It happened amid the stream of Twitter messages about the vice-presidential debates between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, so a lot of people probably missed it, but Allen Stern of Centernetworks said something that really caught my eye: “it’s clear the link economy is broken.” Why did he say that? The link in his message went to a post at CNET’s “The Social” blog by Caroline McCarthy, about how Friendster now supports Facebook apps — a post that contains nine links. Of those nine links, two-thirds are internal only; in other words, they link only to CNET articles. The other three link to the Friendster website, the Facebook website and the Bebo website, which means they add zero value (or almost zero) to the overall post.
This is an issue that comes up periodically (one of the last ones to bring it up was Tim O’Reilly, in a great post). It’s fueled by the desire on the part of sites like CNET to prove how authoritative they are by making it look as though the only stories worth linking to are their own. I have nothing against CNET as a news site, and I think Caroline does some fine blogging, but to say that their internal links are better than anything else they could possibly link to is just ridiculous. It seems 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. Both of those things are wrong.
When I come across a site — whether it’s Ars Technica, or CNET, or the New York Times — and most of the links are internal, I instinctively don’t trust what I’m reading. Maybe that’s just me, but I think excessive internal linking is almost worse than no links at all. At least having no links at all could be a result of plain old ignorance; linking only to yourself means you know full well that links are valuable, and you know how to do it, but you either can’t be bothered to look for other material or you want the Google juice all for yourself. It’s fundamentally anti-Web. We already have lots of places that don’t link — they’re called the mainstream media.
Charles Cooper of CNET has posted a response to Allen’s complaint (and to mine), and seems to agree that linking externally is good, but says that “under deadline, we make informed choices based on our best judgment at the time” and that Caroline “trusted her previous reporting and went with what she knew to be accurate.” CNET editor Dan Farber also responded in a comment here.