How To Use Public Data Sets To Create Kick-Ass Content (And Earn TONS Of Backlinks)

Tyler Hakes
Tyler Hakes is strategy director at Optimist, a content marketing agency that helps startups, SaaS, nonprofits, and creative agencies grow through strategic content and SEO.

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  • Referring domains 23
Data from Content Explorer tool.

    There’s this fallacy among many content marketers and SEOs.

    It goes like this:

    Data is one of the best ways to create kick-ass content and build links. But my business/client doesn’t have any interesting data to share.

    So, we’re screwed.

    Today, I’m going to dispel that thinking once and for all by showing you, not only specific examples of how we’ve used publicly available data to score some major wins, but also where you can find data, and how you can use it.

    Sure, new, original data and research can make for fantastic content.

    But that doesn’t mean you’re screwed without it. It just means you need to get creative–to think outside the box.

    And there is a ton of data out there, just waiting to be used. There’s literally an entire podcast now dedicated to people sharing facts and data — most of it old (or even ancient) news.

    The point is, people love data.

    And they really love if it’s presented to them in new and interesting ways.

    Let’s look at some examples of how it’s being done.

    Public Data In Practice

    Back when I was first learning about much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into building links, I was looking for something — anything — to score a win.

    Our team hatched a plan that seems almost silly in retrospect, but at the time it made total sense. I was working for a startup that helped match students with colleges. So, we decided that we would create an infographic that showed where the U.S. senators had gone to college.

    We did some quick research and found that we could find each state’s senators and the college they attended right on Wikipedia.

    senators-college-wikipedia

    Our team went to work, grabbing the data, fact checking it, and putting it into a spreadsheet.

    This was not new information. It couldn’t possible be valuable. Right?

    We forged ahead anyway. With the data in hand, we created an infographic, including a map, that showed the college logo of each of the senators from each state.

    senate-u-top-map

    When we finished the infographic, I went through an outreach process, targeting journalists who had written about politics and the congress in the past. I focused on people who had written “fun” topics (rather than straight news).

    I clicked send and thought that was the end of it. It was a nice try.

    But, it would never work. Right?

    Well… it worked!

    First, it was featured on the Washington Post.

    mail

    But it didn’t stop there. About a dozen other sites — most of them national or regional media — picked up the graphic and it spread far and wide.

    referring domains from Ahrefs Site Explorer

    referring domains from Ahrefs Site Explorer

    Admittedly, this was a small win in the grand scheme of things. But at the time, it felt like I had just conquered the world. We had taken data from freaking Wikipedia and turned it into some big-time backlinks.

    I was obsessed.

    I started scouring places to find interesting data that I could use to create more kick-ass content. I looked at other sites for their most popular data-driven content, trying to reverse engineer how the data had been compiled.

    Over the last few years, I’ve found time and time again that public data can be compiled and used to create kick-ass content that actually has legs.

    Not long ago, I came across this infographic from Decluttr:

    pokemon-go-graphic1

    I found it because it was popping up all over my newsfeed and on Twitter. It seemed like everywhere I turned, this map was popping up.

    And I wasn’t going crazy.

    It had been picked up by a couple of hundred outlets:

    Referring domains from Ahrefs Site Explorer

    Referring domains from Ahrefs Site Explorer

    So, I investigated further.

    Turns out, this data came straight out of Google Trends.

    Their team pulled data on search queries for things like “Where to find Pikachu” and mapped the queries by state, giving them a breakdown of the most-sought-after Pokemon in each state. (This was at the height of the Pokemon Go craze.)

    google-trends-pokemon-map

    This wasn’t just a one-off hit. Public data was a real asset–and people were cashing in.

    Column Five even borrowed data compiled by Forbes on the most-valuable sports franchises to make it into a cool data visualization.

    mvp-column-5

    They landed placements from some huge sites like DeadSpin and USA Today. And all they did was take data that was already out there and turn it into a cool, visual asset.

    This kind of data is literally one of the pillars of the Internet. And most of it was out there — just waiting to be found, compiled, and made into something useful.

    Where To Find Public Data

    Data is literally everywhere. As humans, we create so much of it each day, that most is never even looked at or considered.

    And that’s why it’s such a lucrative opportunity.

    The key to using public data is simply knowing where to look.

    Here are 4 sure-fire places where you can find data to use in your content:

    Federal And State Databases

    You know all of those tax dollars you pay? Well some of that money goes to funding research and compiling data. And that data is then published for free, most of it online.

    So, for example, if you thought it would be interesting to do an infographic on how much of your tax dollars go into funding research that ends up on the internet, you could dig into the mountain of data on the Congressional Budget Office’s website.

    But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Data.gov indexes pretty much every public data set available. And there are nearly 200,000 data sets out there — just waiting to be used.

    data-gov-db

    They even categorize it by sector and give you a handy search function. (Holy crap, that’s a lot of data for the taking!)

    Academic And Scientific Studies

    Beyond the facts and figures that are put out by the government, there are scientists and researchers all over the world publishing new data every day.

    Some of it’s locked up behind paywalls, but Google Scholar makes it pretty easy to find data and research on just about any topic.

