Why Being Likeable is a Profitable Business Strategy

4 Reasons You Want to be Liked

One thing that has always fascinated me about Rand Fishkin is how likeable he is. Being known and likeable is an effective business strategy for 4 big reasons

  • People prefer to spend money with people they like and trust. We purchase based on emotion and then use logic to justify our emotions. (This gives a likeable person a higher visitor value, and thus ROI.)
  • People give you the benefit of the doubt. (This allows one to do aggressive things that would be considered wrong or spammy if a lesser competitor did them.)
  • Even if you to betray someone, they usually let it slide rather than roasting you. (This allows you to make content from topics that you should not have covered, like private conversations).
  • If people like you they will be more likely to do favors for you. (On a competitive network using one channel to establish relationships that allow you to promote sites that are more commercial in less well connected industries can help build a sustained competitive link advantage).

To put the above thesis in context lets compare some of the market reactions to various ideas and offerings.

Case Study in Likeability

Majestic SEO: People Are Suspicious of the Unknown

Majestic SEO, a new web based link analysis tool which got a favorable review on Search Engine Journal was met with harsh criticism on Sphinn:

Can we keep you off our websites so our competitors can't access our information through your service? Or does your bot not obey the robots protocol?

Does Ann Smarty think through the implications of the tools she is recommending? Do you really want to support dropping your pants and bending over for this service? Come on folks, think this through all the way to the bitter end. Do some critical thinking.

SEOmoz: Benefit of the Doubt

Rand's team launched Linkscape (a similar but perhaps more advanced version of Majestic SEO with a slicker front end interface). In spite of having an in house lawyer, they did not find the LBI Netrank LinkScape trademark prior to naming their tool LinkScape.

In the post announcing the launch, Rand mentioned that their tool required crawling the web, and some people wanted to know how to block it using robots.txt and meta robots tags. Pierre from eKtreme highlighted that he did not think SEOmoz was crawling the web, but relying on a series of web based APIs from companies that were. Rand later revealed potential LinkScape data sources. Michael VanDeMar mentioned that he thought Rand's opening post about LinkScape lied about crawling the web:

I have to admit, Rand, it’s pretty bold to basically admit this late in the game that you guys lied through your teeth and grossly misrepresented the facts, just so you could appear to have accomplished a much bigger task than you actually did, all in the name of getting more money from webmasters. That’s a much bigger admission than saying you cloaked your bot, if you ask me.

Michael's post made Sphinn with 40+ Sphinns, and only had 1 negative comment on it a day after making the homepage.

When I consider everything I've read I can only conclude that you did mislead the SEO community and only when it was apparent that the truth would be found out, did you begin to "come clean". While your approach may not have any bearing on the value of the tool, it does demonstrate a conscious effort to misrepresent your product.

And if Michael had not had an established distaste for SEOmoz built up from the past (ie: if he liked Rand half as much as most of us do) it is likely he would not have went through the effort to write the LinkScape post he did, and there would have been no lasting negative press on the topic.

The Negative Brand Approach

Can you build a big audience without being likeable, but by being sarcastic and ripping things apart? Absolutely, but the problems with that are

  • Most people who are attracted by negativity are not buyers (and they work to drive away the types of people who would be buyers). In the SEO field you could call this the "Threadwatch effect"
  • The people who do buy based on negativity are usually of a cult-like state of being against some other organization. Once the hated brand/personality/organization (or even the news around the brand/personality/organization) dies down, then so does the support from the paying customers built on this negative energy, whereas the positive businesses keep growing logarithmically year after year without needing to reset the business and capture a new fad.

You can have a common enemy that you and your readers are fighting, but it is important that your overall approach is still positive if you want to build something that is profitable with sustained growing profits.

Published: October 18, 2008 by Aaron Wall in


October 19, 2008 - 6:36am

I think an even more popular benefactor of Goodwill is Google, who seems to get the benefit of the doubt from most people.

In my own business, I try to keep it positive, but there are certainly those in the same field who are trying a more negative stance - i.e. the makers of weallhatequickbooks.com, less accounting.

October 19, 2008 - 7:37am

Its best to get the Best of Both Worlds. If people like – you get business. If people don’t like – you get visitors ;-)

October 19, 2008 - 8:28am

Excellent post! Gives me food for thought as I interact with new people.

October 19, 2008 - 9:23am

Besides being an excellent marketeer he is very good looking... and that sells both with women and men, you know that...

I hear you're a very good talker, Aaron. Being an European I think you should be taxed on that. Kidding ;)

October 19, 2008 - 10:37am


Just figured I'd try to publicly address the points you made above:

1) On Linkscape's index and data sources. Our index is completely unique, built and designed in-house and available only through Linkscape. If you use the tool you can see that it's substantively different from the major engines, and sometimes will show more link data than Yahoo! Site Explorer. It's built on a web crawl, just like what you find in major search engines.

