The Visual Format You Should be Using for Link Building in 2016 (Hint: It’s NOT Infographics)

David McSweeney
David is the blog editor here at Ahrefs, the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

    You probably think I’m going to be talking about infographics right?

    Well, I will briefly cover them as they’re still one of the best ways of attracting white hat links to your site.

    But actually, today, I’m going to be focusing primarily on another type of visual. A format that is KILLING it right now when it comes to link building.

    And weirdly, I don’t see it discussed too often in the SEO community.

    I’m consistently seeing metrics like this:

    link-growth1

    And this…

    link-growth3

    And by the way, before you ask, these are very much needle moving links. Check out the Ahrefs domain ratings of the sites linking to that second example:

    domain-ratings

    And the organic traffic for the linked page…

    organic-traffic

    Not bad huh?

    So can you guess what the type of visual is?

    Well to reveal the answer, and to once again show just how powerful this is at the moment, check out this Google search. I’ve set the search parameter to only show results from the past week.

    google-searc

    That’s right, I’m talking about maps.

    Quite frankly, the press go CRAZY for them.

    Here’s a Google news search, with the filter set to only show results from the past 24 hours:

    google-news

    And we’re not talking about anything incredibly complicated here. This is the map from the second example above, which picked up 162 referring domains:

    Google-search-mapx1

    In case you’re wondering, it shows the question each State Googles more than any other state. And to save you Googling it later — penguins do have knees.

    Here’s what we’ll cover today:

    • Map formats that work well for link building with examples and data
    • Advice on how to promote your maps

    But before moving on to that, let’s quickly run through a couple of points on infographics. I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room.

    Point 1: I Am Aware That Maps Are Technically Infographics

    An infographic is defined as

    a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information or data.

    Which, yes, a map with data would fall under.

    However, when most of us think of infographics, we probably think of this:

    what-is-an-infographic-thumb

    Yes, that’s an infographic on infographics. SEO just ate itself.

    Most of them are big, long, rectangular things, that scroll forever.

    So, for the purposes of this article I’m saying:

    infographic-map-comparison

    They’re different right?

    And by the way, that simple surname map picked up 114 referring domains.

    Point 2: I Still Have A Lot Of Love For Infographics, But…

    Those big scrolly infographics do still work. They continue to be one of the best value exchange forms of link building (you allow someone to use something of value on their site in return for a link).

    I still use them effectively for my own link building.

    But…

    The SEO process behind them is getting a little tired. Here’s one of the reasons why:

    outreach_email1

    I love Brian Dean, but every time I see a variation of this email popping into my inbox (probably at least once a day) I feel like banging my head against a wall.

    As SEOs we really need to stop sending these stock emails. They quickly become associated with spam and lose their effectiveness.

    That template probably had a reasonably high hit rate a couple of years back, but I’m guessing it’s been on a downwards curve.

    Why?

    Because even though your infographic might be really cool, there are probably 20 other people who have sent that same pitch with something that’s not. After a while bloggers will recognise that stock email and stop responding.

    Yes, if you send 1,000 emails you’ll probably pick up a number links. But who wants to send 1,000 emails?

    So, infographics are still cool, but they’re so saturated now that you have to do something really special to make waves.

    Hence the bold claim that maps are the #1 visual format you should be focusing on right now. Now let me justify that claim with some examples and data.

    How Maps Are Crushing It For Link Building

    There are a number of map formats that are working particularly well at the moment. Here are 5 map formats, with 2 examples for each.

    1. Data/Research Based Maps

    Research and data based content is always powerful linkbait, so it’s no surprise that many popular maps include interesting statistics/facts.

    A good example is this map from Global Post. They used publicly accessible information from the CIA database to create a map of the world showing each country’s major export.

    world-commodities-map_536bebb20436a_w670

    Not exactly complex is it?

    But it still picked up a sweet 176 referring domains.

    referring-domains

    Here’s another data driven example that went live just this week.

    Flowing data created a map comparing the number of Starbucks locations v gun dealers in the USA.

    firearms-vs-starbucks

    It has already picked up links from 66 referring domains.

    Including some impressive features, like this one on DR 76 MarketWatch.

    marketwatch

    The Takeaway

    People like to share interesting data — and anything the public wants to share, the press will want to get a piece of too.

