One of my favorite blogs, Wolf-Howl, is written by Michael Gray. Michael is an expert on cutting-edge site promotion strategies, and often posts about Digg and link-bait strategies.

Thanks for talking with me today, Michael. For those readers who don’t know you, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your areas of expertise?

Sure my name is Michael Gray and I’m an all around trouble maker! Seriously though I started on the programming side of web development in 97-98 for a large specialty retailer in the NY area. I was reponsible for building, maintaining and growing the website until 2004 when I left to go out on my own. Sometime around 2001 or so we discovered SEO which really didn’t have a name back then. I read, watched, learned and applied a lot of the things I read on the forums (there were no blogs at the time) and the company realized some huge traffic and financial gains because of it. Eventually I started to wonder why I was working so hard making money for someone else and began working for myself on the side. After moonlighting for 2 years (often on company time) I went out on my own, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Right now I work on a combination of projects, about 60% of my time is spent client work. Some of the projects are traditional SEO, however the majority of the work I do for clients right now is casino online site, linkbaiting and blog consulting. I also take a few reputation managment jobs every year.

You write a lot about link-baiting, and there is certainly an art to getting it right. What are some the mistakes people make, and what would your advice be to people on how to link-bait to achieve good results?

People in the online world think linkbaiting is some new concept, but it’s been going on in the print and magazine world forever. Visit any bookstore or magazine stand look at some of the covers you’ll see cover stories like this “5 Bedroom Tricks That Will Make Your Sex Life Sizzle”, “30 Day Total Body Makeover”, or “Tips to Help You Get Organized This Weekend”. They are titles designed to catch your eye, connect with you personally, help you solve a problem, and ultimately make you buy the magazine. I like to think of websites, especially blogs as an online magazines. You publish a series of articles every day/week/month and use the linkbait style posts to get links, and more importantly get subscribers (or as Andy Hagan’s calls it defensible traffic).

Linkbait is a proven method and it’s not going away. People have been using “top X” lists ever since Moses came down off the mountain with a top 10 list of “thou shalts”. Radio stations play the top 100 songs of summer every year, every December AFI puts out a top 100 list of movies, and how many “bedroom tricks” do you think Cosmopolitan magazine has published since Helen Gurley Brown changed the format in 1970? People need to get over the “bait” hang-up and understand that in a culture where people have an attention deficit, it’s compete or die.

There are certain elements that you’ll find in a lot of linkbait. A snappy eye grabbing headline, is key. For example would you rather read “Removing Spyware will Speed up Your Computer” or “7 Quick Tips to Remove Spyware and Make Your Computer Run 300% Faster”. The danger with a headline is you now have to deliver. If you promised me 7 tips I better see seven real tips. I need to see some content not just links to 7 software programs you’re an affiliate for. Think of the headline as a contract between you and the reader, you need to live up to your end of the bargain if you want links and subscribers.

Another thing you need is a scan able style of writing. Lists are very scan able which is one of the reasons they work so well. If you’re post is more narrative in style, short paragraphs with h2 or bold headers for sections, can really go a long way towards making things easier to read. Pictures or videos are also an important aspect. When you read a magazine or newspaper article you’ll notice the “best” picture is above the article or near the top with the text wrapping around it. Keep your mastheads small and thin and use big eye grabbing pictures at the top above the fold on all monitor/screen sizes for maximum effect, nothing stops a StumbleUpon user from hitting the “next” button like a great picture.

Additionally put links in your linkbait. Link to other articles on your site, link to other sites too, don’t be stingy with the links. It OK is you send some traffic away chances are the person on the other end will notice if you send enough traffic their way, and maybe return the favor in the future. The only site you should never link to is Wikipedia, well because I hate the wiki :-)

Lastly linkbait is never ending process, the more you repeat it the more effective it is. I can guarantee you in almost every issue of Cosmopolitan there is a cover story about love/sex/relationships. New people come online everyday and you want to do everything you can to get their attention.

Right. I think that’s a really important point – know your audience. What is your approach concerning Digg, and other social networks? What have your results been like using these networks, in terms of inbound linking and traffic?

Every social network is a little different and what works well on one may not work well on others. Right now I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Digg, I love the traffic and the links, but as much as I hate to stereotype digg is an ochlocracy run by a bunch of petulant teen apple fanboys who are all about “hatin’ on the man”. If you want to succeed on Digg try to find stories that are about a similar subject and use it as a starting point. Also watch the homepage for “non news” stories to get some ideas of what they like/tolerate and go from there.

I love niche sites while they don’t bring anywhere near the traffic of Digg, they can bring you better links and higher quality traffic. For example I had a linkbait article about women in the workplace it did really well on getting to the homepage. Somebody submitted it to Digg and it floundered with 10-15 votes, because it didn’t match the audience.

Targeting your audience is a really important consideration and I don’t think enough people think about it. General interest pieces are good, but highly focused content that’s matched to a particular audience is better. The worst thing you can do is spend time/money/energy creating the best content for the wrong audience. For example you can have a 5 star chef prepare the most expensive Kobe beef you can buy, but serve it at a PETA rally and it will get an icy reception.

Another big mistake I see a lot of people making is cramming adsense or some other advertising down your throat when you come to their site. Giving people “commercials” when you really want them to link to your content is extremely short sighted IMHO. A lot of people who use social sites have “advertising blindness” and won’t click on your ads. The money that you’ll make from 20,000 diggers will probably not even cover the cost of a happy meal at McDonalds, so you’re better off giving up the $5 today, for the extra links you’ll get in the long run. On a lot of my sites I’ll use programming that “activates” the ads as when posts hit a certain age. It extremely unusual for a linkbait post to be bringing in traffic from social sites after a week, at that point it should only be SE referrals, that’s the time to give them the ads.

