Preface: Week before last I published a post titled “White hat SEO is a Joke”. The point of the post wasn’t to be accurate. The point was to be controversial. It was a test post for this post. Sorry folks, you’ve been had. While I do believe that SEOs should be experimenting with every facet of SEO, the only type of SEO I would label as ineffective would be that of the unskilled and unimaginative. The post was also meant to be ironic in that while it was talking about how content doesn’t work it was actually designed to prove the opposite. Some of you caught on and I thank you for playing along even though you knew what was up.

Special thanks to Alan Bleiweiss, Will Critchlow, Rand Fishkin & Martin Macdonald.

Alright here we go. When I was on the flight down to speak at the Distilled New Orleans Link Building Seminar I decided to scratch a book off my reading TDL. If you haven’t read “Rework” by the talented folks over at 37 signals I highly suggest you give it a look. I managed to get through the whole thing during the flight & enjoyed it immensely. One thing that really grabbed my attention in the book was the bit about “picking a fight” as a potential way to promote your company. They gave plenty of offline examples. I thought to myself “Hmm I bet this works online just as well”. Thus the concept for our little test was born.

Recently a company was blasted in the news for using poor customer service as a way to generate links. The thinking behind that tactic was people are far more likely to write reviews & create links when dealing with a negative experience rather than a positive one. I think the execution was really poor (treating your customers like crap to get a link is never ok) but the concept had a lot of truth about it. A quick browse at any of the top review sites (Yelp, Rip-off Report, Trip Advisor, Amazon – take your pick) supports this claim rather blatantly.

About a week after I released my negative post on Whitehat SEO, I wrote another post. This one was a positive lovey-dovey post on friendship. People found it far less palatable, re-tweetable, linkable and less worthy of discussion. I gave it roughly the same amount of marketing push as I gave the previous post, with the extra added benefit of a serious boost in traffic thanks to the previous post. The differences are pretty clear. People are far more engaged when you take a strong negative stance than when you take a strong positive stance.

So how effective was the negative link bait? Well let’s take a look at some pretty charts, stats and what not.

From the original link I tweeted out, we see that the post received approx 1600 clicks, from 48 countries around the globe and the link was re-tweeted an amazing 230 times (tweet stats from tweetmeme).

Additionally our analytics reported a ton of traffic from other sites that linked out to us, email traffic from people passing the post around to co-workers and friends, and a huge secondary spike of traffic when Rand posted his rebuttal. Overall the post has received around 8000 unique visits and a whooping 90+ comments.

Most importantly however… let’s talk about links. According to YSE the post to date has accumulated almost 300 links. MajesticSEO Reports similar numbers citing around 320 links from 94 unique root domains. Some of these are the result of scraper sites. Some are discussion sites or social bookmarks. Some of them are responses. Some of them are news links. We’ve got a little of everything.

Here are a few of the best sites that linked to the post:

Fun Facts:


  • I intentionally didn’t add any supporting data to my original claim. This was in the hopes of goading some data-rich counter responses. It worked.
  • I kept the opinion strong but the definitions vague. This was in the hopes that people would plug their own opinions in encouraging more discussion.
  • I touched on some hot button items (content farms) in hopes of trolling both sides of that coin for an extra boost. It worked.
  • I flat out told people in the original tweet that I was trolling however the bait was still effective!
  • That post is now ranked very highly in bing for “White Hat SEO” (Lol!)



Final Thoughts:

If you are looking for another tool for your link building toolbox I think we can definitely say picking a fight works. That said, be responsible with your positions and methods. Don’t paint yourself (or your client) into a corner that you can’t get out of. Remember to always evaluate the potential risks with any link building campaign. Don’t be afraid to tackle an issue that’s already been covered a few times. In our example here, the “hats” conversation has been beaten to death over the years but thanks to the emotion people attach to their opinions on the subject the campaign was still hugely successful. Lastly, don’t think in terms of hats, think in terms of risk vs reward, long term viability, and a well informed client. Always be testing… but not at the potential detriment of your clients.

