How to Create a Top List that Goes Viral

Almost on a daily basis, I see people trying to reinvent the linkbait wheel, constantly looking for new formats of content. Whilst I’m all for innovation and progress, there is something that can be said for utilising tried and tested methods of audience attraction and link development.

Top lists are one of those tried and tested types of linkbait…

Why are they so effective?

  • A list is an easy to digest format, people naturally gravitate towards “order”
  • We all love a bit of competition and many of us are creatures of curiosity so it is in our nature to want to see who is the best, biggest, richest etc
  • Top lists are often inspirational – positive content spreads
  • Top lists are such a fluid format – you can use it for everything from ranking people to highlighting top tips in order of their effectiveness

The anatomy of a successful top list


If you don’t get this right then you needn’t bother with the rest because you need a strong concept if you want a successful top list.


  • Rework timeless topics e.g. the 5 biggest Christmas trees in the world
  • Add a unique twist to a popular list e.g. 10 millionaires that used to work at McDonalds
  • Think about how you will Surprise/Shock/Entertain people
  • Set the tone of the piece and work out what you are aiming to do for your audience e.g. amuse, educate etc.


  • Create a carbon copy list – use tried and tested content formats, yes. But tread a new path with the concept itself
  • Include the same people, products and facts that everyone always sees – it’s very difficult to get people excited about a list of top SEO blogs that everyone’s already heard of.

If you need inspiration then try or – there is bound to be something on one of these sites that gets you thinking


100% of us have the lazy genes in us – only about 20% of us manage to suppress it and bother to do the level of research required to create a great top list. I always start by hunting out any existing lists on the topic – see what’s good and bad about each.

You should endeavour to go the extra mile when it comes to research because it will give your list the edge if you have unearthed or highlighted relatively unknown facts, people etc. Take this list – 10 things you didn’t know about Christmas, the writer could easily have wheeled out facts such as Santa Claus historically wore green until the commercialisation of Christmas turned his outfit red, but he didn’t. As weird facts go, that one is relatively well-known so hopefully you see what I mean about going the extra mile with your research to make sure your audience are surprised/intrigued/entertained/excited and hopefully all of these things.

My best advice for the research stage of producing a top list is to be thorough but be methodical – research can take a long time and be rather tedious but if your concept is strong enough then you may be able to sketch out the top list in a rough order and then fill in the blanks, making your research a lot easier


A top list lives and dies by the user experience that it provides, here are some best practices for user-friendly top lists:

Think readability

When you are designing the structure of your piece, readability must be a real key priority.

When I was creating my list of epic SEO content back at the end of 2011, I was really conscious that the post would be way too long and awkward to read. I decided that the best way to structure the list would be to add the title of each post and the author but hide the description of the content – encouraging people to click to reveal my explanation rather than being forced to see every description in one big long block of text. A couple of people complimented me on this format and I think it certainly contributed in some way to the success of the piece.

Use images

Lists can often be pretty long which is why it is so important to break up your content in order to improve the reader experience. One of the best ways to do this (and to improve the visual appeal of your list) is with the use of crisp, high-quality images.

E.g. this list on the 50 most influential bloggers

Maintain consistency

As I mentioned earlier in this guide, one of the key reasons lists are so popular is because people gravitate towards order in a chaotic world and they like to have people curating the best stuff for them. To take full advantage of this human behaviour, you need to maintain a consistent structure throughout which means font size, font colour, page breaks and images are the same for each entry on the list.

For example, 29 spectacular WordPress magazine themes – you’ll notice consistent images, text and links throughout the piece.


The key focus of the content you add around the list entries is that you need to make sure it gives context to the people/products/facts etc that are listed. It should act as your explanation as to why they make the list. For example, this post on is a list of 40 Adobe Illustrator tutorials, the content brings what is essentially a list of links to life. Without the content, the post would offer only 50% of the value it does. Furthermore, it’s only a brief explanation about each tutorial which is really all that is required. This brings me on to my next point which is that you should create as much content is necessary – not more, not less.

Keep it punchy

A list is meant to be read through in a pacy fashion, it shouldn’t be as painful as pulling teeth.

Without some good content, your list will become a little dull.Equally however; a dull, lifeless description is probably just as bad. Demonstrate the fruits of your research and highlight all the interesting stuff you have found but try to keep it light and make sure the list flows.


The headline or title is crucial to the success of your top list and it is also one of the hardest parts…

Many would argue that you should write your headline first and whilst I don’t see anything wrong with this, I like to start with a work-in-progress back at the concept stage and then by the time I’ve put together the rest of the list I will often have my best headline idea.

I usually follow a fairly formulaic process which is as follows…

For example… 39 Sublime SEO Tools that You’ve Never Used

As an SEO I tend to feel that including a keyword in the headline is really effective. I’m not talking about shoe-horning, a long keyword phrase awkwardly into the title but giving the reader a trigger word whilst also ensuring your list gets the search engine love it deserves.

For further reading, you can’t really go wrong with Copyblogger’s Magnetic Headlines Series


Top lists often won’t get shared or go viral without a gentle bit of seeding first.

  • Get involved with BuzzFeed – create an abridged version of the list on BuzzFeed to promote the full, main version of the list
  • Invest in paid stumbles/reddit ads/Digg ads – some might argue that paying for attention is the way to deal with failed linkbait but I think it can be very effective to get the linkbait started on the right route.
  • Send some emails – reach out to bloggers, influencers and websites owners who may be interested in sharing your list with their audience. Simple, but so effective as many rely on social traffic but very often the links come from manual outreach.
  • Guest post around the topic – use the vehicle of guest blogging to generate attention back on your main list.
  • Give it some exposure on your homepage – if your top list is worthy (why would you be bothering if it wasn’t?) then it deserves some homepage love. Where possible, we encourage clients to include a prominent link on the homepage to the list so as to give it the best possible chance of getting the shares and links it deserves.
  • Put egobait to work for you – take a look at my recent egobait guide for more advice on this area

How do you produce a top list and what do you do to make sure it attracts the right kind of attention?

One Comment

  1. avatar
    Chris March 23, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Hi James,

    Great write up here, I see you spend a lot of time and effort into producing great content. You could have in fact turned this post about making lists into a great list itself.

    All the best,


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