2) The trademark issue is something we did research before adopting the name. Linkscape is registered as a TM by SEOmoz here in the US, though in the UK, another brand holds it. Our attorney, Sarah, has talked to the folks over at LBI as well.

3) The post on Sphinn went up while I was very busy this week, but I have attempted to add dialogue to it tonight to help clarify.

4) Your assertion above that "Linkscape is not actually crawling the web" isn't entirely accurate - there's no bot named "Linkscape" but the data comes from spiders crawling for the purpose of fetching data, designed by us and intended for the Linkscape tool.

October 19, 2008 - 11:20am

I edited #4, but need to grab a bucket of pop corn to sit back and watch #3 :)

October 19, 2008 - 12:20pm

"People prefer to spend money with people they like and trust. We purchase based on emotion and then use logic to justify our emotions. (This gives a likeable person a higher visitor value, and thus ROI.) "

I'm not sure I agree with this point, Aaron (or maybe I just misunderstood it).

I remember on our college forum somebody asked "I want to learn a foreign language, because I want to study international business. Should I take Spanish or French? Which is more helpful for the job later on? (...it sounded like he was leaning towards Spanish)"

France is Germany's biggest trading partner (we even have a higher trade volume with them than we have with the US, and a lot higher than that with Spain and all Spanish-speaking countries combined). On top of that, virtually everyone I know here studies Spanish and virtually nobody goes for French anymore (since people are allowed to either study Spanish or French in high school, now and Spanish is just a lot more popular in Germany these days - used to be just French).

You can type in any type of profession+French ...or..+Spanish in German job search engines and you'll usually get around twice as many job openings for people who can speak French.

I told him all that (though saying, that he should rather go for the language that's more fun to him)...and somebody (with more experience) jumped in and confirmed that French was a lot more useful for work here in Germany from his personal experience.

What did the initial poster who asked that question say? "Hmm..ok..but I think it's more about quality of jobs not about how many jobs are available (he didnt point out any evidence why jobs for Spanish-speakers might be of higher quality)...I'll probably pick Spanish".

I think anyone should pick the language they feel is more fun to them, but while participating in this thread I felt like "LOL, this got to be one of those situations where the person has already made up their mind and now is only looking for facts to support their decision (which has already been made) and will ignore any evidence that goes against it".

Sorry for that long example, but I think it's a great practical example of how the human mind works at times ;)

It sounds to me as if what you said (the quote) is similar to this..only using logic to justify our emotions (making the decision that we will buy from this or that person becaue we trust/like them and then using logic to find points why we should (not looking for points why we should not)) buy).

I would argue that this is only true in some cases (like in the example above), or rather..emotions probably always play a role, but it's not like we use logic only to justify our decisions..I believe I (and many other people) do use logic quite a lot to make buying decisions (maybe Im wrong, though).

Do you really think we use logic mostly to justify our buying decisions not to make them?

(sorry havent posted in a while, I guess my subconscious mind had to make up for that time with a long post ;))

October 19, 2008 - 10:18pm

I think ...

  • the more expensive the purchase
  • the fatter the profit margins of the transaction
  • the more effort/opportunity cost that goes into the transaction
  • the more complex the topic is

...the more likely we are to guide such transactions primarily through emotions.

October 19, 2008 - 5:08pm

Great article Aaron. :)

It's a fact. Just ask any scam artist, confidence man, or Amway salesman out there... charisma can make you very, very wealthy. It's also why reputation management is so important to some. While it might be easy to sell a large quantity of small ticket items without anyone knowing (or caring) who you are, when you start hitting the pricier market you better make sure you know how to make people trust you.

October 20, 2008 - 6:08am

In Rand's defense I think its cool that he responded above, and at sphinn. Not only does he have the likable & approachable personality going for him, but he apparently also is willing to address issues like this one, directly, on point.

October 20, 2008 - 6:32am

Funny, I accidentally skipped the intro, read the 4 points and thought - I'll bet he's got Rand in mind. Especially the betrayal bit and private convos bit - sounded exactly like your comments at the time your aff program's link value was killed.

How would you rate your own likeability?

October 20, 2008 - 10:55am

Americans tend to be quite bad at overrating themselves...it is one of the biggest fatal flaws of western culture, as observed by social psychologists

The tendency that people have to overrate their abilities fascinates Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD. "People overestimate themselves," he says, "but more than that, they really seem to believe it. I've been trying to figure out where that certainty of belief comes from."

Dunning is doing that through a series of manipulated studies, mostly with students at Cornell. He's finding that the least competent performers inflate their abilities the most; that the reason for the overinflation seems to be ignorance, not arrogance; and that chronic self-beliefs, however inaccurate, underlie both people's over and underestimations of how well they're doing.

Having quoted the above, I tend to be more crass and blunt than most people. And I inherently distrust authority more than most people do. Between the two of those I think I am probably perceived as being hard working and smart, but limited in likeability...at least relatively.

