A Tear In The Link Economy Fabric
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.
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."
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.