A Tear In The Link Economy Fabric

Is self-linking a bad thing?

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For a decade and a half the outbound link was a "hat tip," a courtesy or even system of content reimbursement; the "Web" is a web because of linking, each quality website helping to prop up another. It was actually kind of socialist in nature.

Violating those linking principles was cause for, at least, a sarcastic tiff between web publishers, and at worst it was cause for extremist, reactionary bloviating about linking etiquette—actual nonbinding rules for how to link, when to link, and where in the text to link. Some have even tried to make a legal issue of it.

Those socialistic linking days may be finished in the interest of audience herding. Instead of sending visitors to other sites, major online news sources are developing ways to keep their visitors on the premises as long as possible. An answer to the decline of print? You bet. In a non-subscription, ad-supported world, it’s not just about traffic, not just about page views, but also user engagement.

The New York Times, for example, which at one point was making an effort to link to third parties, is increasingly linking back to itself, either to NYT articles related to the topic, or to its own topic pages. This may be done instead of linking to a website that is the actual subject of the article. BusinessWeek now has topic pages; TechCrunch has Crunchbase.

Have you noticed the increase in multi-page articles and photojournalism pieces you have to keep clicking through to read or see in their entirety? It’d be interesting to see the stats on how much these structures boost the page view count for the sales department.

It’s impossible (for me) to put a moral judgment on this. It’s smart is what it is, and seems it would seem entirely fair (and shrewd) if smaller publications approached it the same way. We’d make a case study of it and recommend it to everyone. Make your site your own resource. Cannibalize your links, control your traffic, increase your page views, and make your newly created resource so search-engine trusted that, for whatever topic, you have a chance of popping up high in the results.

Brilliant, right?

Well, yeah, but it is kind of unsettling because it indicates a major shift in the link economy. Tim O’Reilly, who set us off in this direction yesterday, calls linking to your own site exclusively "a small tear in the fabric of the web, a small tear that will grow much larger if it remains unchecked."

How one would check it is a mystery.

O’Reilly goes so far as to call it "a tax on the utility of the web" that could be acceptable so long as the self-linked content is beneficial to the end-user. If not beneficial, if merely a design to entrap users as long as possible in a labyrinth of intrasite content, then we could see "a degradation of the web’s fundamental currency," much like link farms. In true (dare I say Web-dinosaur?) form, O’Reilly takes a cautious and strategic approach by offering guidelines saying no more than half of the links on one’s site should be self-referential.

But what will likely happen is that webmasters will see the brilliance of the strategy and begin rebuilding their walled gardens. Mike Markson calls the creation of topic pages "SEO magic," exhibiting how searches for Twitter, Blekko, and Cuil founder Anna Patterson all bring back high-ranking Crunchbase results in Google.

End-users will take a hit in the process, and become frustrated at not being able to click out to a mentioned third party, or to view content all on one page. If they start to bail because of this, there may be some tweaking.

What incentive would there be to not exploit a strategy where high search ranking increases traffic while self-linking and other page view strategies keep visitors on your site as much as possible? Who would not do that?

High minded idealists about the fabric of the web, maybe. But realistically, that small tear in the fabric will become quite the digital divide. On one side, as in the real world, are some savvy giants hoarding up their treasures. On the other, some quaint linking etiquette.

A Tear In The Link Economy Fabric
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  • http://www.rankbetterseo.com seo raleigh

    Great article Jason.

    I have and still do work with large content driven sites that have the advertising model to earn money.  There are definitly some things that we try to focus on, which are get great content, and give a great user experience which will keep them coming back and offset the need to paginate to much or split up articles on separate pages.

  • http://www.lightingsupply.com/fluorescent_bulbs/u-bends/6_leg_spacing/t8_6_leg_spacing.aspx T8 (6″ Leg Spacing)

    I just noticed this today…thats funny

  • http://wehner.org Charles Douglas Wehner

    All sites link to themselves, unless they have only one page with no navigation.

    The links would change pages for you. Particularly when a sitemap is provided, it can be a pleasure to visit and one can leave when one wants.

    This NEW trend is frightening insofar that the site designer might be deliberately obfuscating – providing a tangle of links with no way out of the maze. The visitor gets frustrated, but the search engine rewards the site with a higher ranking.

