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The Content Marketer’s Guide to Visualizations

by Jon Cooper
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Welcome to Point Blank SEO! Don’t forget to subscribe via RSS for future posts just like this one.

Note: For those unfamiliar, this is a link building blog, so after much debate of calling this the “content marketer’s” instead of the “link builder’s” guide to visualizations, bare with me as I try to tie a lot of this into building links. Thanks, & enjoy!

Great link builders solve problems, because problems lead to links.

One of today’s, and the future’s, biggest problems for publishers is making sense of data. Humans generated more data in 2009 than in the previous 5,000 years combined (source). This problem, rather, opportunity, is a chance for link builders to fly past their competitors, because the boundaries of visualization for links are still very much so unexplored. 

At the same time, link building is becoming a content marketer’s game. When asked about how they build links for their clients, the guys at BlueGlass stated that all they do now is content marketing. This is because you can’t just hand a guy like me a spreadsheet & some tools with no access to a client’s site and hope I’ll get the job done at the end of the day. You need to integrate your link building strategy with your content to have any real, long-term success.

And for a content marketer, visualizations are your best friend. Nothing is more appealing to an audience than beautifully laid out graphics that take seconds to digest. That’s why you see people like Amanda Cox, who works as a graphic designer for the New York Times doing strictly data visualizations like this & this for a living.

If you still aren’t convinced visualizations are an extremely powerful tool, then I’ll let Google do the talking.

When we hear “visualization” and “links” in the same sentence, we automatically think embeddable infographics.

But notice how I’ve been using the term “visualization” instead of “data visualization” throughout this post (for the most part). This is because data is one of 6 different types of effective visualizations that content marketers can use to wow their audiences. Here are the other 5 types of things we can visualize:

  • Information
  • Concepts
  • Strategies
  • Metaphors
  • Compounds

Instead of breaking down each individual one, why they’re different, and different ways to visualize each, just checkout this periodic table of visualizations (hover over each element to be amazed). Have this in your back pocket at all times.

There are many misconceptions in the link building community about visualizations that you need to hear about.

“I don’t have the expertise or time for great graphics”

This is what I first thought before I delved into this topic as deeply as I have. I always thought “big publications have time & resources for great graphics, not small business owners”, yet, that’s changing before our eyes. Today there are so many amazing, user friendly tools that make great visualizations so freaking easy to make. Don’t worry, I’ll talk about a few of them.

“Only embeds build links”

Visualizations like Budget Forecasts, Compared With Reality are not embeddable, so in terms of links, the only way it can build them is through others linking directly to this piece. Does that mean it can’t build links the way we want it to? Of course not. Just because someone can’t put it on their site doesn’t mean they won’t link to it & that it can’t be used for strategic outreach.

“Infographics have to display only data”

I hate hearing people say an infographic isn’t an infographic unless it displays data. An infographic is just a form of visualization, and going back to the periodic table, data is just one of 6 possible representations. Even Wikipedia says “infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge.”

“Infographics are becoming spam”

We forget that the lowest form of ANY link building method on the Web is spam. For example, while most directory submissions are spammy, there are still a handful that are high quality. The same goes for comment marketing vs. comment spamming.

As times goes on, yes, large amounts of infographics can be cranked out & can be spammy in nature, but this form of visualization will never go away. Sure, it might change a little bit as time goes on, but everything does.

As stated in the introduction, there is a ton of data just waiting to be visualized. There’s even a conference that meets every year showcasing the best infographics, designers, and advice on data. Even though there are 6 main types of visualizations, this is arguably the most powerful, because numbers speak louder than words.

Finding Data

To start, you need a piece of compelling data to visualize. Not all data is exciting or worth your time. Here are some open data locations to start with:

Luckily for us, some of the larger data hubs contain a ton of data that has never even considered to be visualized, so you’ll always have no problem finding new material (granted not all of it’s relevant or even worth visualizing).

Before you go any further, make sure you’re familiar with the Open Data Commons, a set of legal tools to protect those who provide open data.