Filed under: SEO

  1. I love seeing traffic and link results for individual pieces of content like this. What impressed me most about the initial post, Kris, is that you found a way to cut through the many other posts with similar messages. What would you attribute that to and did any specific research go into the post you wrote? Otherwise, well played.
  2. The only thing I wish you had done differently is target a specific keyword. Nothing too competitive, but a keyword. I would have liked to have seen the fluctuations in ranking vs. the clicks/attention/etc. Great experiment, Kris!
    • Kris Roadruck:
      Oh but I did Sally. I targeted "whitehat SEO" ;-)
  3. The cartoon made me laugh - "Someone is wrong on the internet." I know of some websites that negative-emotion is their entire strategy. Trash everyone. Start fights. Put other people down. Put down the methods they use. Kind of like the Glenn Beck of the internet. It works, but, you have to have the stomach for it and as you said, you have to be responsible or you can back yourself (or client) into a corner.
  4. Ralph:
    Well done Kris. There's a lot to be said about your choice in headline "White hat SEO is a Joke" because on the face of it one would've assumed there are plenty of other similar provocative (SEO is dead) headlines out there, yet yours picked up a helluva lot of traction. I would assume that having the likes of Rand, Will, Alan and Martin "in" on the joke went a long way to giving this the traction it achieved. I love the controversial headline approach, but in preparation for my first stab at this I will make note of your fun facts and then attempt to engage y'all in a similar fashion.
  5. Mike Ramsey:
    Nicely played. I have a question. Did you get any backlash that would have effected you, or your company if this wasn't a test?
    • Kris Roadruck:
      A few people had ruffled feathers about it and I doubt the big reveal will in anyway sway them. Thats sort of the point of the first image. I knew it was a risk. About 30% of our business is client work. The rest is internal properties and software. If I lose a handful of potential clients because I had fun with a test I won't lose any sleep over it. Generally speaking I think the types of people who would take extreme offense to this sort of thing probably have a lack-luster sense of humor. One of the first things I learned when getting into this biz was to pick and choose your clients. I generally elect to work with those people I can get along with. None of those people were offended :-)
      • Great point, pick and choose your clients... like a fight.
  6. Morbetta:
    I'm afraid I don't buy into the "any publicity, even negative, is good publicity", cliche. Maybe in a few weeks you can do a post that explains how losing credibility by standing in the town square while yelling fire, worked out for you.
    • Kris Roadruck:
      Lose credibility with who exactly? Do you have any idea how many client requests we got the week that post ran? How many resume's I received? Nearly every person in this industry that I respect figured out what I was doing and laughed about it or benefited from a spurt of traffic writing well thought out rebuttals.
  7. DocSheldon:
    A fun exercise, and one that proves a point, I think. You're absolutely correct, that human nature being what it is, a negative slant will always generate more emotional response than its positive counterpart. This is the sort of technique that can work quite well, if used sparingly. The Don Rickles approach is a very fine line to try to walk. Not a very kind commentary on human nature, of course. But then, anyone that's been paying attention for the last few thousand years probably isn't too surprised. ;) Good on ya, Kris!
  8. Eren Mckay:
    Hi Kris, You have some useful data here in your post. Many people have used this method for attracting links. And when they do this over and over again they get known as “controversy whores”. While this method works in the short term it can also hurt your social media and reputation. You get known as always being the person who stirs up the pot. Most people are not stupid and they catch on to manipulative schemes pretty fast. We have to think in the long term how this will affect business. Being known as the person who picks a fight because they just want the attention for it is not really a good thing. It gets old and people do business with those they like. Saying things like: “Sorry folks, you’ve been had” won't get you too many brownie points with others. By the way.. you said that your second post was positive... in whose mind? I hardly find the things you said positive and I quote you: “I think men shouldn’t cry. I think depression in most cases is a farce. I think excess affection or sentiment is a bit