    Time alone does not measure quality. The algorithm needs to find a way of discerning visitor satisfaction, not simply time spent.

    Charles Douglas Wehner


  • http://www.donomite.com Don

    We will all be flooded by those "get rich in auto-pilot while sitting on the beach picking your nose" gurus hearlding this as the "best kept secret" of the internet.  They will charge stupid prices and stupid people will buy it which will start a second round of stupid marketing crap.


    • http://www.unlisted-etcetera.com/ Melanie


      Don – I couldn’t agree with you more on this issue and I sure like the way you chose to *word* it! lol


  • http://www.unlisted-etcetera.com/ Guest

    "We will all be flooded by those "get rich in auto-pilot while sitting on the beach picking your nose" gurus hearlding this as the "best kept secret" of the internet. They will charge stupid prices and stupid people will buy it which will start a second round of stupid marketing crap."


    Oh Don, You yanked the words right out of my mouth!!  I am SO Sick and Tired of all the marketing Crap B.S. that is Unavoidable and the people still falling for it in prayers of a pipe dream while the scum sit back and laugh and spend the money.  Millionaries in Underware – that was about the First one I remember!



  • http://www.lancesfinancial-freedom.com Lance

    It’s kind of sad that Wikipedia no longer links out.  Pagerank of 9 needs to be disperesed, I think.


  • http://www.egracecreative.com Brandon Cox

    Are you serious? Linking to other pages on your own site somehow destroys the utilitarian nature of the web? It’s an interesting demonstration of the underlying philosophies driving the web, but to say that a business is somehow being unfaithful to an unwritten law against self-promotion and marketing is a little unfair.

    Web sites don’t simply exist to support other web sites, they are designed to offer something useful. I say, if linking to related articles, other topics, or even other sites owned by the same agencies makes a site more useful and productive, it’s a good thing. It’s like providing miniature tables of content throughout a book. And if the book is crap, nobody will buy it anyway.

    I’m not sure why we can’t just make great web sites and not turn it into a philosophical soapbox for a larger ideology.

  • http://www.buttpaste.co.uk NappyDad

     Noticed Matt Cutts does this so it must be right :)

  • http://www.myrideisme.com Hot Rods

    For my site, especially in my blog, I always link to other sites if it will make the story content more informative and more fulfilling to the reader.  Of course I’ll make links to other places within my site, but I’m doing that to make sure people find other info they’d like, not purely for search rank.  Search rank (now I’m not an expert) will come with excellent content and a use of SEO good practices.  That’s my plan.

  • http://www.pacifictech.org Dataken

    Just a quick note. I think a lot of people link this way for a few reasons and not just to build links to their own site. We have all heard that most people will not read more than a few paragraphs. So this helps in two ways. Its make your web page not so long and you don’t have to keep scrolling and it breaks the content up. It just makes it a cleaner look and feel.

    Me runs home to break down all my content on my web sites rofl.


  • http://www.bookelves.com/ Carson Fire

    I have to object right off the bat to the suggestion that links are in any way socialist because sites use them to "prop each other up".

    Socialism would require that the links be appointed by a centralized authority, in as even a manner as possible. Linking, instead, is democratic, in that individuals and or individual organizations decide who they want to link, using whatever criteria they choose. Like democracy, and capitalism, there are winners and losers, because the politburo can’t force your site to link to mine.

    • http://www.brane.com.br Peter (IMC)

      That’s comunism you´re talking about, not socialism. It is very dangerous to think that socialism is the same as comunism. Pure capitalism is also not what you call capitalism, but indeed there is no word for pure capitalism.

      The usual term "capitalism" usually includes a lot of social laws (government paying the unemployed after they get fired, and if that takes long there is welfare) These social laws are what makes capitalism really work. Just like socialism only works with a capitalistic touch.

      Centrelized authorities deciding what goes and what doesn’t is comunism, not socialism.


      • http://www.bookelves.com/ Carson Fire

        I see your point, but as far as classifying links, I don’t see much of a difference. Even a socialized system, say hospitals in Great Britain, for instance, is arranged to even things out through bureaucracy. If you walk into that hospital, they must treat you. If you walk into a website, must they link you in their sidebar? I don’t think so.