Other ways to find data include prospecting queries in Google. Here are a few examples:

  • keyword data
  • keyword statistics
  • keyword stats
  • keyword data filetype:pdf
  • keyword statistics filetype:pdf
  • keyword stats filetype:pdf
  • keyword data filetype:pdf site:.edu
  • keyword study filetype:pdf site:.edu

Note that in order to find a wider set of data, use your niche instead of your head terms.

You can even try plugging your keywords into Google Scholar search.

If you’re not doing data, then here are some other ideas.

Lists – Can you think of a list of items, tips, or anything else that’s about the right size for an infographic? You don’t want it to be too long or too short, so depending on what it is, you might have to add or subtract items (or choose a different list all together).

Concepts – Have a tough time describing a concept through basic text? Then a graphic might be perfect. Here’s a great example of a simple video about Ponzi Schemes described without any fancy video software, and here’s one that’s a little more advanced.

Events – Why not create a visual timeline of a series of events to help your audience better understand what happened?

Relationships – It’s sometimes tough to describe the relationships between a lot of different things. Visualization methods like venn diagrams & mind maps help solve that.

Comparisons – Show the similarities & differences between two things with a snazzy graphic.

Processes – Flow charts & other similar visualization methods are a great way to describe certain processes to noobies.

Have any more non-data ideas? Let me know in the comments below (seriously, I want to expand this list as much as possible).

Hopefully by now you’ve got something that you want to visualize. Next, you’ll have to figure out exactly how you want to visualize it. Is it going to be an infographic? A video? An interactive graphic? An image that serves a smaller purpose? Or something else?

Here are a few successful ones to help you get a good idea.

Video – This one’s a video about vampire energy, an odd phenomenon best told with some eye opening numbers.

Interactive Graphic – Here we have a data driven document about how Facebook compares to past IPOs. Click here to see it (can’t embed). Shockingly, Amanda Cox was also a part of this beauty.

Static Graphics – Here’s Eric Fischer’s mappings of Flickr & Twitter posting locations: See Something or Say Something (original on Flickr).

Infographics – Finally, instead of taking up a ton of space in this post by embedding a few infographics, check out this impressive list.

Quick Tips

Before you go any further, make sure you memorize these tips.

Tell a story – Don’t just throw out a bunch of data points.

Keep it relatively simple – On average, you’ve got 4-5 seconds to make your audience understand what’s going on.

Hide unnecessary information – As well as being simple, make sure it’s clear. Information that doesn’t add to the main point of the story takes away from its effectiveness to communicate.

Draw a conclusion – What point are you trying to make? If you want someone to share or link to it, then you have to make sure they leave your content with a sense of closure.

 

Time to draw up the specs. Try to answer these questions:

  • What’s the color scheme?
  • What order will you display your different nuggets of information?
  • How will the graphic be laid out? (i.e. how many columns & rows & the sizes of those areas)
  • What types of charts will you use?

When planning, don’t be afraid to use a pencil & paper, because if you can’t figure out how to create your thoughts quickly with the tools I run through below, you’ll lose sight of what you had in mind. Having a sketch & then going from there is the best plan of action.

Now it’s time for the fun part. If you’ve got a design team, then great, you can hand it over to them & tell them how you want it done. If you’re like the majority of us that don’t, then let me walk you through some tools that’ll help.

Note: Sorry, but I can’t help you much with video. In my opinion it’s super effective and because the barrier of entry to creating a video is higher than a graphic, the rewards are greater. I did do some research & found there is virtually no content on this topic, so my guess is there aren’t any DIY tools for this other than basic video animation & editing ones.

Before I get into the tools, understand that professionals use Adobe Illustrator to create their infographics. If you’re interested, here are a couple tutorials on it (first) (second), and a fun little video on the flow process of a designer making one.

Infographic tools

If you’re going to create an infographic yourself, and if you’re not a designer, then lets break down some tools that get the job done.

Piktochart

Meet my new favorite non-link building link building tool. Piktochart is a full on infographic creation tool that lets you choose from 49 existing templates (that number is growing). After that, it’s up to you to make it your own with its drag & drop features. It’s $15/month, so it’s not free, but since the cost of a decent infographic is usually 4 figures, it’s something worth looking into.

