The secret underbelly of blogging; why I’m done with linkbait


I am a columnist for the Boston Globe, so when I first started blogging, I was in the enviable position of being able to get advice from any top blogger I wanted. I called them up, interviewed them about some topic or another, and at the end, I asked them for advice about blogging.

The universal advice was to write posts that big bloggers would link to.

Before I could even figure out how to do that, something happened. I posted one of those Boston Globe columns on my blog, and one of the bloggers I interviewed, Gina Trapani, linked to it. The result was absolutely breathtaking: 10,000 page views in one day. And 40 bloggers linked to it.

At this point in my blogging career, I need more than 10,000 page views just to get a normal day of traffic. But as new blogger, this level of traffic was astounding. I was still in the mode where I answered every single email, and after that day, it took me a week to catch up.

Then I thought, I’m gonna write another post that Lifehacker will link to.

Of course, I couldn’t. They didn’t pick up any of my specially tailored-to-Lifehacker posts. So I gave up. I went back to just posting.

Then I was at the South by Southwest Conference and I was exhausted. I didn’t post for two days and felt like I absolutely had to post. No matter what. I wouldn’t let myself go back to the conference until I posted.

So I banged out a post on how to do a phone interview. I’ve done a million of them—on both sides of the conversation—so I just wrote it off the top of my head. I hit the Post button and went to the conference, and then I worried the whole time that the quality of my blog was going downhill and that I need to do more research and that the post sucked.

Lifehacker linked to it. To this day, it’s the third most popular post on my blog. It was a great lesson: I’ll never know what people will link to.

In general, I have found that it’s easy to know when something will be sensationalist— big scoops, hot sex—and very hard to know what will be popular just because the content is good. Also, while Nick Denton is rewarding his bloggers for traffic based on numbers, which encourages linkbait, I have found that not all traffic is equal, and linkbait doesn’t garner the best traffic.

When Reddit was sold, and I had a scoop on an earlier offer Google made to buy Reddit, I posted it. Of course, the post shot to the top of Reddit’s most popular list. But most of those readers didn’t stay long term on my blog. In contrast, many posts on my blog that did not get as much traffic ended up attracting more people who returned to the blog over and over again.

So here’s something I do know about links. The posts I spend weeks and weeks writing, and I put my heart right on the page, and I give advice that I really know is true, those posts do well. They get lots of links and lots of traffic. Which means the real linkbait is an interesting, useful, well-written posts.

And one more thing. I have found that if I am nervous to post something—if I think I might look bad or reveal too much or give advice that people will hate—these are the posts that people care about, because they further my connection with people and further the conversation we’re having, and connection and conversation are the crux of linking.

There’s one thing about linkbait that I do think works, though. Turning posts into lists. People like to scan posts and find one thing they like, and then they call it out on their own blog. And it’s a gift to the reader anyway, to parse a post into lists of bullets for an easier read.

So I thought of turning this post into a list so that more people would link to it. But how embarrassing to create linkbait in a post about why I don’t like it.

33 replies
  1. Kosta Kontos
    Kosta Kontos says:

    “The universal advice was to write posts that big bloggers would link to.” – haha I’m just going to follow Penelope Trunk’s advice and post everyday for a few months before I start paying any attention to my blog’s traffic. Thanks for the inspiration to practise. And for the good daily read.

  2. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    I do not have the level of traffic that you have, Penelope….but I have found that my most popular posts are ones that are short and meaningful. They get quoted. When I go long and ramble, I get nothin’.

    Everyone loves it when they get a link from an HUGE blogger and their traffic spikes, but I maintain that the best bloggers whom I follow (like you) post regularly and create a feeling of community. You are good about responding to meaningful comments with an email (I now do this and learned it here).

    I never have grasped how to link bait. I just write and get quoted from time to time. Never know when or why.

    See you at sxsw! I think we are on the schedule back to back.

  3. Jerry Matthew
    Jerry Matthew says:

    PT –

    BY reading this post I think you’ve learned or re-learned some things you already knew:

    Quality over Quantity – no matter what (writing, relationships, sex)

    Do what you do best or love the most – WRITE! the rest will come.

    Be nice and work to be liked – the rest will come.

    I think if you stay true to yourself, your purpose, and your audience you can’t go wrong. People may not always agree with what you say but hopefully they respect you and your opinion.

    Keep on being you.

    * * * * * *

    Thanks, Jerry. For the insight and kindness. But also for turning my post into a bulleted list, which is like scratching an itch for me.


