Giving it away – Advanced Link-Building Strategies through Viral Marketing

trophy.jpgAs the Web keeps growing, search phrases become more competitive, and the demand for links increases, the art of link building becomes far more difficult. It’s that much more difficult if you only know traditional link-building tactics. As we move forward, it’s going to be increasingly important to think outside the box and use our creativity to come up with new link-building ideas. Fortunately, as a regular reader of my blog, you won’t have such a problem. 😉

David Hopkins, a loyal reader, asked me last week if I had some advanced link-building strategies up my sleeve. As a matter of fact I do and, as you know by now, when a loyal reader asks I deliver. I have been overwhelmed lately, but luckily Paul sent me an e-mail yesterday unwittingly reminding me about this topic. Here is what he wrote:

Hi Hamlet,
I was reading about on SEOMoz and I was wondering how did Mike [Matt] managed to have so many visitors in such a short period? High position on ‘free dating online’? What do you think?


The post he is referring to is the one in which Matt says he is leaving SEOmoz. I had read the post too and found the numbers truly amazing. I also read an interview that provides more background information about Matt’s phenomenal success, but instead of explaining how he did it (Matt explains this in the interview) I think it would be more useful to generalize the concept and provide a solid framework so that you can build off of the idea.

First of all, these link-building techniques are highly advanced and by that I mean that you need web development skills or access to a web developer friend, employee or contractor. The techniques are white hat, though, and there are two main strategies to get site owners to place links back to your site:

  • Giving away trophies
  • Giving away useful tools or dynamic content

Badges and Badgers

Most of us are competitive by nature. At work we have employee-of-the-month. In the Olympics we reach for the gold, silver and bronze. In each case it provides a sense of achievement and recognition. For link-building purposes, the best way to take advantage of this innately human trait is to have people prove their worth. ‘Rate’ them and provide them with a bragging badge with a link back to your site with the desired anchor text. 😉

This is precisely the technique Matt used. He created several interesting quizzes, let visitors take them, and provided them with a badge to place on their sites. Very clever! I call it the site owner badge.

You don’t need to test and provide badges exclusively about the ‘site owner.’ You can provide badges for a blog or web site instead. Offer a badge that gives the dollar value of the site, a ‘trustiness’ or privacy value, or a usability value, etc. I call this a site badge. The hacker-safe badge is a good example of this type of link-building technique. Think about anything that the site owner would be really proud of about his or her site.

Another badge you can provide is focused on the site owner’s visitors. Make them happy or proud and the site owner will be happy too. One example is showing the visitor what percentage of users come to the site from his country or city, or how many use the same operating system, browser, or screen resolution—anything. I call this one the visitors’ badge. A small image displaying a visitor’s country flag or an avatar providing a welcome back message are useful additions that a site owner will place prominently on the site. It provides something of value to his or her visitors, and if they are happy they will come back and the site owner will be happy too.

Badges don’t need to be static, as they are in Matt’s case. They can be dynamic too. The information provided can change with time and/or allow for some sort of interaction. A good example of this type of badge is the big blue Sphinn buttons on most SEM/SEO blogs. They not only provide the number of sphinns the post has, but also give you the ability to increase the vote count by clicking on them. You don’t need to set up a social networking site to make use of this technique. You can ‘rate’ a site owner based on his or her answers to a quiz, for example, and provide a badge with the score including a button to let his visitors agree or disagree with the score. Wouldn’t that be interesting? 🙂

Again, the only difference between static and dynamic badges is the changing information and the possibility for interaction. The same concepts about site, owner and visitor as explained above still apply here.

Giving away widgets

Every site owner has two main concerns when it comes to visitors: attracting more of them and retaining the existing ones. To retain existing visitors and improve the site’s ‘stickiness,’ site owners try to keep the site fresh with useful content. The easiest way to do this is including dynamic features to the site. Unfortunately, most site owners don’t have web development skills, and this is where our technique comes into play. The technique requires more work, but the link benefit is more direct.

Let’s call a widget any type of dynamic element that provides content or some useful service on a web site. The oldest type of widget I can remember is the hit counter and the stats counter. Look at the most popular stats counters on the Web and you will see that they are at least PageRank 8 and get thousands and thousands of links. Creating your own stats counter might not be the best use of your time, though. Let me offer some easier examples:

  • Metric converters: currencies, time, weight, etc.
  • Calculators: mortgage, time to get from one place to another, etc.
  • Games: Flash, AJAX or Java games. The site owner can place the game on the web site for visitors to play as well as a badge to show users’ high scores.
  • Search boxes: As an example, you could create a Google custom search engine for recipes and provide a widget for other site owners to display it.