    There are loads of publicly available stats and statistics on the net — the trick is to take something complex and present it in a unique, simple to digest visual format.

    Yeah, kind of like an infographic…

    Um, moving on.

    2. Trending Topics

    The second example above would fit under trending topics too — particularly after the tragic events in Orlando on Sunday.

    But, how about I show you how even Google are using maps for link building!?

    Got your attention?

    Well, check out this map that Google Trends released last year to show the most searched presidential candidate in each US county.

    Yes, the takeaway was that everyone is obsessed with Donald Trump.

    It picked up links from 367 referring domains including loads of major publications.

    ref-domains-google

    But now I have to be completely honest and say that I used the tabloid approach of sensationalising the headline above.

    While Google Trends did release that map, they actually hosted it on their github page, so the links in fact point there.

    Silly Google, losing all that lovely link juice. Maybe one day they’ll learn SEO best practices and finally crack that number one position for “search engine”.

    search-engin

    I’m joking Google. I love you. Please don’t penalise me. Here’s a link. I even nofollowed it in case you think it’s manipulative…

    Anyway…

    Staying on Donald Trump, love him or loathe him, one thing’s for sure — the press can’t get enough of him.

    One site that definitely falls into the loathe camp ‘is America’s Voice’, who created a ‘Donald Trump hate map’ to supposedly show where the Republican candidate had ‘harrassed (sic) or attacked Latinos and immigrants’.

    I’ve no idea if it’s in any way accurate, but regardless, it picked up some nice links.

    referring-domain3

    trump

    The Takeaway

    As I’ve written about previously, keep an eye on the news and look for ways to leverage trending topics for your own purposes. Fundamentally, this is newsjacking, and creating a map related to the topic of the day is an effective way to insert your brand into the conversation.

    3. Pop Culture

    As Sean Falconer demonstrated in his recent case study, tapping into pop culture is a great way to bring in viral traffic to your site and pick up backlinks.

    Here are 2 examples of simple maps which used TV ratings data do just that.

    CableTV.com mined Google trends data to create this map showing the favourite reality TV show of each US state.

    most-popular-reality-tv-by-state

    The result: 82 referring domains.

    referring-domains4

    Also using data from Google trends, HomeSnacks.net created this map, which visualises the shows most streamed on services such as Netflix, Amazon etc.

    what-show-each-state-streams-map

    The result: links from 30 referring domains.

    referring-domains4

    So, that’s 2 great results for pop culture maps, and a whole load of wasted American lives.

    netflix-and-chill

    The Takeaway

    Tapping into pop culture always works well for both link building and promotion. When you reference films, music, TV shows etc in your content, you have a built in audience (or fan base) to promote to and help it spread.

    4. Funny Maps

    There are lots of examples of light hearted maps, which have successfully picked up a large number of shares and links. Indeed, the first example below, from Doghouse Diaries, is one of the most widely linked to maps in this post.

    In this simple map, published back in 2014, they took a (very) tongue in cheek look at what each country ‘leads the world in’.

    2013-10-18-63d765b

    It brought in links from a whopping 262 referring domains.

    referring-domains6

    Although they messed up the SEO a bit, as it looks like the URL changed at some point and they forgot to add a 301 redirect. As you can see below there are another 100+ referring domains pointing to the old address, which it pains me to say, now returns a 404 error.

    404

    If you’re anything like me, that will make you sad, so here’s another funny map to cheer us both up 🙂

    This time there was a cool methodology. Flip Collective simply Googled ‘{name of state} is’ for each American state to see what autocomplete had to say.

    Screen-shot-2013-02-04-at-1.56.21-PM

    And this was the resulting map.

    america-is

    Again — simple idea, simple presentation, and a load of links.

    referring-domains7

    The Takeaway

    People love to share content that makes them laugh, so injecting a bit of humour into your work (when appropriate) can yield excellent results. Poking fun at national stereotypes has worked well for a number of sites, but just be careful not to go too far!

    5. Interactive Maps

    Question: What’s more awesome than a map?

    Answer: An interactive map.

    Budget wise, creating something interactive is not going to be cheap, but if you want to go all out, here are a couple of examples for inspiration.

    The Future Of Life Institute recently created a scary interactive map, which takes data from a declassified list of US Nuclear targets, and shows what would happen if a bomb were to be detonated over one of them.