In you article “What’s One Digg Worth” you provide an interesting breakdown of the traffic and linking stats associated with a successful Digg. You mention that people also need to take a holistic view when it comes to links, such as “mixing in directory submissions, some traditional link development, content creation, article distribution, and a few other tactics as well”. I’m sure many webmasters find the process daunting – what would be your advice to someone with a new site? What are the essential things you would recommend people do in order to build a successful link acquisition strategy?

If you don’t mind, since it’s been nearly a year since I launched that site I’ll give you an update. Traffic has tapered off dramatically, right now the site gets anywhere from 25-75 visitors a week, all long tail searches most in the 4+ KW range. The good part is it’s completely autogen, I don’t have to touch it. It’s not a highly profitable website, but for zero upkeep that’s ok, and I’ve definitely been able to re-use the programming.

Back to your question, I like to think of link building like a financial portfolio, you want to be as diversified as possible to limit your risk. For example a few years ago it was possible to rank for terms purely on reciprocal links. Time passes, Google updates it’s algo, and recip links get devalued. Then article directories were all the rage, a year or so ago a lot of them lost their value. Directories were a solid bet for a long time, until a few weeks ago when Google took a big swipe out of that market. Right now viral and linkbaiting is all rage, and Google really likes seeing it, but will it eventually get devalued, almost certainly. If you, your company, or your website depend exclusively on one tactic, you put yourself at risk to algorithm fluctuations. However if your linking portfolio is diversified your much less likely to suffer those dramatic heart palpitating ranking drops.

It is a lot of work to try and keep up with and manage, but IMHO it’s definitely worth the time. I know a lot of people are probably like me they’d like to pay some writers for some articles this week, and drop them all out next week, and cross it of their “to do” list. However if you spent any time analyzing the Google patent application of 2005 you’ll realize time/age probably play a role. Getting 500 links tomorrow is not as “good” or “natural looking” as getting 500 links over the next 6 months. So if you want to pay for the content for the articles to syndicate and get them all delivered next week, that’s fine, just trickle them out slowly over the next 6 months. I find it’s pretty helpful to come up with rough game plan or timeline so I don’t forget things, again it is more work, but definitely worth the effort.

The time/age issue is something Ralph touched on, too. You’ve been pretty vocal on what you see as Google’s hypocrisy on paid links. Is this a war you see Google winning?

Ahh the paid links debate, it’s a pretty contentious subject at the moment, but sure lets dive in. I think it might be a bit helpful to use an analogy to help people understand it in real life terms. Let’s say you own a house and to make the math easy we’ll say it’s worth $100,000. A developer comes along and offers you $150,000 on the spot to buy it from. You think wow that’s $50,000 for doing nothing but being in the right place at the right time. You decide to sell, make a nice profit and are pretty happy with yourself. Of course you might feel a little bit different if you discovered your old house is smack dab in the area that Disney World is going to build a new theme park, and you could have gotten $500,000 for it. If only you had known all the facts and the true value of the real estate, you might not have been so happy with the peanuts the developer was willing to give you.

Websites are no different, most people don’t know the true value of the websites they own, run and develop. Many people build them as a hobby and when something like adsense comes along and gives them the ability to go from costing them time and money, to making $200-$300 a month profit, just like the guy selling his house before, they are happy. Of course they are also ignorant to it’s true value. What if the guy running the hobby website finally figures out it’s true value, and instead of taking the adsense chump change, he starts selling text link advertisements and brings in $2,000 to $3,000 a month? That extra money would probably really make a difference in his life, and by the way those numbers are real for more than one website I manage. It’s in Google’s best interests to keep you in the dark as to the real value your website has, as long as they can keep charging the advertisers top dollar, they will sacrifice a few nickels and dimes to you via adsense.

Can Google win the war, I certainly hope not. Google has a big advantage they are smart, organized and well funded. They also cultivate the corporate image of lava lamps, bean bag chairs, and garage startup guys making the world a better place. In reality they are just as cold, calculating, and manipulative as Microsoft, ‘We aren’t competing with Microsoft Office really, that beta presentation software coming out Friday that looks and acts just like power point isn’t a competitor to power point, here have some more free Gmail space to be quiet”. Google is also really good at convincing you they aren’t a business competitor. However if you want to sell text advertising in Google’s eyes you are a direct competitor. In fact you are such a competitor they put out terms or service agreements to try and control how you implement it, making your offering that much less attractive. What’s amazing is people blindly follow these statements, like a mob of mind controlled zombies. Can you imagine McDonalds coming out with a terms of service document telling other restaurants they way they were allowed to use pickles and ketchup, would anybody listen to them, why is Google any different?

I’m glad to see conferences are giving equal time on the paid links debate. In the past it was only search engine representatives, who had the stage, fear mongering the audience with their one sided propaganda. The more educated people become the better. People need to ask themselves are they ok following Google’s rules and content getting table scraps in the form of adsense checks every month, while Google makes 13 Billion in profits each quarter?

If Google wins what’s going to happen is the market will go underground. You’re going to have to “know a guy” to get you links. For a lot of people that removes any options, leaving the only option being Google. Does anybody really believe that the PHD’s at the plex haven’t applied any “gaming theory” to this model and figured out this will make them even more profitable? (c’mon we’re googly we’d never do that) Once the advertisers are underground, market forces of scarcity will take effect, and prices will skyrocket. So even if you don’t believe in paid links, you should still get involved in the debate, if for no other reason than to keep the advertising market free and open instead of under the control of Google.

Agreed. Thanks for the interview, Michael!