  4. AMPlifier
    AMPlifier says:

    I have been blogging for nearly a year, and I still can’t figure out the best way to drive up my traffic. I seem to have the opposite experience as you; my more insightful, heartfelt, “deeper” posts get the fewest comments (such as my eulogistic post on Heath Ledger). Conversely, the posts which I deem more “trivial” seem to spark more reaction from my readers. I struggle with inciting more thoughtful discourse on my blog, as well as the conflict between staying true to what *I* want to write and writing about what I believe my readers would find interesting.

  5. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Quality is something that’s definitely a commodity in blogging these days. There are so many blogs, so much content, taking the easy approach usually just means you’re writing the same, easy things as evryone else.

    I like how Steve Rubel recently described the phenomenon of the “lazysphere” – and encouraged bloggers to focus on deep thinking and really adding value to the conversation.

    * * * * * *

    The deep thinking issue is interesting to me. Sometimes I decide that I’m doing deep thinking so I can write a long post. But I actually think that the best blogging is when people can be deep and still be short. It’s so much harder to really figure out what you’re trying to say so that you can cut half the post and just be deep. Look here in this comment. I’m trying to be deep so I just wrote the same thing twice. I rest my case :)


  6. Kosta Kontos
    Kosta Kontos says:

    Tiffany, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – it’s all about adding value to the reader. Honestly, that’s what brings me back to Penelope’s blog every day.

  7. Jonathan Dingman
    Jonathan Dingman says:

    I completely agree with you. I’ve tried digg bait and link bait time and time again, but it’s never brought any long term readers or subscribers.

    I’ve been focusing on solid content and it’s really just gone from there.

    Great write-up

  8. Chris Edgar
    Chris Edgar says:

    I appreciated the vulnerability of this post. We often hear that content is important in attracting interest in one’s blog, but I’ve always thought that another important aspect is the authenticity and humanity of the content. Best, Chris

  9. Scott Williamson
    Scott Williamson says:

    PT – great post, I definitely agree with you in that the posts that stay true to you blogs purpose always seem to do well, but more importantly are rewarding because you’re reaching your target audience.

    I did a post awhile back on career management that mentioned the Spears sisters. The post was fairly vanilla and I looped in the Spears sisters to see what it would do to my traffic. It spiked, but really more than I wanted. I would have much preferred less traffic but on a post I really believed in, since this would likely lead to more repeat visitors. Since the Spears post I’ve had several that have approached that level of traffic and they are much more rewarding since they reflect what my blog is about.

  10. Greg R.
    Greg R. says:

    Always wanted to know the lifehacker story. And yes, some bloggers would kill for 10,000 hits in a day. I would kill for a 1,000.

    Link baiting is a great tool but again the selection process is never guaranteed as is a top post on Digg, Reddit or other Social Media sites. Just keep pumping out high quality content, connecting with others stay consistent. Not a bad plan.

  11. Florence Brown
    Florence Brown says:

    I manage newspaper web sites and I love your blog for the very fact that it is so personal. The bloggers at my paper are columnists, so many of them find it difficult to use a casual, conversational voice in their posts. Others consider their blogs an extension of their column, which is a a fabulous idea but ends up being a mass dump of all the superfluous information they couldn’t fit in their column.

    Anyway, your tip on parsing information into notes is a really valuable one, and I’ll make sure to bring it up the next time I’m chatting with a columnist. I love your blog and it’s a huge source of inspiration to a young journalist like myself :)

  12. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Even today, I continue to be amazed by how few of the posts that I’ve really worked on are popular, and how some of the ones I dash off without thinking go on to become the popular ones.

    On the other hand, the one post that always keeps on giving is “Why I Hate San Francisco.” There’s always at least another comment on it every week, and it’s been three years since I wrote it.

  13. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    The only lessons I have learnt from watching traffic patterns are:

    1. It really depends on the content, not on the distribution. If you touch a nerve, you have hit a home run. If you write about something you know a lot about or you are passionate about, your readers will know. It shows in the post, irrespective of how much or how little time you spent. Even the quality of writing – the packaging of the idea, essentially – is irrelevant to most readers.

    2. The blogger’s involvement in responding and engaging in the conversation is the second most important factor. I have successfully killed some discussions by not responding to the ongoing comments, because sometimes the conversation can deteriorate into a free-for-all. I also notice you do not always respond to the comments but knowing you, I know you read them all.

    Here is one of the most interesting ones I have observed.

    Nita Kulkarni, also a sometime-reader of your blog, is a prolific blogger whose blog, A Wide Angle View of India, covers topics related to India. Her readership I think is mainly Indians in India or abroad. There are some English and American readers too.