Remember, it’s still got a lot of room to grow. They’re constantly adding new features & enhancements, so stay tuned as it becomes even better.

Visual.ly, Easel.ly & Infogr.am

I grouped these together because they’re all limited & in beta right now. They all look like they’ll kick ass once they’re built out, but none of them have much customization for you to take advantage of; as of now, they all have 6 or less templates to choose from.

Other Tools

Google Fusion Tables – I wish I could tell you I had the time to experiment with this one, but I can’t. I’ve only seen some of the astonishing visualizations that have come out of it. Here’s a helpful tutorial to get you started.

Hohli – This is an ultra simple tool for creating all types of charts.

Diagram.ly – A free, easy to use object editing tool.

Tableau – A more advanced data visualization tool that works on your desktop.

Stat Silk – Create interactive graphs, maps, and charts with this toolset.

Inkscape – Free vector graphic software. Here’s a list of tutorials.

JSCharts & amCharts – Javascript based charts.

Analytics Visualization – Connect your Google Analytics to visualize your site’s traffic.

Wordle & Tag Crowd – Visualize large amounts of words.

LinkedIn InMaps – Visualize your LinkedIn connections.

Creately – Create a wide variety of online diagrams, easily (paid; plans start at $5/mo.).

Gapminder – Tool (created by Hans Rosling) that visualizes popular data sets over time.

GunnMap – Quickly visualize data on a world map.

World Mapper – Territories are re-sized on each map according to data.

RSS Voyage – Create a timeline of your RSS feeds.

If your visualization is a story in itself and not just a short piece that adds to your blog post, then you need a proper promotion strategy. A great visualization takes a lot of time, so don’t squander the opportunity by not properly promoting it.

Tap into your existing fans

Have an email list, following on Twitter, or a fan base on Facebook? Don’t be afraid to get the word out. This should be a given, but if your graphic is great, then don’t be afraid to use every existing channel you’ve built up in the past.

Tap into your existing relationships

Remember how we always tell you to build relationships? Well here’s a tangible example of how you actually get links from them. Whether you’re DMing, emailing, or PMing someone you already know in your industry, make sure they know about your graphic. Once they know about it, they’ll do the rest.

Translate it for International Readers & Bloggers

One of the most under utilized promotional tactics for infographics is translating them! Go check out your site’s referral data in Google Analytics & find the countries that are visiting your site most. Find the top 2 or 3 that speak different languages then go through your infographic & translate the words with a tool like Google Translate.

You can thank me later for this one :)

Target those who shared similar content

For Social

Time for my under utilized best friend: Topsy. It sorts existing content by how popular it was on Twitter, and it gives you a list of everyone who shared that content (and it even sorts them by influence).

For example, lets say I just created a great new piece of content on link building (in this case, a graphic). Here’s what I’d do:

  1. Input the phrase “link building” into the search bar (no quotes)
  2. Click “All time” in the left sidebar
  3. Click the “468 More” at the bottom right of each piece of content
  4. Reach out on Twitter to any of the influencers listed

If your content is good enough, they’ll be more than happy to tweet & promote it. It’s not an immediate return on links, but it helps get your content in front of potential linkers.

Pro tip: Before you even create the content with this promotion strategy in mind, find the influencers you’ll be reaching out to before hand & stalk the shit out of them.

For Links

Do the same for past linkers. Find similar content that got links & reach out to those who linked to it. If you have a subscription to Ontolo, here’s how to do it:

  1. Under “Other Tools” in the Link Building Toolset, click “Research Top-Linked Content”
  2. Input the subject of your content in “Search Query”
  3. Keep Link Types & Min Domains Linking as is, then hit enter
  4. Grab the CSV
  5. In Excel, check each URL to make sure it’s relevant content (the tool is hit or miss on some pieces of content)
  6. Put the qualified URLs into Open Site Explorer & grab the CSVs for each
  7. Put all of the CSVs into one spreadsheet & sort by top link metrics
  8. Outreach to those prospects

Going back to the previous pro tip a few paragraphs up, do this ahead of time & connect with those webmasters & bloggers before you create and promote the content.