pathetic. ” Positive? Hmmmm. I don't think so. Among those, there were other things that you wrote in there that defy most people's core values. Many probably got so mad at the first paragraph that you wrote that they just left the page. Anyways... while stirring the pot will work short term, you risk losing your reputation and being seen as a manipulative “you know what”. I would much rather do a link bait piece that has a positive connotation like trying to help someone. I think that with a little imagination this is possible. But alas.. I'm sure this got you more clients which is a good thing. However, one needs to tread in the “controversy pot” with wisdom. Once in a while, just to get known, may even be a good thing but overdoing it will ruin the social. All the best, Eren
    • Twashington72:
      I agree with Eren's comments because there is the possibility of being labeled that "tricky guy" that harped on white hats. Nonetheless, I totally 100% agree that this technique is effective. I mean the stats speak for themselves and I know you didn't make 'em up. Did you strike a deal with Rand on this one? It seems like too much of a coincidence that he responded with so much enthusiuasm and such an in depth defense. You getting a cut of Moz profits 2nd quarter? Be honest mate ;)
      • Kris Roadruck:
        nope no deal. He was genuinely annoyed with the post. he knew it was bait. I thanked him because he knew it was bait but decided to respond anyway :-)
  9. Sadly, this is proof that “picking a fight” does too often win. Heck, 37 Signals got a link out of it, too! Negative headlines and stories attract like magnets. It's the same principle as rubberneckers and gawkers driving by a gory accident scene. For us, it's just online blood that brings eyeballs. Your original post did make people think outside the box, however. Mission accomplished!
  10. Lame.. not only do you degrade the image of our industry, you do effective PR on it and it gets coverage by some major business outlets... Who think "White Hat SEO is a joke", SEO is a scam and it's better to spend your money elsewhere... thanks for using our industry as the whipping boy so you could get traffic.. not amused.. joke #fail... p.s. you are a (insert male genetalia) head.
    • Kris Roadruck:
      Ah I remember you. You are the guy who threatened to choke-slam one of my other readers for disagreeing with you. Internet tough guy. Sorry dude but if anyone is a joke its you partner. And as far as degrading the industry image.. most of those news links above (forbes, usatoday, aolnews) came because all 3 of those sites are scraper sites. There was no editorial hat tip from them. They scraped. THAT gives our industry a bad name. When the biggest winners in seo. The ones google lets get away with anything are nothing but scraper sites.
      • Ha ... me thinks Steve condemns your tactics whilst at the same time trying to emulate them with albeit less effective negative emotion ... blah blah ... got too bored to finish this sentence
  11. Flames... an effective tactic to attract attention (links, social signals), right up there with Lists, but I think your original post came off as sincere, especially if you heard/read about your presentation at #linklove. Well-played sir.
  12. Since we already know that controversy is a good marketing tactic I find it hard to believe you actually thought you needed to prove this again, but I could be wrong. Instead, I think your experiment shows that your knack for making money has far exceeded your ethical considerations. Like you said, "you have a million-dollar company" so, who cares about your industry friends and readers who commented on your "link bait" believing it to be your real sentiments and got duped. Sorry if this sounds a bit harsh but I think you're misrepresenting yourself a little. Also, you wasted people's time proving something that people already know. I guess never-cry-wolf applies here. I'll always be wondering how sincere this blog is.
    • Kris Roadruck:
      I was upfront from moment one that the post was bait. I said as much in just about every promotional tweet I used to get it attention. Its mentioned in my very first comment response to the very first commenter. As to misrepresenting myself. No not really. I've stated in several places that at the core I believe a lot of what I said in that greyhat post, I just blew it out of proportion intentionally to make it more sensational. My twitter "about" blurb has stated Im a rather proud greyhat the entire time I've had the account. I've spoken at link building conferences as the token greyhat. So if you are wondering "gosh golly it sounds like he pulled a full blown just kidding and revealing he is actually a white hat", that is not the case. I hate to break it to you but just about