    She wrote a post on the North-South divide in India on November 2nd, 2006. The topic touched a raw nerve amongst her readers. If you look at the citations and the quality of the argument, it is mind-boggling.

    Nearly 15 months on, the post has so far attracted 1281 comments and there are still new comments every week. You can see the post here:

  14. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    When I read you comment, I immediately thought of one of my all time favorite Seth Godin posts in which he gives a lot of blogging advice, much of which he contradidcts, even within the post, and that’s sort of his point: lots of things work. Write short posts, write long posts; write about one thing, write about a lot.

    To me, it illustrates that having a strict formula for how you write about your ideas isn’t as important as what you’re writing about to being with – which is a refreshing take on the deep thinking issue you pointed out. His last point really drives this home: “Write stuff that people want to read and share.”

    It’s nice to know you can change things up and still write successfully.

    Here’s the link for all those who haven’t read the post:

  15. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    The great challenge is providing insightful, value-added commentary using the fewest words. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I couldn’t write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.

  16. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Timely post for me. I’ve been analyzing which subjects and themes on my blog tend to generate the most traffic and comments. Here’s what I’ve found in my blog (

    Book reviews written as lists (with a creative edge) are popular in terms of traffic.

    Posts about bicycling generate traffic.

    Posts about conflicts (in my case usually urban development tensions such as McMansions, big box stores, etc.) generate more discussion in the comments.

    For getting the best links (ie from high traffic blogs like this one, and others more connected to my subject), it’s the posts that provide my alternative perspective on a subject recently posted on, and dear to, these blogs. – but not always.

    Like Penelope, I’ve found that when I’m “trolling” for a big link, it doesn’t happen. It’s those posts written in the inspiration of the moment — that are written because I have something to say and get off my chest — that tend to draw the best results.

  17. Todd
    Todd says:

    Great post Penelope. It’s both inspiring and practical. Blogs are like stocks. You never know which ones are going to take off. It’s decided by the people who are beyond our control.

    So write to the best of your abilities, and write what your gut tells you to.

    I suggest, for those looking to become professional bloggers, to write several blogs, if they can, and see which one is the most popular.

    for instance,
    I write


    two radically different blogs, both with their own niche.

  18. Dina
    Dina says:

    I see it for myself,that you never know which post is going to catch the attention of the blogers and bring traffic to the site.

  19. Doug
    Doug says:

    This is a ridiculous discussion. Blogging is not about your individual posts, it’s about you. Individual posts won’t get read without a lot of repeat visitors, and unless you’re writing about a really tight niche, like wireless trends in Southern Arizona, you’ve got to make people interested in you, not your subject.

    I’m a geek who doesn’t really care about HR or career management, but I read this blog because it’s written by someone who talks about her marriage, her own job challenges, and is quick to show vulnerability. This makes her likable, makes me receptive to her opinions, and it also makes me want to know what’s going on in her life.

    I like a lot of what Penelope says, but if she gave the same advice, and said she was the Queen of Human Resources, and plastered links to past TV appearances all over the page, her traffic would be closer to the levels of those thinly-read journalist blogs.

  20. Daniel Dessinger
    Daniel Dessinger says:

    Excellent topic! I have wondered what you think about topics relating to SEO and linkbait and such. Based on previous articles, I thought perhaps you just didn’t feel the need to really pay much attention.

    As the director of SEO for a small interactive agency, I find that it’s nearly always easier to optimize and draw traffic for a big name. You, for example. You already draw readers because of your Yahoo Finance and newspaper columns. That’s guaranteed, built-in traffic to this blog. It’s nice to hear that it hasn’t gone to your head. ;)

    I’ve found that it’s always a mystery what will draw people to your site, but the title of each piece obviously plays the biggest role. If you ever want to test the real drawing power of your linkbaiting abilities, I’d love to have you write a guest post on and then we’ll see how many people it draws.

    Then again, I’d just like a guest post regardless.

  21. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    You said, “I have found that not all traffic is equal.” I, too, have found this to be true. The best kind of traffic includes people that are invested and connected to not only the content of the site, but also the author/blogger behind it.

    10,000 hits might be impressive…or it might not be. There’s much more to consider beyond “raw data” alone.

  22. Maia
    Maia says:

    I really like your tip about worrying about looking bad, or worrying people won’t agree with you. I find it quite hard sometimes sharing my real beliefs on my blog, and worry that people will not agree with me on it and that I am revealing too much about myself. But I found that when I do do it, and someone likes it I feel much better not only that I got it out, but perhaps I will even find like-minded people who agree with me. 

Comments are closed.