I am sure there are many more widgets you can think of, offering them for free with a link back to your site.

Custom Widgets/API

Some site owners want more flexibility with how widgets blend in with their site. One way to do this is to let them change some visual elements via a CSS style sheet. The best way to provide them with the maximum flexibility is to provide an API to your dynamic code and let them render the content in a way that matches naturally with their site.

The most popular and most developer-friendly way to do this is to provide a REST API. Calling a REST API from a script is like a form submission that returns the results via an XML document. You n
ormally use HTTP GET and not HTTP POST, as in regular forms, though.

This technique is particularly useful if you are targeting a developer audience or high-end site owners that want more customization and can afford developers to integrate your custom widget into their site. The tricky part here is that you must have a license or terms of service agreement that says they must not remove the link back from your XML responses. As they are parsing the XML from a script they can easily strip it and you don’t want that, do you?

Viral Marketing

Well, I probably went a little bit too far with the ‘advanced’ aspect of my post, but I can tell you this custom widget via API technique is definitely effective, and has some other advantages that I plan to discuss in more detail in a future post.

Now, let me briefly explain how you can promote your giveaways.

The most obvious way to spread your ideavirus is to leverage social media sites. You can submit your content to Digg, Propeller, Sphinn, StumbleUpon, and so on. If the idea is good and appeals to such audiences, it will spread. Here are some tips to multiply the viral effect:

  • Right on the page where you provide the badge or tool include a ‘tell a friend’ feature with five spaces to place e-mails and names. They should be motivated enough to tell their friends about your cool giveaway.
  • Let influencers or sneezers know. They are key to make sure your ideavirus achieves maximum potential quickly.
  • Set up Google alerts to pick up on the conversations that results. Be prompt and courteous in your responses. Remember, your goal is to reinforce the value of your giveaway.

If you are giving away useful tools, consider my favorite place for such things: TheFreeSite. It is a giant catalog of all types of freebies. It is also useful to give you ideas of what people like to get for free.

I really hope that you will make good use of this information. If you can think of more examples and ideas, please share them in the comments section. I want to hear some success stories!

23 replies
  1. David Hopkins
    David Hopkins says:

    The badges idea is an interesting one. I would imagine you would need to have some authority in your market to do this one though.

    I think your widgets idea is more or less where SEO will have to go. One question I have in regards to this is: Do you have any idea if Google associates link text to one page on a site to other pages? e.g. If I created a tool that got a lot of keyword rich incoming links to, would this help my other pages rank for terms with that link text. I have heard of people who have stumbled when their sales page has been outranked by link bait page.

    Interesting you mention the hit counter, a competitor owes their ranking to an ancient hit counter that has his keyword in the mandatory credit link.

    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Do you have any idea if Google associates link text to one page on a site to other pages? e.g. If I created a tool that got a lot of keyword rich incoming links to, would this help my other pages rank for terms with that link text. I have heard of people who have stumbled when their sales page has been outranked by link bait page.

      David – The anchor text is only associated with the page the link points to, AFAIK.

      The way to improve the rankings of other pages on your site is to add links to them (with the desired link text) from the pages that get the most link juice.

  2. JEz
    JEz says:

    Hi Hamlet,

    Is there any value to links to images? I was recently looking at a site which had .edu links, it turned out the .edu sites were scraping images off the site I was looking at.

    I would also be interested in a post on techniques you use to procure links from authority sites.


    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Is there any value to links to images?

      Jez – I am not sure I understand your question, but here are a couple of interpretations and how to leverage them for advanced link building.

      Hot Linking. A site is hot linking your images, i.e: using your images by linking directly to them in your site. They use the IMG tag and that doesn't count for link reputation.

      You can create a script that serves all your images and checks to make sure the referrer URL is from your domain. In the event there are referrers from other domains, you can show them an alternate image with a message requiring them to link to you if they want to use your images.

      Alt Text. When your link back contains and image instead of link text, you can use the alt text attribute of the IMG tag and that provides the same benefit as the regular link text for ranking purposes.

  3. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    I exchanged a couple of emails with Jez and here is the recap.

    He is referring to a site that has a link back pointing to one of the site’s images instead of a regular HTML file. Does that count for link juice? I think any link coming to a site, not matter the MIME type of the destination, helps build the site’s domain authority.

    As I explain before, there are sites that rank high because of the anchor text boost and there are other sites that rank high because of their domain authority plus on-page factors.
    When I first read Google’s original paper, one thing that shocked me as interesting was that they could show email addresses in the middle of search results. How? They used the anchor text as the relevance qualifier. I am not sure why they stopped doing it, though.