everyone you know online puts on a bit of a show in one way or another. A lot of the so-called whitehats out there dabble in grey and black all the time. It just doesnt make sense brand-wise to admit that publically. For me I play the whole gammut, black, grey, white. To me its all the same. I use whatever is the most effective tool for the job at the time. I don't believe any one method "has it". I also don't believe hat colors are the best way to group individual tactics as it leaves too much room for interpretation. Take rands post for example. I talked about going grey.. he responded in black vs white. I like rand and respect a lot of what he says but if I wanted to be a jackass I could easily go in there and poke holes in about 30-40% of his response post. Why don't I? Because it doesn't matter. Additionally dont assume because YOU know something it means everyone knows that same thing. There are a lot of new seo's or burgeoning webmasters that have basically no clue at all how to build links yet. Things like linkbait and emotional triggers aren't in their toolbox yet. Take a look at any great SEO blog. SEOmoz, SEObook,, et cetera... all of them still go back to basic topics again and again. Why? Because there are always new people entering this industry. Heck check the Q&A section in SEOmoz. Nearly every question asked there falls into what most 2+ year SEOs would consider basic common knowledge. Anyway to wrap this all up... the point of this blog isn't to make friends out of every single person who comes across the site. This isn't my company site. Its my personal domain. When I choose to update it, its mostly for my own amusement. It's not commercial in nature (notice the stark lack of ads, a blog roll, heck even a custom theme). If you don't like snark, tom-foolery, et cetera you probably shouldn't read here. All those things are part of who I am and one of the beauties of being my own boss is Im not going to fire myself for being me when and where I choose to do so. Know what I mean vern? If you are looking for politically correct blogs check elsewhere.
      • Well, I don't believe you truly admitted that it was just for link bait until this blog post. After all, that was the intention of this post. Had you fully admitted it in that comment you wouldn't have needed to write this post because no one would have believed what you wrote and took it seriously and blogged/tweeted/commented about it. To be fair, I didn't see your tweets so I don't know what you put but based on your approach, I doubt you really admitted it until this blog post. I mean the purpose of the tweets was to draw attention to the post for the experiment, right? I read Rand's post as well and I don't believe he knew you wrote the other post as part of an experiment and weren't being mostly authentic. He mentioned you probably exaggerated a bit for controversy and attention but that's not the same as realizing it was part of a link bait experiment. He went into painstaking detail trying to prove you wrong. That's the impression I got anyways. Maybe you were just trying to not make him look bad because he took the bait. You do make some good points. I can see the value of people going back to basics for the newbies and I think it's legit and I probably forgot about it when I commented so I'm glad you pointed it out. Also, I think you're probably right that everyone puts a show on to some degree here and there; however, we need to be able to draw a line somewhere and I think your other post is at least close to crossing that line. I could be wrong though. I'm not trying to come to some fixed position about you or this blog and I'm taking the things you said seriously as something to ponder. I actually liked the rant and agree with a lot of it so maybe that's why I felt duped a little.
        • Brian, this was a well-written and executed link bait. It worked! Why should we get into unnecessary ethical discussions here? Kris, well done. Only if I could do one like this each month.
          • I think I already covered that in my comment.
  13. Joseph:
    I feel deceived. Oh well, lesson learned.
  14. Sam Tilston:
    Well played sir
  15. Kris, I do think a lot of it was said in jest... I do applaud you taking the reputation risk which has obviously paid off with hundreds of potential, new albeit shady dwelling clients.
  16. Getting sued for something you write on your blog also works amazingly well to acquire a boat load of backlinks. I have a real estate website/blog and was sued in 2008 by a condo developer for something I wrote. Fortunately, the dispute was resolved without any money exchanges hands and I didn't even have to pay for attorney fees. Soon after, however, my website started ranking on the first page of Google for "Miami real estate" and "Miami condos".