        I’m not arguing that socialism is good or bad, just that comparing it to the classic website choosing to link or not link other sites doesn’t make any sense. Linking is an exercise in free association.

        There has never been anything "fair" or "socialistic" about past linking practices. So what if the New York Times used to be more free with external links? They were still exercising their judgement in what to link. If they are being more particular about what outside sites they link, they haven’t become more or less socialist or democratic, they have simply changed their criteria.

        And if these sinking giants are becoming more withdrawn and fortress-like, who cares? Let them keep sinking. The rest of the web still relies on free alliances.

        • http://www.brane.com.br Peter (IMC)

          Alright, that makes sense. I guess with socialistic he meant more in terms of the freedom to link to who ever you want. That’s indeed more of a free will / democratic thing than a socialistic thing.I just wasn’t liking the idea that socialistic systems have a centralized authority that make all the decisions.

          Even though I’m not much of a socialist in the political sense, I do think socialism and capitalism have to go together. The same applies to the web.


          Those big newspapers no longer linking out that much and linking to their own articles is not per se a good thing though. I’m not liking it much. You can do all the PR that you want through journalists, but hardly ever they’ll give you a link to your site, and you can completely forget about a keyword in the link.. :)  Well that keyword isn’t that important but it really sucks that all you can get is an article, not a link.

          well that’s justa rant I guess,. :)



  • http://www.surreywebdevelopment.org.uk/website_help_desk.html Help Desk

    Charles commented:

    " Time alone does not measure quality. The algorithm needs to find a way of discerning visitor satisfaction, not simply time spent."

    We have seen sufficient evidence to feel this is already the case and may well become a greater part of the algorithm. Time will tell whether or not this approach turns people off but if so, no reason to assume Google will not make changes to protect their core business, more important to them than any website, however esteemed. The principle of depth as a tool for SEO and visitor retention is not new, those that take this too far may end up in the same position as other websites that pursue artificial methods.


  • http://www.brane.com.br Peter (IMC)

    I guess we can blame Google for this, at least partially. As a site owner you have to be scared about who you link to. If you create internal links you don’t have to worry your link is considered a paid link.

    It’s going to be interesting how this will develop. Perhaps in the end only bloggers are free to link to who ever they want? :) But even that’s not really true of course.

    It does seem that Google managed to put outgoing links on the agenda of a lot of big websites.


    • http://www.aboutresultsmarketing.com David – Los Angeles Internet Marketing

      "I guess we can blame Google for this, at least partially. As a site owner you have to be scared about who you link to. If you create internal links you don’t have to worry your link is considered a paid link."

      Nope, Peter is correct. The concept comes from old media trying to rack up page views – which is what their revenues depend on. This is going to also mean that they get increased traffic from the search engines as they will rank for the sites that they cover.

      I’m stil chewing over it, ethics wise and from an SEO perspective. I think that as long as they have a link back to the original owner, there’s nothing ethically wrong in piggybacking on the original site (even if Google decides that the news site has more credibility than the actual site itself).

      Obviously, it makes business sense. In overall user experience, it can’t really hurt. If the user decides they want to see the original site, they can always enter it into the browser bar.

  • http://moneysurf.angelfire.com Money surf

    Quality outgoing liks carries the same value as having content on your site as they are always leading your site visitors to some useful sites.

  • http://www.foursquareinnovations.co.uk/webdesign.html Leeds web designer

    I guess at the end of the day there will ony ever be a very small percentage of websites big enough that they can afford to be so self-referential as to hermitically seal off their websites in this way. It is though, these sites that everyone naturally aspires to get a link from as they are often the ones that pass down the PR and link juice from the very top of the food chain.

  • http://www.stainedglasspanelsblog.com Guest

    The purpose of putting up a website is to get traffic, make sales or provide information.

    If we follow Google’s terms of use, understanding their motivation for these terms, then surely we will rank well regardless of internal or external linking strategies.

    Focus on the USER EXPERIENCE! If designing a web page comes down to trapping users on our site with internal linking, our site isn’t going to last very long now is it?

    We need to construct sites with usablility and value.  If we provide quality content, well structured pages – give the customer what they want! – then we are going to achieve our goals naturally and Google will support that by ranking the site higher and sending traffic.

