A popular infographic, titled How Bikes Can Save Us, has sparked a good discussion on the role of infographics and how the format has become a tactic of link marketers.
Here on TreeHugger, Jerry posted the graphic last week. (See the full image here). And in what must be a testament to the efforts of the marketing team that created and promoted the image, it has since appeared on some of the biggest sites around, including Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan's, The Dish.When the image began making the rounds on Twitter last week, Byron from BikeHugger started a good discussion on Google+ about the seemingly shady origins of this graphic. To highlight the basic approach behind this tactic of creating infographics that will appeal to niche audiences, Cycleicio.us created the satirical take featured above. TBD and Oregon Live noted the controversy, as well. To his credit, one of the designers of the graphic jumped into Byron's Google+ discussion to defend the tactic as a legitimate form of content creation and marketing. There's also an update by Byron on that, here.
Infographics as Link Bait Can Make Us Feel Icky
If you're not clear what the fuss is about, we wrote about the trend last month. In Have Infographics Jumped the Shark, Lloyd explained the way infographics have become a popular link bait for marketers aiming to increase inbound links to increase their ranking in search engine search results.
You should read Lloyd's full post, because it raises a few interesting points I'm not getting into here, but the basic problem is that while the best infographics make complex data easier to digest, many of the more link bait-y variety are taking basic information from other web sites and adding pictures, without adding much value in the process. The images are sometimes sourced to strange web sites that are only creating them to improve their search ranking. And everyone that shares one of these graphics is rewarding this tactic. Plus, because they are static graphics, the "links" to their sources are a part of the image and do not click-thru to the original source material, making it difficult, if not impossible, to verify the data they claim to portray.
Do the Motives of Content Creators Impact What We Share As Publishers?
One of the main objectives on Byron's thread was that this is a shady tactic, because the creators are trying to get traffic and a better search rank. So how should bloggers handle infographics that are created with the intention of helping drive traffic and improve one's search ranking? A better question might be, what content isn't created with these goals in mind? Should we cynically reject good writing or beautiful photography because in addition to sharing some interesting info, the creator may have been motivated by a desire to increase their Google juice or drive traffic back to their ad-supported business?
While we all use our own variety of tactics and approaches to content, we're a part of the same game here, whether we want to admit it or not. Part of the disconnect, I think, goes back to the strangeness of some of these source sites. If GOOD was promoting a new infographic, I'm doubtful any of the bloggers complaining about this graphic would make the same noise, because we expect GOOD to make and promote infographics. It doesn't jump out as suspicious. But when we see a site like HealthCareManagementDegree.com, a flag is raised in our mind - and rightly so - and we suddenly worry about what role we may be playing in helping this unknown entity get credit for some work we may have otherwise respected were it to have originated from a familiar source. But if they commissioned the piece and it is worth sharing, should their motives overrule the desire to share the content? For many bloggers, it does and did.
For our part, while TreeHugger is pitched and refuses many of these types of posts due to poor quality or shady source sites, we have posted quite a few, when they look nice, are well supported and convey a message with which we agree. We're discussing how best to handle these moving forward, including using 'no follow' code on links when there's something we want to share, without contributing to the search marketing tactic. That is what we did for the bike infographic. Personally, I'm conflicted on the issue, because much depends on the source, the content, its presentation, execution and value to our readers. But the fact remains that the format and tactic are lacking and as this latest controversy illustrates, there's room to improve for publishers and the marketers creating this content.