A broken link economy? Then fix it

No, it's not a Saturday bitchmeme, but we've been called out for not taking part in the link community. Au contraire.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

Just as many of you settled into your seats to watch Thursday evening's debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Allen Stern of CenterNetworks was attracting his own crowd on Twitter after raising a question that strikes at heart of the blogosphere.


"It's clear the link economy is broken," he wrote, pointing to a write-up CNET News published on Friendster's support for Facebook applications. The piece contained nine links, six of which pointed to previous CNET posts.

Not long after, Matthew Ingram piled on with a post dinging us for attempting "to prove how authoritative" we are "by making it look as though the only stories worth linking to are their own.

"To say that their internal links are better than anything else they could possibly link to is just ridiculous. It's obvious that they either didn't even bother to look for other information to link to, or there's an internal policy to promote their own material."

Actually, not so obvious.

In a response posted in the talkback area on Ingram's page, CNET's Dan Farber set the record straight:

At CNET we link to our stories and to others. Generally if it is a standard news item that everyone has, we link to our version. If someone has the seed of a story or a take that helps to carry a story forward or deeper, we link to whatever. A challenge for all of us is finding and linking to content that we should point our readers at...often we don't have the time to go figure who has the best take or where a story came from before it got refactored by the blogosphere...so we continue to improve on it every day.

Still, link etiquette is basic to the integrity of the ongoing conversation in the blogosphere. One can honestly ask why not feature more outside sources? But let's consider the question from another perspective. Under deadline, we make informed choices based on our best judgment at the time. In this instance, my colleague, Caroline McCarthy, who authored the post, trusted her previous reporting and went with what she knew to be accurate.

Would she have improved her story by including even more outside links? Perhaps. Then again, we don't operate in a laboratory environment. It's a 24-7 competition where we all work under often severe time constraints. One approach is not necessarily better, but each tries to engage the community in the best way it knows how.

A nuanced commentary on all this comes courtesy of TechDirt's Mike Masnick. In his response to Ingram's post, Masnick explained his own site's link policy in a broader context:

Almost every one of my posts has external links, but I also do plenty of internal linking. But there's an important reason for my internal links: I know the internal links will survive. External links I can't guarantee. And I get tons of complaints from people who came on an old story where the link no longer works. So I can trust my old links because I know they'll be there. But I have no problem linking out when it's appropriate. And, in fact, the main point of the story is almost always a link out (and, of course, if I find a story from someone else, I always try to give credit). But internal links aren't always done for nefarious purposes...

Amen to all that. Earlier today, I spoke with Stern to get a better handle on his complaint. What I heard was less a general critique of CNET than a larger worry about the direction of the link economy. He is particularly troubled that as blog sites grow larger, they are pulling back from linking to outsiders.

"To me, when you're linking to other sources or viewpoints, I think that's where linking really matters. And you're not seeing it that much," he said. "From my perspective, it's very disappointing...People need to see diversity of opinions on a topic."

No disagreement here. But Stern suspects that larger blogs (or Web sites) believe that linking out would make them appear less credible and are reining in the practice.

"Let's get down to the raw facts. It's about search engine optimization," he said. "They want to keep you within their network as long as possible. A lot of that works into it."

No doubt, a lot of sites--ours included--devote a lot of attention to search engine optimization. But Stern is right to wonder whether that ambition to improve SEO scores may get extended in ways that hurt the wider blog ecosystem. Can you imagine what would ensue if the blogosphere descended into a beggar-thy-neighbor free-for-all? What's more, it would take place at the worst juncture, considering the existing financial strains caused by the credit crisis.

As the economy skids into a (add your preferred noun here), there's mounting worry about Silicon Valley's ability to weather the credit crunch. If past is prologue, I suppose that most of the biggest companies will find a way to slog through. As always, the folks on the bottom of the food chain have the most to worry about--especially the legions of bloggers who make a full-time or part-time living through their writing.

Later, I put the same question to Om Malik, the impresario behind GigaOm. He said there are no rules at his shop limiting outside links.

"I don't even think about it like that. Every time we see something good, we link to it. If someone has the better scoop or better story, we constantly link to that," Malik

A meritocracy of links. However imperfect, it's a recipe that's worked until now. It's about giving sunlight to the best content.