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.

Update:

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.

About the author

Mathew 2414 posts

I'm a Toronto-based former senior writer with Gigaom and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

54 Responses to “Is the link economy really broken?”
  1. Is the link economy really broken? (Mathew/mathewingram.com/work) http://is.gd/3sMJ

  2. I am working on a video about this topic. It's actually much, much bigger than my tweet. Not everyone at CNET doesn't link out – Rafe for example regularly links out.

  3. The process of developing a content site for an audience that is just discovering blogs, etc. has been very interesting. I've observed a much more genuine commitment to community from writers in our space (personal development, conscious consumption, holistic living), in which the simple act of linking to a great post by a largely unknown writer can have great knock-on effects.

    My sense is that the tech blogging space is so saturated, with a few large sites and thousands upon thousands of smaller sites trying to get the same, relatively small, number of readers, that a reluctance to share the link love is inevitable. That said, I think this behaviour will almost certainly be counter-prodctive; ultimately it's far more productive to your readers and your publication simply to link to the best resources

    • I agree, Daniel. Internal linking seems like a good strategy in the short term, but I think it has the opposite result over the longer term.

  4. internal linking is fine – but external linking is also important – it's clear that certain blogs have forgotten what made them large to begin with – it was those same links.

    of course none of this is as bad as one large blog which just scrapes many stories, links to them and slaps a title on them and puts them out. they link which is good, but the scraping is a joke.

  5. My pet peeve: Twitter is a (micro)blogging service right? Well, it turns out all of the links that you use to share information on Twitter are tagged rel=nofollow by Twitter. Well that means that my vote in the link economy just got stripped by Twitter. And instead only links to *other* Twitter accounts are followed.

    We need to rise up as users of Twitter and demand that our voices be heard, our links be followed. Disenfranchised twitter users, rise up! stand up! you have nothing to lose but your voice!

    • Agree. This is an area where Google's defense of the algorithm due to SEO abuses distorts things in a major way. Solution? Not sure.

    • That's a good point, Elliott — Twitter could be a pretty powerful part of the link economy.

  6. I'm going to take the other side of this debate. :) 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.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. I know that you always link to the source of the story that you're writing a post about, which is important. That's a good point about the permanence of external links though — I've found that even with AP links hosted at Google; they disappear after awhile, which is a pain.

      Obviously, the right answer is a balance between internal and external. If I'm looking for information, I want as many of the latter as possible. If there's too many internal and not enough external, then I feel like the author is telling me that only their opinion matters.

  7. […] think Mathew Ingram nails it when he says: When I come across a site — whether it’s Ars Technica, or CNET, or the New […]

  8. How can we fix this? Google needs to find ways to reward good linking practices for pages that surface other good relevant links. I think until that happens it's unreasonable to expect sites to change much.

  9. On the flip side, maybe links are just a way of patting other bloggers on the back in the hope that they'll give you a big pat back. Blogging seems to have arisen by circles of friends telling each other how important they are. It's not called “link love” for nothing.

    • That's one aspect of it, Carl — and certainly more so with personal blogs. But when I write a post, I'm trying to tell people about something — with my opinion, obviously, but also with lots of links where they can find other sources in order to arrive at their own opinion. That's what I think online media is for.

  10. Does anyone out there know of a Firefox plug-in which changes the style of internal links back to the same domain? For example so they show with a gray background, or crossed-out.

    This might make a good starter project for someone who wants to write a plug-in

    Like the author I get annoyed when I want more info and I click links that just feed back to the same site, rather than a more original source, and it would be nice if I could instantly know which to avoid.

    • That's a great idea, Pete. As it is, I wind up hovering my mouse over the link before I follow it.

    • A simple place to start to correct this would be to define links by their nature right from the get go. I think a great deal more credibility could be attained if you just label links as internal or external. The better your reputation, the more your internal links are clicked and visa versa.

  11. ah, this “strategy” of internal linking has grown in part from the rise of business blogs. Yes, there's a propensity to do this kind of linking on newspaper blogs, for what I think are obvious reasons. However, when advising a business on how to blog (something I've had a lot of experience doing in the past year or so) there's a lot of resistance to linking to “competitors,” and a desire to keep eyeballs on one's own blog, which may or may not be a page within a business's website. As a consultant, I can present all sorts of information about how linking out to others helps to stimulate traffic and adds value to your reader's experience, but the desire to be *the* expert and *only* source is far stronger.