Social for Links

If you created an embeddable infographic, then you want to find people who shared it so you can reach out to them to embed it.

Use Topsy to find everyone who tweeted it by going to Topsy.com/yourdomain.com/piece-of-content.

Next, you’re going to want to get all of the URLs of these Twitter accounts into Excel. I still haven’t found an efficient way to scrape the Twitter handles & their URLs, so if you know a way, let me know.

In the mean time, here’s a way that takes 10-15 minutes depending on how many shared it:

  1. Use LinkClump on their Twitter handle (the blue link) to open each Topsy profile page in a tab
  2. Right click “copy link address” on the @twitterhandle that’s in a bigger font than everything else, then paste into Excel
  3. Get their Twitter bio URL by using the Twitter API into Excel

I suck at this part, so I usually end up doing most of this manually as described in steps 1-2 above & only get the most influential into Excel. Sure I might miss a few gems, but it would take too much time for a non-techy like me to get every last one (again, if you know a more efficient way, email me so I can update this!).

Next, use the SEOmoz API to get backlink data on all of their URLs. Sort by authority then go through the list & reach out to them on Twitter. If they’ve already shared it, then they’re much more willing to embed it.

Data Journalism at Stanford – This is what inspired this post. This is an hour long series on journalism in the age of data. It’s a couple years old, but it’s still very relevant.

Visualizing.org – A community of data visualizers that also includes data sets & other designer’s work.

And finally these blogs:

There are a ton of other awesome data websites & blogs, but these are all you need to know for now.

We’ve talked about utilizing data, but what about creating it? Many of the data hubs I listed allow user submissions of data, and on your data set’s information page, you can get a link back as the source. So create the data you need, visualize it, and let others do the same in exchange for a few links!

If you will be creating data, don’t just submit them to the sites that allow links back as the source. Get your data out everywhere. When people use your data, they’ll cite you as the source. There’s nothing more scalable than people building links for you.

Oh, and by the way – if you’ve got data on an internet statistic, go get a link from Google themselves on this page by scrolling down and hitting “submit your own stat”. From the look of the source code it might not get counted, but you’ll get traffic & future citations from it.

If you’re looking for inspiration & have a few minutes to let your jaw drop, here are some good examples.

Blogs & Sites

Chart Porn – Data visualization inspiration, every day (best blog name award?).

Cool Infographics – A blog full of more awesome infographics.

GOOD Magazine Infographics – Even more awesome infographics (if you want the RSS feed, use this one, not the site’s main one).

Data Journalism Awards – The best of the best when it comes to data journalism. It only updates yearly, but this is the world cup for data junkies.

Interactive Infographics

State of the Internet – Cool stats about the internet.

Intacto’s 10 Years of History – Get ready to be blown away.

Future of Car Sharing – Horizontal parallax scrolling at its best.

Dangers of Fracking – Vertical parallax scrolling, also at its best.

How many slaves work for you? – The content is powerful beyond its design, making it even more effective.

You vs. John Paulson – Think you can’t build great links in a spammy niche like Forex? Think again.

Others

The Print Effect – See how much paper & ink it would take to print your Twitter timeline. The little amount of data needed to make a really cool, niche focused project like this is just smart.

Pedestrian Crashes in Novosibirsk – Although in Russian & you’ll have to translate it, this is a map showing all of the pedestrian injuries in this city.

My visualization

I couldn’t create a post on great visualizations without doing at least a small one of my own…

The reason I created it was because I know a lot of us think “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency”, and when we hear about things that can’t be scaled we angrily shout obscene words or simply move on. Please, don’t. I just gave you 10+ hours of research into a field of content that’s thriving so you wouldn’t have to.

Because great visualizations take time & effort, it comes down to you. It comes down to how much you’re willing to put in, how creative you push yourself to be, and how much you want it. Great content marketing is visualizing wifi strength, seeing the history of our world in 100 seconds, understanding human emotion, or declaring address is approximate.

Put as much time into your content as you do other parts of your link building process. You won’t see results tomorrow, but over time, you’ll be surprised how much it pays off.

Thanks for reading!! If you enjoyed this post, then make sure you get my future ones by RSS & follow me on Twitter @PointBlankSEO.