    Want to create a super-cool infographic on the lifespan of squids? Say no more.

    age-of-squids

    Google Trends And Search Data

    We’ve seen this one used time and time again. But, Google has some really fascinating data on search behavior. You can spot trends, find differences by state or country, and do all kinds of other cool analysis.

    google-trends-trump

    Also, don’t forget about doing some manual data collection with the auto-complete functionality. That’s another media favorite!

    Facebook Page And Advertising Data

    An often-overlooked source of public data is Facebook.

    They don’t make it super easy to find, but if you’ve ever used the advertising platform, you know that you can use their targeting features and see — in real time — the size of your target audience.

    fb-targeting-data

    This means that you can use this data to compile charts, graphs, or maps of people’s preferences and demographics.

    Sidenote.
    Just take your time and get to know the tool and how it calculates your audience size. And, of course, provide plenty of disclaimer that the data is based only on Facebook users and not ultra-precise. 

    How To Use Public Data Sets

    Let’s assume that you’ve done your homework, found some nice, juicy data.

    Now, what?

    This is the fun part. Seriously. The sky’s the limit.

    Data is so valuable because there are nearly infinite ways to use it to create new and interesting content.

    Here are a few ideas:

    1. Create Graphs, Charts, And Infographics

    Time-tested, backlink-approved. A simple, interesting data viz in the right hands is one of the most effective forms of content for earning links.

    DataCamp.com put together a pretty cool — albeit rather basic — infographic comparing R and Python. The data they have is all sourced from other studies and websites.

    python-vs-r-data-science-wars-infographic

    But, guess what? They’ve still earned linked from nearly 150 domains. Not bad.

    rd1

    Referring domains from Ahrefs Site Explorer > Overview

    2. Make Maps By State, Country, Or Region

    If the data you find has a dimension of location, then it’s game on. Maps are super popular and the media goes gangbusters for a nice, color-coded breakdown of how the world is either super different or incredibly similar.

    Sites like Estately have made this a common practice–and to great success.

    Their map of “The Most ‘American’ States” compiled a bunch of public data to create a state-by-state breakdown of patriotism.

    most-merican-state-map

    And, they scored some major wins with 70 referring domains right out of the gate.

    most-merican-states-rd-ahrefs

    Sidenote.
    We call these ‘infomaps’ and they are crushing it right now for link building. See our visual link building post for more. 

    3. Rankings And Ratings

    The basis for any kind of legitimate rating or ranking is a data-driven methodology. You can mix up some public data — like reviews or objective quality scores — to create a ranking that passes muster.

    GetApp.com ranks the best CRMs each quarter, and their methodology is fully spelled out. Most of it comes from compiling public data like customer review scores and integration counts.

    But they’ve become a go-to authority because their rankings use a data-driven, objective approach to quantifying quality.

    best-crm-ranking-rd

    4. Remix Or Layer Data In Interesting Ways

    Sometimes, a single data set is just not fun enough.

    Try combining data from various sources (where it makes sense, statistically speaking) and create a layered data set. Many of these examples have made use of it — and you can see it everywhere when you start to look.

    Take, for example, this huge analysis of the best cities for music fans by ValuePenguin.

    valuepenguin

    They spell out all of the data points that they used — and none of them are unique or proprietary! But they layered the data from multiple sources in a new and interesting way.

    And they’ve been handsomely rewarded — over 50 referring domains in the past two months.

    rd2

    Now It’s Your Turn

    What cool things can you create with the public data that’s all around us?

    If you ever run out of free, public data, then we’ll be in trouble. But, until then — nerd out!

    Sidenote.
    In a few weeks, we’ll be publishing a massive case study on how we used public data as part of a content marketing and SEO strategy for a startup. It helped us propel them to 1M uniques and 100,000 monthly organic sessions per month about one year after launch. You can sign up now to receive our case study on reaching 100,000 organic sessions per month.
    Tyler Hakes
    Tyler Hakes is strategy director at Optimist, a content marketing agency that helps startups, SaaS, nonprofits, and creative agencies grow through strategic content and SEO.

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    • Hi Tyler,

      This is fantastic! And a nice additional layer to David McSweeny’s awesome ‘Visual Link Building’ post from June here on the ahrefs blog.

      Bookmarked, tweeted and consider me signed up for your ‘Trifecta Strategy’ case study.

      -Jay

      • Tyler_Hakes

        Thanks, Jay! I appreciate that. 

        These guys at Ahrefs make some amazing content–it’s taught me a whole lot about content marketing and SEO strategy.

    • Amazing article thanks

    • Amazing article, greetings from Minsk Mazowiecki, Poland 🙂

    • Amazing and informative content but anything special for e-commerce brands ?

    • Tyler_Hakes

      Those are some really impressive graphics!

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Cheers,

      Tyler

    • virendra yadav

      WOW! It’s great post. i got good info here.…..

    • Ohk. Thank you!

    • Amazing, this is definitely the way forward for producing real infographics, rather than just “images and words” infographics :).

      Have you ever tested out Statista? It’s software that apparently pulls in a lot of information (but is paid). I keep getting cold emailed from them, so would be curious if anyone has used it.

      • Tyler_Hakes

        I’ve referenced some of the public/limited data from Statista, but never paid for it or used their full data sets. They do have a lot of juicy stuff!