  4. David Hopkins
    David Hopkins says:

    Hi, I just thought I'd call in a WordPress error (shortcoming) that your site has fell victim to:

    This post has an ISO-whatever-it-is in the URL, which has not been removed by WordPress. This hasn't cause any on-site problems, but it has brought up a strange character.

    I wouldn't have noticed this if I hadn't stumbled the article and subsequently tried to visit the review page, only to find out that StumbleUpon has also succumbed to the shortcoming of not striping non-alphanumeric (plus -) characters from the URL. The outcome of this being that no one is able to access the StumbleUpon page for this article.

    Another WordPress error I have experienced on this blog as well as others is I will post a comment but it never end up on the site. I have no idea why that is. For example, I posted a comment on you Techcrunch 40 article but its never appeard.

    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      David – I tried to go to the StumbleUpon page and was not able to access it as you described. I will have to review the slugs manually before hitting publish.

      I fished one comment out of Askimet's queue intended for the TC40 post, but it seems I missed yours. Sorry.

  5. Andy Beard
    Andy Beard says:

    Definitely something wrong in the URLs

    If you go the widget route with noscript, use subdomains or alternative domains with 301 redirects.

    This then allows you to still have a site blog and not get banned by Technorati.

    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Andy – Thanks for your comment and for the tip to avoid being penalized by Technorati. I think that is the reason why SEOmoz is not listed in the top 100.

      I will move my blog to a new server and upgrade wordpress to 2.3. Hopefully the new version doesn't have such problems.

  6. Web Design Newcastle
    Web Design Newcastle says:

    Very nice post. Thanks for the inspiration. I agree with David that this is the way SEO will have to go in future as traditional methods of link building will gradually see their power diminished.

    Interesting point about quizzes and badges. I think this combined with some good Social Network exposure could really work well. It did for SEOMOZ anyway –

    In the Guardian newspaper yesterday there was also a good article about people using Facebook Applications to gain traffic – and in particular how one florist receives 17% of their daily traffic from a facebook App they created. Not bad for something that took probably 2 developer days to write.

    By the way – just found your blog and I'm really impressed. You've got yourself a new subscriber. Thanks.

    • David Hopkins
      David Hopkins says:

      Bonjour Neil,

      There are a couple of problems I see with widget baiting.

      As you mention above, creating widgets can be a good way of getting more traffic, but how many of those people are looking to hand over their hard-earned greenbacks? Probably none. They just want to get their mits on your free tool. On the other hand, have a selection of tools and other goodies on your site is going to increase the reputation of your company and of course some of the link juice will flow back to your sales pitch page(s).

      Antoher problem mentioned above is that your widget page could end up out ranking your sales page(s).

  7. Mitchell Allen
    Mitchell Allen says:

    Hi Hamlet,
    I popped in here from Caroline Middlebrook's blog. I was intrigued by the viral quizzes.

    The whole post is very useful, as well!
    Thanks for sharing this information.



  8. Jason Pearson
    Jason Pearson says:

    This is a wonderful post! I really like the badge idea. I have never even heard of some of these concepts. Thank you for generalizing this for us so we can decide what we want to do with it. Keep posting such great information and I will keep coming back.

  9. Arun
    Arun says:

    Thanks Hamlet Batista,

    This is something new which i have read recently but creating the badges and widgets can be a daunting process. I think it is not as simple as that. Definitely some sites provides these facility but i think you should be little bit strong to do this.

  10. kokos
    kokos says:

    Some marketers wonder if viral marketing is worth the hassle since it is hard to create, and even harder to replicate. As mentioned before, the best laid campaigns appear to be self-igniting, where the brand and marketing agency do not seem actively involved. The campaign then needs to speak for itself, and to do so, strategy, planning, timing and execution all need to be flawless.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] just makes sense that large sites have a MUCH greater chance of getting links than a smaller site.  Large blog sites also offer a wider variety of posts to attract these […]

  2. […] The paid link debate is a discussion that probably will never end. And certainly not if you keep reading stuff like Rae Hoffman’s excellent post about how difficult it is for Google to determine which link is a paid one and which one isn’t. Jim Boykin explains why it’s unlikely that you get penalized for selling text links. I agree with him on the fact that Google just tries to identify a paid link and to not count it. However, in some cases, it might better to offer something else of value in stead getting a regular paid link. Another option is using viral marketing as a link building technique. […]

  3. […] is an interesting idea that might (or might not) work. As I discussed in my previous post about advanced link building, giving tests and rewarding test takers with badges is a really good way to build links. I think […]

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