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Should virality really be the goal with your content? Could it be hurting more than helping you?

Update: Following publish we were alerted that our example for Bid-On-Equipment was to support their candy machinery page, which after some reflection is a relevant piece of content for this company’s needs.

In the below Content & Links episode and corresponding Content & Conversation, I outline why viral content may work against you—or at least why virality shouldn’t be your main priority.

Video Transcription

Welcome to another episode of Content and Links, and today I want to talk to you about why you might not want to go viral.

So, on Twitter, in the SEO-sphere, there’s a lot of talk about the big, fancy pieces and that often go viral and they get hundreds of links and coverage and people tend to share them and brag about them on the network. And props to them for that success, but one of the things I want you to do as an observer of these concepts that might be jealous of their outcomes is actually dig into the results.

Because I have seen that very often these concepts that you think are so amazing, when you dig into the results, they actually very rarely drive results from a search standpoint for that company. And there’s several reasons for that, and I’ll speak to those on this episode.

Problem 1: Irrelevant Backlinks

The first is that you really rarely can connect a concept that goes viral to brand very well. It is difficult for any true brand to actually accomplish that. And a very clear example of this is this company Bid On Equipment and their piece on the most popular Halloween candy in every state.

halloween candy example
So, props to them last year, this was created and it got over 180 links to this asset of course around Halloween as people shared their most favorite candy. Maybe I like Reese’s, maybe I like M&Ms, etc. And the map looks clean, pretty easy to share and link to this concept.

But as you can see, as you actually tie it back to the brand, there is no tie in. Really you can’t even make an argument that this has anything to do with equipment, and therefore the topic authority in connection is just not present. They offer equipment for your business, you can’t even need to make an argument of how this connects, it’s pretty obvious on the surface.

This comes to one of the main issues that often occurs with these assets. If we believe Google understands topic authority, or at least wants to understand topic authority, we’re building pieces like this that have no clear connection from a kind of link authority standpoint, audience standpoint, or anchor text standpoint. You can see how this is the kind of piece that just might not do super well in terms of actually driving results.

You can actually see this come to fruition on their website. So when you actually dig into the overall website traffic, you can see the spike of the overall site right at Halloween. And you see in October, they generated around 300 links and it now represents more than half of their link profile.

bid on equipment all links

The problem herein lies they’re not actually building any links of relevancy. And I can’t say it’s one to one the case, but it’s not, it’s hard to miss the fact that this went live in October and their traffic subsequently dipped in December, by almost a very similar percentage point from that number of links that this asset generated.

bid on equipment traffic

You can see they’re starting to come back in the last couple months which is great for them, but it also looks like they have some other links that have occurred. I won’t dig into those in this video, but you can see it’s pretty clear one to one effect of this thing went viral and actually they lost rankings.

I’ve seen other examples of this exact thing happening where there’s clear disconnect in topic authority and the backlinks represent a high percentage of their link profile such that the anchor text or maybe this asset actually becomes the most linked piece on their site the anchor text, the relevancy makes no sense for that business and that in turn brings down the website overall. It might feel like you should get some benefit from this but because it’s so disconnected, it’s just not as great from that standpoint.

Problem #2: Brand Disconnect

The next point is actually the fact that if you approve this as a brand, or as a company, the fact that you did that means you’re not a brand. And the fact that you’re not a brand also is a signifier that something might be broken or off about your consideration process such that that may impact your ranking ability as well. Or you might not be able to infer the benefit from this.

So what I mean by that is the kind of company that approves “The Most Popular Halloween Candy in Every State” as an equipment business also inherently has other issues from an engagement standpoint on their site. Because if you can’t connect the fact that there’s something wrong with you doing this, it’s very often that same thought process that will not lend you towards a brand like experience.

You can see this business has hyphens in their domain name, that’s kind of that same consideration. Also these long tail pages will often have very clear engagement problems because there’s a lack of feeling of brand there. I don’t think this is necessarily bad, it’s fine, especially in this kind of market, but that connection can often mean that if you prove something that is off brand for your business, that reality also means that you’re making other incorrect decisions on your business and website. Such that even if this could make an impact for you, it won’t because you probably have engagement issues from other aspects of your company. The fact that you could create a viral concept also means something’s broken, therefore the viral concept cannot actually drive value for you.

