What Makes Content Shareable?

While it is currently the source of some debate how much direct influence social signals have on a site’s SEO (see Matt Cutts’ comments in January), one thing that can’t be argued is that twitter, facebook etc are extremely important sources of direct traffic.

If your blog post goes viral then you can expect to see a steady flow of visitors, with traffic self perpetuating as these new visitors continue to share/like/tweet.

Word of mouth has always been the best form of marketing and in this respect social media is a marketer’s dream.

So what is the secret formula for a viral post or video that will rocket your traffic?

What is it exactly that makes certain content shareable?

Let’s find out!

The Big Guns

We’ll start by taking a look at some of the most shared content from a number of large sites across popular niches (news, entertainment, tech, celebrities, fashion) and seeing if we can work out: –

  • What made the posts so popular?
  • What common features did the articles share which cut across niches?


Love it or loathe it, the BBC website is one of the most popular in the world (currently ranking in the mid 50s on Alexa).

Obviously the BBC covers pretty much every topic under the sun, so let’s take a look at the most popular articles in their technology section in 2013.

You can find a full list of their most popular articles month by month here, but I’ll select 2 of them to begin with which share a common theme.

February – Facebook Sued Over Like Button

What was it about?

This article from February 2013 covered the news that facebook was being sued by a patent holding company. The company had claimed that facebook were infringing two of their patents, one of which was the like button.

Why was it so popular?

This one is a case of no-one liking the big guys. Facebook used to be cool, a bit anti-establishment, but now they are seen by many as just another bunch of corporate sell outs, interested in nothing but profit.

An article which defames the big bad guys is likely to prove popular (we’ll come back to this later).

April – Dead Customer’s Virgin Media Bill Goes Viral on facebook

What was it about?

This one is a good one to cover as it a viral post about… a viral post!

Basically it’s a story about how Virgin Media continued to bill a dead guy, then charged him a late payment fee when the bank returned his direct debit with reference ‘Payer Deceased’. The late man’s son-in-law then posted a pic of the bill up on facebook, where it was shared over 53,000 times.

Why was it so popular?

We’ve got three elements here.

  1. It’s funny/quirky/unusual
  2. It makes the big guys look bad again (and incompetent)
  3. It has a great title – the fact the post is about something that has already gone viral makes it great clickbate and once they are reading it they are already thinking about sharing… nice psychology!

Huffington Post

At the time of writing, the current most popular blog post on Huffington Post (UK) is this one (Lebanon: Being Gay Is Not a Crime Nor Against Nature).

The article has over 20,000 likes on facebook and has been shared over 4,000 times.

What is it about?

A Lebanese court has ruled that same-sex relationships are not a crime.

Why was it so popular?

I believe there are two key factors in the popularity (and shareability) of this article.

The gay community is a significantly large demographic (I guess in internet marketing speak we could almost call it a niche) with these figures from 2010 asserting that there were 750,000 gay, lesbian or bisexual adults in the UK alone. That’s a big target market for the content…


I mentioned before in my article on launching a new web brand that raw numbers in a niche are not a surefire recipe for success. The potential visitors/customers in that niche have to be: –

a) tech savvy
b) likely to be active in social media etc

The LGBT community ticks these boxes, meaning the article has a great chance of going viral (and it did).

Search Engine Land

Back on the internet marketing niche, let’s take a look at Search Engine Land’s most facebook shared story in 2013  (from this list).

What was it about?

Their most facebook shared article in 2013 was this one (FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm). The article summarised Danny Sullivan’s thoughts on the (just announced) Hummingbird algorithm update from google.

Why was it so popular?

This was all about being first on the scene and being authoritative.

Pretty much as soon as google had confirmed the update on September 26th (rumours had been around for around a month before that) Danny’s post was up and telling us all we needed to know.

If you can jump on big, breaking news in a niche and cover it in detail then there is a good chance that your post will go viral (although obviously when you have the following of Search Engine Land it helps!).

The Search Engine Land post continues to rank at number 1 in google for the query ‘google hummingbird’ – pushing wikipedia into second place – and has had over 10,000 shares on facebook, twitter and linkedin.

Perez Hilton

I won’t go into specific posts on Perez Hilton’s site, but scrolling through his weekly list of most facebook shared stories there are two elements that pop up week after week: –

  • Anything about Just Bieber
  • Anything about celebrity sex

So we all have dirty minds and hate Justin Bieber… sounds about right.

But seriously, the Justin Bieber thing ties in with the facebook/virgin media points from the BBC – we like to see those at the top being brought down to size.

In Justin Bieber’s case of course he deserves everything he gets…

And with regards to the second bullet, it’s been the case since the beginning of published media – sex sells.

Glance at the front covers of the woman’s glossies in any newsagent and there is guaranteed to be one sex story in the headlines (be it tips or a scandal). Nothing sells newspapers quite like a sex scandal either.

Combine sex and celebrities and you have a post which has viral written all over it (no pun intended).


Moz’ best of 2013 tells us that their most popular blog post (by pageviews) was this one by Miranda Rensch (10 Tools for Creating Infographics and Visualizations).

What was it about?

It’s a great little round up of web based tools for creating infographics.

Why was it so popular?

Well, firstly it’s a list.

Us simple humans love lists and we love to share them! Put a useful list together and put a number in the post title and it’s likely to get clicks and shares.

Secondly, it’s time saving. Instead of having to hunt around for a solution for creating infographics, Miranda has been good enough to curate them all for us. Save me money or save me time and I’ll be likely to share!

I also think the visual aspect of the post was a factor in the number of shares it received. Each tool has a nice bright screen shot, which makes the whole thing easy on the eye.

What do we have?

So, what do we have from the 5 sites we have looked at: –

  1. Slag off the big guys (although try not to be libelous!)
  2. Be funny/quirky
  3. Spend the time coming up with a great post title
  4. Target a demographic that is likely to share
  5. Be first with breaking news in your niche (and be authoritative)
  6. Everyone hates Justin Bieber
  7. Sex/scandal sells
  8. Lists posts make very shareable content
  9. Titles with numbers in them are very shareable
  10. Make your posts visually appealing

Some Additional Advice On Writing Content That Can Go Viral

Here are some additional tips on writing content that is likely to be shared by your visitors.

Make it about them, not you

It’s good to show your expertise, but people are visiting your site to benefit themselves! If you are listing your achievements then explain how you got there and exactly how they can do the same.

My post on how I grew a niche affiliate site, which goes into great detail about how anyone can create a successful web business with hard work and application (and breaks down the steps to follow) continues to be one of my most popular/shared posts.

Be controversial

No press is bad press… (maybe)

Going against the grain in your niche, perhaps by writing an alternative point of view to an established authority, is often a good way to spark up a bit of controversy and get some serious shares.

Just be prepared to back up your opinions and eh… stay within the bounds of human decency!

Be passionate and personal

When you are passionate about a topic you are more likely to write in an engaging way that will hook in your reader (and get them hitting the like button).

Not always possible, but write with passion and add a personal touch whenever you can.

And finally…

Ask your visitors to share

It might seem obvious, but asking people to share/like/tweet your content will encourage more people to do it!

And I’ll finish this post by asking you to do just that 😉 Thanks!

About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.