Over the years, businesses that leverage social media to drive sales greatly benefited from outbound links in their social media posts.

While building a platform of their own, they could shoot an outbound link almost as an invite to their fans and friends to hop on over to their main platform for the big party.

We prayed it would last forever. It was convenient — and it was free. It was easy traffic and a comfortable way of building up an audience.

Social Media Algorithms Have Changed

Like all good things, it came to an end, and with it went its inherent benefits. As social media platforms changed their algorithms — and got increasingly competitive — businesses got trapped in the middle, desperately trying to catch up.

We still see these outbound links today, though … which leads us to ask the question: Is the free outbound link really dead? If not, is it on its way there?

Because for all intents and purposes, it looks as though trying to get free clicks from social media is indeed a failing enterprise.

Just consider the following.

No Outbound Links on Instagram, Snapchat or Whisper

It’s getting competitive within social media platforms. Once you’re on Instagram, you’re bound to stay on Instagram since you won’t be able to see any outbound links to sidetrack you and prevent you from catching up on your feed.

Yes, spammers and store advertisements still breed on the comments section but aside from that, there’s really no going anywhere.

And I would like to think it’s for that very reason that Instagram does not allow outbound links. Imagine the endless spamming and linking to various websites — all taking your attention away from the photos that are the lifeblood of this social media platform.

Though free outbound linking is minimized on Instagram, there is a way around it: by asking people to click the link in your bio — which is really the only free outbound link.

Even so, for a person catching up on their follow feed, asking them to spare time by clicking on your profile and clicking on the bio means disrupting his flow. He might take note and get back to it later, but alas another stimulus catches his fancy and your advertisement is forgotten completely. This happens especially when you’re advertising your Snapchat or Telegram accounts. You’re ignored and blocked by Instagram itself.

To advertise, you simply have to pay. But will this mechanism change in the near future, you ask? We don’t think so.

Facebook Penalizes Outbound Links for Brands

Facebook, on one note, lists 10 practices for which users are penalized.

In light of such restrictions, paying for ads is the safest way to go — at least when compared to never paying for ads.

While Facebook insists it does not penalize pages that do not place pay-for-play ads, we do know that organic reach of pages on Facebook has deflated 20 percent, and viral reach has decreased 45 percent. 

Generally, companies have had to supplement this decrease in reach with Facebook advertising in order to meet the page reach numbers of early 2012.

And if you think curating content earns your customers' trust, as it turns out, it lessens your chances of even being seen.

What about third-party services?

Services such as Viral Heat or Sprout Social typically gain you one thing: an even lower reach. That’s because Facebook recognizes, and penalizes these third-party apps, giving them less credibility than posts made directly on Facebook. 

This is true for businesses that push their Twitter feed through Facebook as well. Historically, Facebook has denied this correlation. However, studies on Facebook reach as well as analyzing our own data has suggested there is a direct relationship between Facebook reach and use of third-party services.

Facebook's EdgeRank

Hubspot shares that Facebook’s algorithm for content relevance is called EdgeRank. This decides which specific content is relevant, which becomes visible and what gets thrown out on the basis of:

Learning Opportunities

  • Affinity: The number of times two people (or a person and a page) have interacted
  • Weight: The number of times users have interacted (commented, liked) with the content in question
  • Recency: The time since the content was posted

What to take out of it all? Keep yourself updated with the algorithm changes because you will lose if you don’t catch up.

Apparently, is you link your content via Facebook from outside platforms, you will get significantly less likes and engagement — at least 60 percent less. Facebook is basically trying to keep you in Facebook while you’re there.

Even Facebook Notes has changed its layout, making it akin to platforms like Medium and Ghost. How suggestive that you ditch your own platform and just take it to Facebook — you’re trying to get the word out here anyway, right?

And can we talk about Facebook Live? You don’t even need to get out of Facebook, find a third party service to do a Livestream or even a webinar! It’s all in here. Just use your phone, be ever so candid, no need for fancy editing equipment, just feed away.

Nowadays, entering Facebook is similar to YouTube, where a couple of hours in will suck you into the darkest depths of the internet.

You get bombarded with suggested video after suggested video. A quick search of your favorite music video can lead you to George Takei’s interesting account.

You’ll wake up in the middle of your surf, wondering where your day went. It keeps you in while you’re in. If this is the habit that is formed among their users, then outbound links — a break from this strengthening pattern — is an unwelcome idea.

And Outbound Links on Twitter?

It’s such a hard truth to face but rarely do people actually click on outbound links on your tweets. Especially when it’s not your own content, how would you expect people to get excited?

However, these small efforts build up to your image and branding—but as vessels to get your word out? Don’t bank on it so much.

So again, we ask the question: Is the free outbound link dead?

Not yet, but it’s in dire need of resuscitation. It’s simply just like any other trend that came before it.

Much like the tacky SEO keywording mechanisms we thought was the end game, maybe we’re bound for something better.

One that would make more sense and make everything come together much more smoothly.

When dealing with such a competitive environment, you sometimes have to learn to kick back, be like water and apply necessary changes. If the outbound link does die out, it only means that there is a much newer trend for us to fuss about.

Title image "Faded glory" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by James Jordan