That’s not universally the rule, it’s just more often the case. And very often what I see when I see these online.

Problem #3: It Could Backfire

The next piece is that if you create something that’s viral, there’s a good chance that it can actually be damaging. Because maybe you collected this data incorrectly. There’s often spin-off concept from that that create that virality of you did something wrong, you did something incorrect, maybe you collected data incorrectly and actually led to the viral outcome that someone who’s actually discerning will dig into, and realize it was off.

Because if you’re creating a new spark, there’s often something new and interesting revealed that if you’re just an SEO company, thinking very vanilla level (no pun intended) with this candy concept, there’s probably a decent chance you collected that data incorrectly to come to that outcome. Or maybe you’ve leaned that direction.

So for that reason, you could actually do damage to yourself as a brand if you are a true brand when something sparks and goes viral. And if that’s the case, then there’s also the reasoning and belief that maybe if we believe that Google understands negative sentiment with links, such that if someone’s getting blasted as a company, you know there’s been a lot of bad PR recently, they should understand that this link has negative sentiment, and therefore not actually benefit the business because of that sentiment.

So if we assume that, and now like thirty percent of those links are actually negative. And who knows, maybe Google’s actually smart enough to give it negative sentiment or negative weight to negative sentiment links. I have my doubt on that part but, that connection also leans towards the fact that hey, maybe this outcome isn’t necessarily positive overall.

Problem #4: Link Spikes ≠ Natural

That leads to the next part that giant link spikes are outcome of a naturally positively occurring business. Great brands and businesses that Google wants to reward rarely have a link spike like this that represents more than forty percent of the link profile. I know that’s not universally true, but in a general case, they want consistent month over month growth, that’s what real brands, real quality websites do. They don’t have spikes.

So if I was Google, I would actually devalue spikes of this nature. Because I wouldn’t want to reward a company that has a spike that comes in this way. That just is not an indication of an actual quality business. So, we should in turn aim to be that brand that consistently generates these outcomes rather than go the viral scenario we’re describing in these instances.

That’s not to say this can’t ever work, that virality doesn’t create a spark that can create real outcomes. I think of Oreo’s “we think you should dunk in the dark” tweet that went viral in the Super Bowl.

That is on brand, that is well done, this actually has real impacts for you as a company because that intersection was elegantly played. But this is a rare outcome, rather than the common outcome for most businesses. So, you should just be considerate of that.

When It Can Work

One of the things I’ve seen in SEO, and I think I should point to this as well, I do still see these on brand pieces occasionally actually make an impact. And I’ve noticed some commonalities there as well that I think are worth observing. One that these often occur in darker, off-topic industries. Such that maybe links in relevancy and neighborhoods are just relatively hard for Google to understand. Because nobody’s able to achieve that in those markets.

So it is possible a “most popular Halloween candy” could make sense and be valuable in gambling or porn, or something like that, if they can actually achieve the similar outcomes because of just the nature of of that disconnected and hard to understand signal network that that vertical and those verticals can observe and have. So, that’s the consideration set. There are positive results and reasons that these things can occur, but my general thesis here is, yes viral can be good, it should be, we should aim to have on brand viral content and have that happen, but in general we’re not unhappy when a piece connects.

But what we’re trying to do is create something on brand first, and occasionally a spark or data alignment occurs to make that thing happen, but we’re much happier about consistent results month over month, because those consistently drive results and outcomes and also lead you towards the right decisions about your business of, let’s actually make this website better so it can naturally increase the velocity of links to it over time.

Rather than let’s make an off-topic piece of content that is disconnected and we do not infer the connection of the value of the links and the momentum of link acquisition through that thought process. Because we’re not being deliberate about that incremental need of improving our website and trying to make this one viral link bait piece off the side.

You can see viral content is great if it happens, but don’t come to people saying “We want viral content.” And you do that, you’re probably the number one to point where you don’t have a true brand. And that in turn has subsequent issues for you that can drive less results for you over time.

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