How Offering More Value Can Get You Less Links

by on September 2, 2010 | posted in Linkable Asset Creation

Normally, you’d think that if you gave away X amount of value to a prospective link target, and then offered them X+1 value afterwards, they would, in every instance, be more willing to link to you in the latter case.

As Dan Ariely proved in his book “Predictably Irrational” – and I recently found out in my link building efforts – this is definitely not always the case. We can sometimes actually see value added as a bad thing, even in the face of every positive, more beneficial reason to link out.

In “Predictably Irrational”, Ariely cites a hypothetical Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine your mother-in-law has made you a delicious dinner, a beautiful turkey, amazing sweet potatoes, and a sumptuous pumpkin pie to top off the night. You drink wine, celebrate, and revere the situation. And then suddenly, as the night winds down, you jump to your feet and look to your mother-in-law and remark – “Mom, for all the love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” The crowd suddenly grows silent. You pull out a handful of bills. “Do you think three hundred dollars will suffice? This was so delicious – maybe four hundred!”

Imagine what a ruckus this would cause. Your mother-in-law would turn red, your wife would start crying, and your niece would gasp in shock. Undoubtedly, you would not be returning to this celebration next year.

Social Norms vs. Market Norms

What’s occurring here is something that happens very frequently in everyday life. On one side, we have social norms, the continuous, unspoken things we do for each other for free. This “Thanksgiving dinner” exchange of value occurs based only on the idea that somewhere on the line, an equal value exchange will be reciprocated for them. Here, in the social world, immediate payment is not required, and, as is cited in the above example, is normally shunned upon.

In the world of market norms, we live by more stringent, sharp-edged means. Prices, cost-benefit analysis, and prompt payments – things that result in very definitive, near-equal, immediate exchanges of value – normally in the form of monetary compensation.

The more these areas collide, the more issues arise. Ariely cites a situation where a guy takes a woman out for three dates, emptying his wallet every time. By the third date, he wants at very least a passionate kiss at the door – but he doesn’t get it. On the fourth date he mentions how much this relationship has cost him – the nerve! She yells at him and storms off. This poor soul has unsuccessfully mixed social and market norms – a perilous mistake.

A Lesson in Link Building

One portion of my link building repertoire is link begging. Establish a large set of backlinks based on a target market, and send out a large batch of refined e-mails (not spam – partially customized!) in an effort to get a link from a few of them. I have pretty good success with this, mostly due to a pretty refined process – one that is largely grounded in Ariely’s definition of social norms.

My normal e-mail template is sent from a random, made-up account. Here, I take on the identity of a female fan – one who loves a given person’s website, frequently visits – but also has a suggestion of another just like it that she thinks their readers would love too.

I send this from an account non-affiliated with the business I’m doing it for – this lowers the likelihood the webmaster will ask for a reciprocal link exchange – and also, most importantly — makes it appear as though this is not an exchange where market norms come into play.

In very few of these linking situations do I believe the webmaster actually thinks that the website I offer is that great or worth going out of their way to link to – what they believe is the person I am identifying as is a loyal visitor of their site, one that will return and come back and visit and love and buy stuff. By offering this small nugget now, they expect a reciprocal exchange later – in the form of traffic, at the very minimum, but more hopefully, in the offering of more adoration and love.

Where I Went Wrong

In my opinion, this link-begging construction is near optimal – and one I had refined and gotten good results from after years of implementation. However, given my new, first job as an In-House SEO, I had access to new resources. I had merchandise to give away!

So I pivoted, and from a business e-mail, attempted a similar link-begging e-mail – but also offering a t-shirt in exchange for a mention. What had really changed? I was now offering a shirt worth around $20, and before, I was offering nothing. I didn’t expect a huge response rate, but I was hoping for some modicum improvement in the sheer number of links I received. But no, nothing – I got no positive bites!

I got a much higher response rate, but it wasn’t people offering up links – it was people offering up media kits to buy advertising! Quickly, I was reminded of Ariely’s Social and Market Norms concept – with these people, I had stopped being a friend who they were doing a favor for – and now, I had become an evil businessman who only wanted the value their link offered.

In this situation, the t-shirt I was offering was hardly more than a set of pencils to them – after all, it wasn’t a t-shirt of their favorite brand or some luxury product – it was of an anonymous internet company. My attempt crashed – and it burned.

A Lesson Learned

Although my small giveaway plan failed, it offered a serious lesson in how every link building attempt should be framed. When attempting an exchange, never try for some minimum offering of value while under the guise of a business – this will undoubtedly fail.

You must appear at one of two sides of the spectrum – either as a friend of a webmaster, one who can use social norms to pry out a link – or by offering strong enough market value – whatever that may be – to get a link on the other side. Trying to balance it somewhere in the middle will end up in low returns, and even if you do end up getting a similar number of links, your ROI drops because of the value-addition you utilized to barter for that amazing blue hyperlink.

Image credit goes to Hugh MacLeod of

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