The History of Link Bait

Woe is me…

A reader contacted me after my last post and called me out for using the term “link bait” in it.

While he was nice enough, the objection seemed to be that only a sleazy marketer would try to “bait” someone to visit, or link to, a web site.

Never mind that I’ve called the term inelegant several times myself.

Or that “link bait” is just a sexy term for high-quality content that benefits the reader.

I can certainly see that the word “bait” has potentially negative connotations even beyond the fishy subtext. Bait and switch comes to mind.

And I also realize that in the early days of blogging, the only creative bait that was utilized by the pioneers amounted to attacks and insults.

But let’s look at the history of the word “bait” as it relates to content, and see if the original connotation is negative or not.

The first paring of the words “link” and “bait” came from the SEO industry, a group particularly interested in obtaining links to boost search engine rankings. I’m not sure if it was Aaron Wall or Nick Wilson who gets the dubious honor of being first [editor: it was Wall according to Wilson], but we’ll let them hash that one out.

But what about this “baiting” concept before then?

Here’s an excerpt from the highly regarded book The Story Factor by Annette Simmons:

The jargon we use demonstrates this. We try to “hook ‘em” and “reel ‘em in.” … Your story is the bait. If a fish doesn’t bite do you blame the fish? Do you call the fish unmotivated, lazy, greedy? No, you look for better bait.

And what about all those screenwriting books that prime the Hollywood system with fresh meat?

From Story by Robert McKee:

Casablanca’s Act One hooks us with the Inciting Incidents of no fewer than five wellpaced subplots.

From Screenplay by Syd Feld:

… so it becomes essential to introduce your story components from the beginning. You’ve got ten pages to grab or hook your reader, …

Hook is not a Peter Pan reference, people.

And finally, let’s go back to 1933 and the Robert Collier Letter Book, one of the old school copywriting classics:

Hundreds of books have doubtless been written about the fine art of fishing, but the whole idea is contained in that one sentence: “What bait will they bite on?” Thousands of articles have been written about the way to use [sales] letters to bring you what you want, but the meat of them all can be compressed into two sentences: “What is the bait that will tempt your reader? How can you tie up that thing you have to offer with that bait?”

Copywriting and storytelling as a way to attract links and traffic?

What a concept. :)

When it comes to the use of the “bait” or “hook” analogy in the context of compelling content, the intent is not to disrespect the reader at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

We can’t blame anyone but ourselves if a particular piece of content doesn’t connect with people. The only answer is to learn more, get better, and try again—by focusing on the reader’s needs just a little more intently.

If that makes me a sleazy marketer, then I guess I’m guilty as charged.

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Reader Comments (55)

  1. says

    Hey Baiter-dude,

    I quit visiting forums 2 years ago because of all the ‘marketers’ who complained that someone was trying to make money by selling them something.

    Now that same group seems to have teleported themselves over to the blogosphere.

    I get people over at my blog that tell me how to sell. I follow the link back to their blog about HBO and how they recorded 80 hours of shows to watch this week and they’re telling me how to sell. OMG !

    Here’s what that type is missing – You guys are too busy reading what Brian writes … you need to ‘read’ why he wrote it and what he’s trying to accomplish with what he wrote.

    This IS a blog about copy, in case you missed that part.

    And yes, Copy Master, this grasshopper is watching what and how and not just reading.

  2. says

    A term, is a term, is a term. I think anything could have evil connotations if you choose to view it through that lens. I thought the post itself made a great point and was very baitworthy. So much so, that I happened to link to it today.

  3. says

    Michael and Mike, I’m not worried about you two getting it. :)

    And Tony, that’s a great post. Just bookmarked it at Delicious.

  4. says

    Thanks for that line about kids doing what they’re passionate about, Tony.

    That brought clarity to a situation in my head that was cloudy.

  5. says

    Brian, whether you are a sleazy marketer or not depends on whether your bait is any good. Cheap bait is sleazy. Good bait has meat.

    Annie Dillard tells a story of a starving Eskimo. She had a hook, a line, and a knife. For bait, she cut a piece of meat from her own thigh.

    Good bait comes from our own flesh and blood and guts. And it leaves a scar.

  6. says

    There once was a blogger named Brian
    Whose readers were wailin’ and cryin’
    “Link Bait is sleazy,
    It’s disgusting and greasy,”
    But linking’s the trade that he’s plyin’

  7. says

    Im thinkin’ Anthony deserves special recognition for that fine work.

    We should all link to him and find a way to make him feel loved.

    How ’bout it team ? Whattaya say ?

  8. says

    Hey wordsmith …. what’s wrong with this sentence?

    “Or that “link bait” is a euphemism for high-quality content that benefits the reader.”

    “Counts his pennies” is a euphemism for greedy miser.

    “Rather large” is a euphemism for fat.

    “Link bait” is not the euphemism. It’s the fat. The euphemism is “high quality content.”

    … just had to say it, sorry for picking nits!


  9. says

    Great article. Opinions of terms are definitely in the eye of the beholder.

    Here’s my two cents…

    “Bait” is a term referring to something that is used to attract. “links” on the web are words with html code that allow users to connect to other web pages.

    Therefore link bait refers to links used to attract readers on the web so they’ll go to other web pages. Seems simple.

  10. says

    Thanks for yet another great post.

    Link bait is essential, but how do you find out what people want?

    It is easy to have a great link bait when you’re an authority in your niche, but for a starting out blog/site it is very hard to accomplish…


  11. says

    Nice article. Actually I m looking for some new and advanced link bait tactics which use Social Media as Facebook and Twitter as well.
    Do you guys know a nice source or up-to-date article you like?
    Would be very helpful. Thx

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