    If you click detonate from any of the dots, you can see how large an area would be destroyed by the bomb of your choice, as well as how many people could be killed.

    nukemap

    I can’t embed this map, but it’s pretty mind-blowing, so I recommend you check it out here.

    Needless to say, the map quickly picked up a lot of links.

    link-growth

    The second example comes from GoCompare, who created an interactive map showing how the world currently generates its electricity.

    I created a quick screencast, but you should check out the full map on their site here.

    Around 100 well deserved links for this one so far.

    link-growth4

    The Takeaway

    Not easy to create, but with a decent budget, and a great idea, you can create something truly inspiring that will pick up a lot of links.

    But what if you have no budget?

    Bonus: You Can Get Links By Curating Maps Made By Other Sites

    Searching for ‘maps’ in Ahrefs content explorer shows 3 examples where a number of maps have been curated around a theme. In each case, the curated posts picked up a lot of links.

    curated-maps

    So if you don’t have the resources to create your own map for link building purposes, you could try simply curating some cool maps tied to your niche.

    Promote it well and you should pick up some nice links. The only budget required will be time.

    Now let’s take a look at how to drive traffic and potential linkers to your map.

    How To Promote Your Map(s)

    Content promotion is a wide topic, but here are some quick pointers on how to get some initial traction.

    1. Recommended Subreddits

    It probably won’t come as a great surprise to learn that Reddit is one of the best places to promote your map.

    However:

    If it’s not truly interesting/funny/cool, then expect to be downvoted to death.

    For data based maps, I would recommend the dataisbeautiful subreddit. It’s a huge sub with over 6.5 million subscribers and if your map goes hot there, expect to see huge traffic and links.

    A quick look at the sub shows that there is in fact a map going hot right now.

    dataisbeautiful

    The dataisbeautiful sub welcomes self submissions, so be upfront and mark your post as [OC] (which means original content).

    Next up is the wonderfully named interestingasfuck subreddit. As the name implies, anything posted there should be genuinely interesting (as f**k).

    Searching for “map” and limiting to the interestingasfuck sub shows quite a few maps have done well there.

    interestingasfuck

    Note however that many of these maps are hosted on imgur, so you might want to consider posting your map there (imgur) and linking to the source (your original post).

    Finally, there is a great subreddit specifically for maps called mapporn, which has over 250,000 subscribers.

    Again, most of the submissions there are hosted on imgur, but you can try linking directly to your post first. If it bombs, delete it and try it on imgur. If it bombs again… move on.

    mapporn

    Besides promoting your maps there, it’s also a great sub to get ideas on the kind of maps that are working well.

    For more tips on how to successfully promote your content see this guide from digital trends and this case study from Attentiv, who successfully had a submission hit the home page and drive an incredible 280,000 visitors.

    2. Stumbleupon

    Visual content can work very well on Stumbleupon.

    If you’ve not used the platform, here’s a quick rundown on how it works.

    1. When you submit a post it will normally be shown to 50 stumblers to begin with.
    2. If it’s well received, and gets some additional thumbs ups from those stumblers then you can expect to see a steady steam of traffic coming in — sometimes in perpetuity.

    I’ve seen posts which have passed the initial ‘test’ get anything from a few thousand, to a few hundred thousand visits. It really can drive BIG numbers.

    The key to a successful submission is great content + correct category (interest) selection, so take some time to consider the category which best fits your content.

    Check out this guide from Siege Media for more tips on driving traffic from Stumbleupon.

    3. Facebook Ads

    If you have some budget for promotion, then Facebook ads still offer both the best targeting and the best value for money around — particularly for visual, shareable content (like maps).

    Again, getting the interest targeting right is the key to cheap clicks and shares.

    If you want to learn more about setting up successful facebook ad campaigns, John Loomer is your man.

    Email Outreach

    Of course, you’ll also want to conduct an email outreach campaign to pitch your map directly to bloggers and journalists.

    The usual best practices apply:

    • Look for journalists who have recently covered your topic
    • Look for journalists who have recently shared similar/related maps
    • Ditto bloggers
    • Use Ahrefs Site Explorer to find out which sites have linked to a particular map and create a prospect list
    • Do not send templated emails.