 

This post was written by...

Jon Cooper – who has written 122 posts on Point Blank SEO.

Jon Cooper+ is an SEO consultant based out of Gainesville, FL who specializes in link building. For more information on him and Point Blank SEO, visit the about page. Follow him on Twitter.

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32 Comments
  1. Paul says:

    Great post mate – you’ve referenced some great resources here!

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Thanks Paul! I guess the reason this post took so long was because every time I thought I’d seen it all, I would come across another great resource :)

      • “every time I thought I’d seen it all, I would come across another great resource”

        That happens to me, a lot! This is a great post Jon, I’m seeing a lot of great resources here, few of which I stumbled researching about Inforgraphic.

  2. Anthony Pensabene says:

    ” I just gave you 10+ hours of research into a field of content that’s thriving so you wouldn’t have to.” It shows – thanks, dude.

    Too many good points to expound upon, but thank you for celebrating creativity toward the end. It takes time and is widely celebrated, but it’s not like cooking up Ramen noodles because you’re a poor college student with a hunger need.

    You can’t just whip something up and expect five-star reviews. It doesn’t happen that way. Additionally, you can’t simply take a five-star chef’s recipe and duplicate their special sauce…can’t be done. Put in the time to formulate your own.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Thanks Anthony! Glad you feel the same way. It’s sometimes a tough message to get across, so it’s one of those things we have to keep saying over & over until it finally sticks.

  3. seoteky says:

    There are no shortcuts for great visualization because you can’t scale creativity – Ooohh, super love the phrase Jon! Great detailed post here…

  4. Halfdan Timm says:

    I’m amazed. This is an awesome post – I just hope my competitors won’t see it for now (and seeing how their danish, they most likely won’t, unless they follow me on twitter).

    Especially the links and the introduction to some of these tools might prove themselves incredibly useful for me. I added 9 bookmarks reading this (and bought Piktochart already).

    Thank you for creating content like this, Jon. Keep it up. It’s well appreciated.

  5. Todd says:

    Hey John,

    I’ve read a few of your articles and wanted to let you know I’ve appreciated your forward thinking and thorough research. I’ve come to expect great lists of tools and recs. for how to implement what you’re thinking which makes my research all the easier :).

  6. Sahid Fawaz says:

    Piktochart is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thanks for telling us about it. But when you say “Meet my new favorite non-link building link building tool”, what do you mean by “non-link building”?

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Well, it’s used for graphics, not links, so it’s not a direct link building tool (like OSE or Ontolo), but rather an indirect one, thus the name.

  7. David Angotti says:

    Nice post Jon! As a graphically challenged individual I especially appreciated the links to the various tools especially piktochart. Awesome stuff!

  8. http://rssvoyage.com/ is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. This was a long read but it was worth it. I’d like to see more SEOs start doing interactive data visualizations (instead of infographics.)

    Sites like Ben The Body Guard (the old site) can provide inspiration for creative visualizations.

  9. Awesome, awesome advice thanks Jon. I’m heading over to PiktoChart now to check it out.

  10. Jon,

    Great post! We’ve finally produced our first infographic, collecting the data in-house and then hiring out the graphics through odesk. We have the infographic set up to go out in a post next week but no real promotion in place. Yeah we can push it out to our tiny social world and hopefully the resources you’ve listed will help but I don’t expect much of a response. Have you come across any resources (paid) that will promote infographics, at a reasonable price?

  11. Jelena says:

    Subscribing to your blog was one of the smartest things I’ve done lately :)

    Thank you so much for this piece! I’m hearing all the time how infographics are cool, link-baity etc, but no one seems to take into account that many of us don’t have designer teams, but would like to give it a try anyway.

    I’d just like to add, to the part where you mention non-data visualizations: processes don’t have to be strictly about teaching newbies; I think “how to”s would make great, hum …processgraphics? :D

  12. Rob Toledo says:

    I enjoyed Ivan Cash’s infographic on infographics — http://ivancash.com/Infographic-of-Infographics

    Good post Jon, keep it up

  13. Takeshi Young says:

    Thanks Jon, my mind is racing with ideas for things to try. Infographics and data visualization has been under-utilized in my niche, so I can see these having a big impact!