    All this ‘strategic’ SEO and linking strategies is just confusing a lot of people and results in low quality, user UN-friendly sites.


  • http://www.asiaeast.org/ Daniel White

    I fear the "information super-highway" suffers from a bad case of "trickle down economics."    There’s the rich class of web space owners, the middle class and then the downright poor.  You all know who I’m talking about.  The rich class gets all the hits and slowly, hits tricke down to the middle class, which appear lower in the search engines.  Nobody likes a poorly designed web site.  Maybe we can start a charity where you donate hits to them!  Baahahhahah!!!

    Seriously, I run a small web page where writers contribute under a blog format (first in-last out.)  I hardly link to any other web pages at all, unless a writer contributes an article, in which case he/she gets a link to his/her own site.  Going through a web site is like following a maze.  You give people obvious choices:  turn left or turn right.  These equate to "stay on this site" and "go to another site."  Keep the choices simple.  Never provide more than two links back to back at a time.  That way, the decision making process is mindless and the reader can focus on the content.

    If some people want to keep readers on their site all day long, go for it!

     Daniel White, editor, Asia East:  www.asiaeast.org



  • Michael

    You raise interesting points on the etiquette and power of links. In the case of NYTimes self-linking is growing but I would argue that it is because they are building out more content (yes, the topic pages and elsewhere). Seriously, if I have a web site and I write about something, and it so happens I’ve a seperate page related to that content (or something just as relevent), then YES I will link to it. Why wouldn’t I? The problem arises when the linked page is irrelevant. I would argue that this is not the case here. Secondly, the NYT is linking externally… they is the growing integration of Blogrunner, outbound links in blogs, and a growing external links in articles. I guess I just don’t see the self-linking conspiracy that yourself and Mr. O’Reilly describe – but its something I will look out for.

  • Guest

    First, I dont think the author is trying to say that sites should cut down on the links they have to their own content. That is just silly, how would people find it? The “issue’ is that originally sites specialized and now they try to do it all, often with a heavy blow to quality. Some people find having to go through 5 pages for a little article to be a real pain but from an advertising revenue stand point it is almost common sense. The point is the web was created to help consumers and now because of mass employed marketing concepts it actually hinders.

    The issue here is that the fundamental nature of the web is that it is built on a simple premise. The sharing of information across the world. The actual “web” is the co-operative global effort to share. Of course with something that so many people want so badly the potential to make money is limitless. The only requirement is that you exploit every bit of human nature we have been able to hash out of control groups and psychological study.

  • http://www.toolboxhero.com/blog Paul

    I like to keep my visitors as long as possible so I have been linking back to my own sites, my own online stores, and my own affiliate links for quite some time. 

    Why give my visitors to someone else….especially Adsense?

  • http://www.paraibainternational.com tanzanite

    The issue here is part and parcel Google’s. The reason why websites stopped linking out to others who obviously presented better material and were better equipped to handle the material, is because of Google’s stance (and subsequent response by owners) over links.

    If a website owners wants to link out, especially from the homepage, all of a sudden there are now bigger risks than ever. Of course there are aspects of visitor retention, etc, that make it obvious why one would not link incessently.

  • http://greenlighting.wordpress.com Green Lighting BLog


  • http://www.jumbocdinvestments.com CD Rates

    All internal links may work for a site such as the NY Times, but it won’t work for most sites.  Most sites count on external links from other sources.  To Give Link Love is to Get Link Love.

  • http://blog.igate.ro Daniel

    Great thanks!

  • http://www.lapigems.com/tanzanite.asp Tanzanite

    The issue of links as a whole is inherently explosive and will one day come to a head. They have become a financial tool in themselves, mainly because of the Google-led drive to make them inherent to good rankings. They have in effect, lost the very purpose they once had – namely to provide interesting content and pass users on to more relevant content (in the socialist fashion you noted).

  • http://www.portalmaonaroda.com.br Cliente E Fornecedores E-marketplace

    Besides that if you link a site with bad SEO pratices, Google will punish your page. I think people are getting afraid to link other sites… I know lots of intersting sites, but I

  • http://www.myhinode.com Luciano

    Thanks for the info. Nice to know how things work…

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