    Ensure your prospect list is highly targeted, make your outreach as personal as possible and you will get a much higher success rate than a scattergun, templated campaign.

    Read Tim’s guide for more tips on improving your outreach. For insight into how to pitch your content to journalists, check out this post on Buzzsumo.

    Now It’s Your Turn

    Hopefully you can see just how powerful maps are for link building right now.

    Not everything is going to be a hit, but as many of the examples have shown, even very simple visuals can generate a huge number of links.

    However, just like infographics, there will probably come a time when maps become over-saturated, over pitched, and it will be harder to get traction.

    So the time to act is NOW.

    Finally…

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say, so I have decided to commission a designer to create a number of custom maps (not giving the topic away yet) which I am going to use for a live, link building case study on a real site.

    I’ll post the results (good or bad) in a few weeks time, so if you’ve not already subscribed to the blog (and want to know what happens), then be sure to sign up below.

    If you have any questions on the above — how to choose a topic, how to create your map,  how to promote it etc — then please leave a comment.

    If you have successfully used custom maps to build links to your site, then I’d also love to hear about it.

    And if you’ve enjoyed this post… then please share!

    David McSweeney
    David is the blog editor here at Ahrefs, the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

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    • Kasper K. Rasmussen

      Great post… again… Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • yes, lots of things to study

      • always new things to learn in internet marketing/seo — it’s constantly evolving.

    • Wonderful idea David, you know what? If I haven’t read this blog for few more days I would be going to develop an infographic for my next post but now I know map is perfect replacement for my new blog.

      I’ll definitely share results with you!

      Keep up the good work.

    • Sean Falconer

      Awesome stuff. Definitely going to give this a go.

    • William E

      Detailed, thoughtful, immediately useful post. 

      Are there sites / apps for pushing data into a good-looking map format? 

      • Thanks william. I would take a look at sites like visme, piktochart etc

    • Jimmy Papworth

      Great post, fantastic, useful, with subtle humour… everything a blog post needs! Will be looking to research and implement this.

    • Please explain the link-building process. I do not understand where these links come from… 

      • Jimmy Papworth

        They’re obtained naturally through people willingly sharing the content you’ve created! You can give it a helping hand by sharing yourself across the lead social channels… perhaps even with a small budget on the likes of FB Ads if you can stretch to that.

        • yep, that’s it exactly 🙂 Definitely worth using Ahrefs to find out who has shared/linked to similar though and do some direct outreach.

    • Mateusz

      Interesting. I’ll try to start with my map on facebook 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkes

      Great read! Do you have a preferred tool for creating the maps?

    • Zakaria Desai

      Caught this in time. I started data collection today for an intended infographic. Guess I’ll change course to a map now!

      BTW, where is the subscribe form for the blog? I’ve scrolled top to bottom, and still can’t find it

      • actually — I think it is missing from mobile (it’s there on desktop). We’ll get that sorted!

    • Clare Hoang

      awesome. completely agreed “…the time to act is NOW” before maps become over-saturated like infographic. My clients are telco and book publishing companies, any ideas for map content? Thanks heaps

      Clare

    • Fantastic!

    • Rienzi Mosqueda

      I’m surely gonna try this one out!

      I just have a comment when it comes to using email template:

      1. While it’s true, it’s becoming a bit of a spam, not everyone in every niche is/are SEO oriented or email-outreach-template oriented. So you’ll still get something out of your SCALABLE outreach campaign. Provided that;

      2. People will probably gonna skip an email template that does not offer value or does not interest you. You did not hate the template (admit it) you just don’t seem interested on what they are pitching you. otherwise;

      3. you will take the bait no matter how obvious their template is. That’s how you should approach outreach on a massive scale. targeting small group of prospect is a different story.

      • I don’t disagree, but as i mentioned in the post, i’ve never been a big fan of the scattergun approach to outreach. I prefer to do it in reverse: figure out who i want links from and then work out why they would want to link to me.

        • Rienzi Mosqueda

          Gotcha! Great post nonetheless!

    • It was very nice post, today I got something really new. Now I am going to follow these tactics. Thanks

    • Kickass! I’m in the book summary niche, will see if I can find some interesting data about books or curate maps in that niche.