October 20, 2008 - 9:07am

thanks, I'll try to keep this in mind and watch out if I can observe this in real life (people buying more because of emotions if something is expensive, if I understood you correctly) :)

October 20, 2008 - 7:16pm

Interesting answer there Aaron. It's perhaps worth questioning whether the analogy between personality (e.g. likability) and abilities (e.g. great at seo) works though.

As a fun experiment, perhaps you could anonymously poll your visitors to see how they perceive you. I'll bet there'd be lots to learn, including actionable stuff, in there.

October 20, 2008 - 9:04pm

There is selection bias involved in that as well. When you poll people you typically do not get *the average*, but more the edges...the people who are brand fans will give you feedback as to why they like you, and some of the people who really dislike you will let you know.

Given that I am not sure if one can ask about likeability directly...better to come up with other questions that act as proxies.

But knowing why people like you (and what they perceive to be your competitive advantages as) is quite powerful because it can help you shape your marketing to capture more people attracted to those traits.

October 20, 2008 - 7:41pm

Great post. It's also important to let you personality come through. So many small business owners try to sound so official on their sites and in their marketing, but letting your own voice come through can help differentiate you. Plus, if you're likable, it helps with that factor too.


October 20, 2008 - 7:57pm

Good observations Aaron. This also shows the importance of getting to the conferences. It's fine associating with people online but in my opinion, you really make the connection face-to-face over a few beers.

Also, sorry Rand, but I agree with Aaron that you didn't find the LBI Netrank LinkScape trademark prior to naming your tool. Firstly, you say Sarah spoke with "folks over at LBI", when Richard Manley from LBI raised the issue himself in the launch thread.

"Not a huge surprise on the product, but a huge surprise on the naming."


Secondly, I'm no trademark lawyer but LBI may have grounds to prevent you marketing your version of Linkscape in the UK or even push their own tool further on the back of your marketing effort. After all their tool is also focused on identifying inbound links, so the cross-over is significant.

Considering the UK is the second largest SEO market globally, you may come to regret that branding decision. That kind of risk doesn't make sense to me when an alternative name could have been chosen.

October 20, 2008 - 9:09pm

Interesting but clearly things are not so "black and white".

I could name a few industries where knowing what you are doing and being trustworthy means everything. Slick likable characters don't get past the first impression.

In my view, the low end consumers are most easily influenced by your noted "likability" issues, and also the most likely to forget when likable, good-looking sales people betray them.

You might trust a stranger with $100, but you don't trust just anyone with a million.

The majority of gamblers will keep gambling their winnings until they lose everything. That is true for scammers as well.

October 20, 2008 - 11:03pm

In my view, the low end consumers are most easily influenced by your noted "likability" issues, and also the most likely to forget when likable, good-looking sales people betray them.

Too true. This is why email list marketing about internet marketers to (would be) get rich quick hopeful internet marketers is such a profitable strategy. If the customers are weak-minded and uninformed it is easy to treat them as an ATM...pitching them with sales messages for garbage, all the while labeling it as pure content. And why do they label stuff pure content? Does that mean that they realize most of their stuff is impure and dishonest?

Make returns hard and many will lack the self-esteem to ask for a refund and/or go through the prescribed refund sequence/policy. Some email list customers ask me to provide help and support for the scams they purchase, and I am typically blown away by how feeble-minded those people are!

October 20, 2008 - 10:46pm

So which one am I? ;-)

October 20, 2008 - 10:57pm

Well I think you are even more blunt than I am. For me that makes you more likeable, but not sure what % of people are on the same side of the coin as I am on that ;)

October 21, 2008 - 4:13am

I tend to be more crass and blunt than most people. And I inherently distrust authority more than most people do. Between the two of those I think I

I personally like Crass & Blunt. You cut to the chase and don't sugar coat your opinions. I think these are likeable qualities for an SEO blogger.

yet another ben
October 21, 2008 - 5:33pm

Somehow I missed these posts when they were going live, but now that I've been reading them I've had to put some important tasks aside to get through the lot! Truly fascinating stuff!

The whole likability thing tends to follow the prevailing SEO winds with an extra sparkle...this is definitely most important to those of larger spanning, brand-managed corporations (or similar) - maybe SEOMoz fits within this category? SEOBook, and other from-grassroot bloggers, often use the opportunity to avoid following the prevailing SEO winds and play Devil's advocate - this is a great thing too. Maybe it's because they do not need to uphold a corporate-front and instead have the freedom to share other opinions.

...two very different business models. As long as people put forward smart analysis, who cares whether they are 'liked'. The reader can build their own opinion. And, if they don't want to read it, they can move on.

Commercially speaking, it matters more though. I personally do not want to buy products from people or companies that I do not respect, value or agree with. And to follow-on from Patrick and Aaron's points, these could be both formed from both logical and emotional opinions...

It's all in the eye of the beholder!

Ben M

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