingly!

  22. Malte says:

    Sure it’s not ethical, but who cares about ethics when you can actually gain a profit?

  23. Jane Copland says:

    Goodness. Obviously not you!

  24. Camilla says:

    I am so confused right now… Jane, you keep mentioning ‘enter’ as an example of a word that has a British and American version, but we both spell it the same way! Have i missed something here?

  25. Jane Copland says:

    I was always taught to spell it “entre” as if it were French :)

  26. Camilla says:

    Seriously? How bizarre. It’s not in any dictionaries (that i own) spelt like that. That’s a strange one. Maybe it’s a dialect thing or something.

  27. Julie Joyce says:

    Camilla, are you calling Jane a Dalek?

  28. Camilla says:

    Depends. Is she often seen wearing studded clothing and carrying a plunger? :p

  29. A French Dalek from New Zealand. Exterminez! Ex-ter-min-ez!!

    I don’t get the “entre” thing either. Even the snottiest New Englander doesn’t do that. Besides, it doesn’t mean “enter”. That’s “entrer” — J’entre, tu entres, on entre, nous entrons, vous entrez, ils entrent.

    Entre means something like “among,” I think.

  30. Julie Joyce says:

    I love Jane. If she wants to use “entre”, then by god, she can. I personally think that w is a vowel, so all of you, leave my little blonde Kiwi alone. Pick on her about something else, like how much she likes Crowded House.

  31. [...] I personally wouldn’t recommend 301-ing in most situations, though. And I’m certainly not the only one (exact same example, [...]

  32. QualityGal says:

    You know, it wouldn’t have been so bad if they swapped out to their rental page… if they’d added the pic(s) to the bottom of the page. Bad for business? Not necessarily. It could’ve shown their “fun” side.

    But what do I know? I’m new to this whole SEO thing.

  33. [...] what it’s worth and 301 it to somewhere else. Keep the cat if you’re concerned about ethics. (There is more content on this domain than just the cat, but the cat alone has 59,425 [...]

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