    • Dom

      I’ll smoke to that. Great insights David. Shit, some of the the niches I’m in, Infographics are still an anomaly, maps will be too. Another tactic in the arsenal. Appreciate it.

    • Joe Goldstein

      I’ve tried doing the map thing before, but I had a lot harder time getting the right data than I expected. 

      At the moment, I can’t even figure out how to just show the top reality show by state in Google Trends — and I’m definitely stumped by how Homesnacks was able to get the most streamed shows by state out of it. Am I alone on this one?

      • Hi Joe, i’m not sure about that specific example, but there’s plenty of data out there ‘in the wild’. Sometimes you might find a simple list format of data that you can repurpose.

    • Alma Triplett

      Just found your article and signed up for your blogs. Excellent work! Love it! New at this…For ecommerce sites, selling home decor items for example, would you then suggest to add a map (let’s say top home decor trends for example) to the home page or is this more blog worthy? I just started a blog on my site and not much traffic yet. Again, love the info and can’t wait for more!

      • Hi Alma, i would add this to your blog. Will be a good way to get it going (with promotion)

    • Great post David! Thank you for using so many examples. Some simple while others a lot more complicated to replicate. 

      This really is a great example of a repeatable strategy that could work. Thanks again for the post.

    • You’ve an eye for picking up trends David! Insightful article and commendable research…Thanks for introducing me to maps 🙂

    • Checkoutthatsass

      Hi David, great blog post! This is the first of yours that I have read so I will be eagerly awaiting the next one. It comes at an interesting time as I am dipping my toes in the whole data thing at the moment. I just have 2 questions.

      1. Is it ok to create a map about data that is not necessarily in your industry? Will this make the back links less effective?

      2. Do you have any suggestions for a map I could create that would be relevant for my industry, website design / development?

      Thank you again,
      Alex

      • Hi Alex, i would try and have a’loose’ tie at least to your industry. In an ideal world, you would also target a keyword you want to rank for (but we don’t live in an ideal world!). Loads and loads you could do in website design — even something as simple as the number of web designers by country, or average salary.

        • Checkoutthatsass

          Hi David, thank you for the swift reply and information. I love those ideas but I wonder if I should start out with something more UK based as that is where I would like to target more?

          • swap out countries with UK regions and you’re good to go 🙂 You could show the disparity between salaries in london and elsewhere for example (although that’s probably been done to death a bit)

    • Completely blown away by the maps David! I think some kind of loose connection with your niche & and the map would work just fine. I just wrote a post connecting the Amazon Dash button to a popular reality show here in India called the Roadies. Haven’t integrated a map yet but all kinds of ideas sprouting in my mind right now. That way you can promote your post in forums for your niche as well as the topic you are making an association to as well. I’ll keep you posted on my results. Thanks once again for broadening my horizon

    • Thanks for sharing Sub-reddits.

    • thank u , great post

    • Tim Brown

      This is amazing. I’m starting a map now! 🙂 

    • Rita Vissers

      This method is utterly useless for the average webmaster, you can use this just in some tight niches, but if you’re local company like a plumber or if you have websites in ecommerce or whatever, it is next to impossible to create a map that is good enough to get shared, so nice read but not practical for 99% of the webmasters

      • actually, the whole point here is that most of the maps (visuals wise) are very simple. It’s the data that makes them shareable.

    • Infographics come in many forms, and maps is one of them.

      The Visual Format You Should be Using for Link Building in 2016 (Hint: It’s NOT Infographics)”

      HINT: It still is infographics.

      Well written article which applied itself to a specific type of infographic, just a shame about the click-bait title.

    • It depends what anchor text was used to link back to you. Google can’t read text that is on a picture/infographic.

      If the people linking to you that were sharing your infographic used the title of your infographic as the anchor text, then yes, that would be good for your rankings. 

      However, many people linking out about infographics tend to link back by saying “Thanks to XXXX-XXXX for the infographic”.

    • Co-marketing is more of an opportunity than ever. In today’s dynamic communications world of “increased dialogue” across any media format and relevant follow through the possibilities for co-marketing are endless.

    • Andrea Martins

      Brilliant, David. Thank you!

    • Great article David! I would never have recognised the opportunities available through creating infomaps (that’s a word, right?).

      Also, I’d love to see a step-by-step article on how to create these kind of maps at some point.

    • Thanks! Really appreciate.