    One thing I’m surprised you didn’t mention is Elance and other services where you can hire actual artists to create infographics for you. Templates are nice, but it’s hard to compete with original artwork from a graphic designer, which is a lot more affordable these days thanks to sites like Elance.

  14. Callis says:

    RE: Video

    If you’re creating and presenting data via video you’d want an animator for most I’ve seen (such as the Vampire Energy one mentioned here). As someone educated in video production and film making I can tell you now they are worlds apart! I still struggle to use After Effects and such tools.

    Unless you had a unique and creative way presenting your data in a shoot of course. You could juggle different sized and coloured objects for example!

  15. Hi Jon

    Very good stuff as always.

    An idea to “Other visualizations” could be maps. Working in the travel industry I can easily come up with creative ways to use maps, but with a bit of creativity I am pretty sure maps can be used in any industry. Here’s some examples:

    http://www.tripwiremagazine.com/2011/01/35-creative-and-useful-infographic-maps-for-inspiration.html

  16. Hi,

    Just wanted to drop in and congratulate you on such a lengthy post!

    gregory smith

  17. Joe Karl says:

    Jon excellent stuff here.

    Something I have to do more of is visualization and Infographics so thanks for this!!

  18. Golden post, Jon. Worth bookmarking!

    I couldn’t find it anywhere here so I thought I’d mention about Diagramly (www . diagram . ly). It’s free and fairly easy to use.

  19. Fantastic and detailed post Jon. This is sure to keep me up all evening!!

  20. When you mean “translate” the infographic, do you mean create a separate image for translation, or to include the translation in text somewhere?

    Not exactly sure how that aspect works.

    Other than that, fantastic post, I have one of these in the works (similar topic), I’m quite disappointed to see you’ve beaten be to it. ;)

    • Jon Cooper says:

      I was meaning that any text on the infographic should be replaced (in the infographic) with the words in other languages. That make sense?

      Thanks Gregory for stopping by :)

  21. Malcolm Gibb says:

    Awesome post! And you’ve listed so many useful resources there that I had to bookmark this!

  22. Matt Gratt says:

    Great Post, Jon. I learned about a bunch of tools I didn’t know about, and the Twitter techniques for prospecting are right on.

    If I may, I’d like to share another tool and a quick case study.

    IBM makes a tool called ManyEyes (http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/) that lets you create interactive, embeddable data visualizations from any sort of relational data. Got an Excel or .CSV file? You can make an interactive, embeddable graphic. The possibilities are endless.

    About a year ago, back when I was at Portent, I found an Excel file on StumbleUpon’s site about the relative size of each of the StumbleUpon topics and categories.

    I dropped this into ManyEyes & Tableau and wrote a post about it – you can see it here – http://www.portent.com/blog/social-media/visualizing-the-stumbleupon-audience.htm

    (It looks like it’s been moved from the original URL, which is why it appears to have no social shares or inbound links.)

    The post got more than 150 tweets, some from influential individuals in the SEO community. It earned several inbound links from high-profile blogs like Bruce Clay’s blog.

    (Again, the URL has been moved, so you can’t see these things. You can get a better idea at the Topsy page – http://topsy.com/www.portent.com/blog/social-media-marketing/visualizing-the-stumbleupon-audience.htm)

    Then StumbleUpon retweeted the article, and subsequently invited me to join their “Power Blogger” program, where I received lots of free stuff & Stumble credit.

    Visualizations work. One of the biggest fundamental questions in content marketing is “Why Should I Believe You?” Data visualizations answer that question.

  23. Skyler says:

    I love the line “stalk the shit out of them”. With Joking aside thanks for the post and resources.

  24. Jon,

    What an epic post! I’ve been marking this as “unread” in my feed reader ever since you published it – waiting until I finally had time to really focus on all the content in this post – and boy was it worth it!

    My mind is buzzing with ideas after this and I feel a subject I am interested in learning more about has been explained in a detailed, intelligent and clear manner.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to put “pen to paper” on this one :-)

    Richard

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