To Create Useful Links, Think Like A User, Not A Content Producer


The rule of thumb for link building as of late seems to be thus: “Would you put a link here if Google didn’t exist?”

I’m starting to like this question more and more. As a link builder, I naturally see links — and potential links – absolutely everywhere when I’m online.

However, creating content with links in mind, whether they’re external links you hope to gain or internal ones you hope to incorporate, can result in content that’s possibly too manipulative, misleading, or salesy.

Who wants to link to that? Marketing can’t really separate itself from manipulation, of course, but still it’s good to take a few steps back and get offline for a bit to see why our content might not be as good as it should be.

Going Offline To Think Like A User

I usually read newspapers online, but I had a brief subscription to The New York Times back in the summer. I hadn’t touched a proper print newspaper in months, and as I read the articles, I could see places where I’d want to see a link in the online version. Something would be mentioned, and if I’d been online reading it, I’d have clicked.

That was a powerful signal to me, one that said, “This is where a link belongs!” Reading a physical paper was completely different from reading it online. I thought about where I’d want to see a link, not where I’d want to place a link.

That experience helped me to think much more as a user than a producer of content.

One big problem that I see with today’s content is that much of it is obviously written in order to promote a specific site. You see lots of really well-done articles that go on for 2,500 words… yet, there’s just one link in there. You see five different companies mentioned… yet, only one has a link.

I understand the argument for not wanting to link out to everyone on the planet; but when you link to that one company and leave the other four out, you have unbalanced content. It’s skewed toward the site that you very obviously do link to, and so why should we trust it? If you are comparing five companies, shouldn’t you provide a link to all five?

Maybe if you aren’t a marketer, you don’t read anything into a situation like this — but I sure as heck do, and what it says is no different than what a spammy series of guest posts or spun articles say.

When you’re creating content, think about where a user would naturally want to see a link. That way, you’ll be creating something that’s more engaging.

Where Do Users Want Links?

Let’s look at an example. In the article below, where would you put a link? As you can see, there are no editorial links in the content.

Here’s what I’d do: where

Unfortunately, what we often see instead are articles with loads of keywords linked. Would you click on anchors like these?

  • Hollywood movies
  • normal movies
  • farm
  • planet
  • humanity

I wouldn’t. (Although I confess, I’d be curious to see what [normal movies] takes me to.)

If I saw links like that in a piece of content, I’d think several things — none of them nice. I’d think they were paid links (not that I have a problem with paid links if they make sense). More importantly, I’d think that the author was an idiot, and I wouldn’t trust his or her content. We all know what a farm is, right? So why do we feel the need to link out so poorly?

When you read something offline like a magazine or newspaper, or you listen to a show on the radio, think about the following questions:

  1. What are the key points you remember?
  2. What did you hear or read that interested you enough to go check it out?
  3. What really got your attention?
  4. What parts didn’t you really care about?
  5. What were the irrelevant bits?

Let’s look at another example. Read the paragraph below, then answer the five questions above. I’ll tell you my answers so you can see how yours compare.


What did I remember? Ad retargeting is the reason why I see ads for a Buick Enclave on every site I visit, but I can do something about it.

What interested me? The extension, Blur, that could help with excessive retargeting.

What got my attention? Well I’ll be honest. As a marketer, I knew exactly why I was seeing those Enclave ads everywhere, but I never cared that much about it. What got my attention was the fact that I could use an extension to prevent it if I wanted to.

What parts didn’t concern me? That there is a World Privacy Forum. That’s because again, as a marketer, I kind of accept the fact that these things happen, and it really doesn’t bother me. That’s a sad statement on my own lack of surprise where online privacy is concerned.

What were the irrelevant bits? I don’t think there was enough content for anything to be irrelevant in this case. I am jealous that I can’t craft anything that succinctly.

Final Thoughts

Of course, I know it’s not possible to write content and ignore the goal of getting eyes on it; however, I do think that as marketers, it’s difficult to really connect sometimes, due to the way in which we write with the intent of doing exactly that.

Just think about where you’d want to see a link if you weren’t the creator of that content, and hopefully that will guide you.

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