    For a publication like CNet though, there may be another reason for linking internally that has nothing to do with maintaining their authority. As Keith Fox, president of Business Week, revealed when he discussed their new social network, linking internally has a lot to do with keeping people on a site to prove engagement and to sell more ads (see NYT article on Business Exchange) If they can keep you clicking around their content, there's a better than even chance that you'll click out on an ad at some point (probably out of frustration.)

    Ultimately, IMO, it's about translating that “authority” they assume they have (like BusinessWeek) into money. Monetization, more than influence (which is what one gets from links), remains the bugaboo for most online pubs.

    • Engagement issues are valid. Those metrics are what is used to sell, and that is what is the priority in this commercial model.

      Unfortunately, what is being left out of that equation in a long term investment in creating a usable, authoritative site that will provide a good user experience for visitors.

      We all need to make money, but there seems to be an over-investment in firt time visits and overall views instead of long term growth and building a better product.

  12. I agree – ignorance is definitely not a valid excuse anymore – link juice is a mainstream mainstream concept now. Links equates higher search rank which leads to more traffic and more ad revenue.

    I'm curious if you (or anyone else reading this) would be interested in a feed that shows you all the sites where your work is re-used without links.

    If so, shoot me a note or respond in the comments.

  13. Informative post mathew.These days i am busy making unique content sites to flip them and make money.

  14. But it's the price you pay for using terms like “Link economy” and giving link's value, it's only natural that people will want to retain as much of that value for themselves. Maybe they don't feel empowered enough to be generous with a commodity they aren't so sure is theirs to give away.

  15. 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.

    Dan Farber, CNET

  16. […] Is the link economy really broken?"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." […]

  17. Does anyone else find it funny that the people who professed the virtues of the long tail, the knowledge of crowds and how the blogosphere was revolutionary exactly because of it's “conversational” approach vs. the one sided broadcast media's style are the first to revert to all the bad habits of traditional media?

    Maybe they never believed in all that community stuff in the first place.

    If you are a real blog you allow comments, and you link to other blogs you like, blogs you dislike, blogs you agree with and blogs you disagree with not to mention MSM sites.

    If you are a “media company” you link to yourself and do everything you can to avoid sending eyeballs to your competitors.

    There is nothing wrong with internal linking. You just aren't a blogger if you aren't linking out.

  18. Aaron Wall of SEO Book called this phenomenon Black Hole SEO and argued that it was a deliberate attempt to horde Page Rank. As an SEO consultant, it is easy to understand his point (even if I disagree about the benefits), but the issue goes beyond Google rankings.

    I think your analysis is spot on, the policy of not promoting external sites is based on a very possessive, short sighted approach to engaging readers.

  19. Good point, but why the cheap shot about mainstream media? The NYT is not a proxy for all mainstream media (which employs both of us, so take it for what it's worth …) and its blogs seem pretty generous with links.

    Seems like the ones playing the link-to-myself game most aggressively are new media blogazines. (Although as they get acquired and syndicate, I guess they're now MSM, too).

    The MSM is mostly still trying to build its new media credentials and links out all the time. Most major media sites are a generation behind the three sites you mention – as they transition to the Web and publish more of their content with systems enabling interactivity, they're more often than not enthusiastic and generous with links. Links aren't their lifeblood (yet?) so they're not as stingy with them as commercial blogs.

    It's funny, as the MSM gets more sophisticated about SEO, it begins to emulate tricks used by the most successful blogs, such as more inward links.

    I think you're right – the generous spirit has been fading for some time, the top sites are cutthroat, especially with ad spending down – but if you explore approaches used by more of the MSM you may find that it's not a monolithic, anti-Web entity from which these greedy tricks are emanating. Give it a few years to catch up.

  20. I thoroughly agree. A good blog post can be a launch pad to explore the cyber space around the concept discussed in the post. .. and as you say, the mainstream traditional media don't provide that. I'm now using the Zemanta WordPress plugin, which suggests links that could be added. I find that excellent and would thoroughly recommend that to anyone.

  21. […] because people are linking more and more to stuff within their own sites. Such was the case with a post yesterday by Mathew Ingram; a fellow blogger, journalist and (hopefully) a friend, where he suggest that when this happens […]

  22. […] was a complete chimera – well, this is it. If you’ve ever read Animal Farm, this – along with Matthew Ingram’s earlier post – is the point where you notice the New Media is wearing decidedly Old Media […]

  23. “And he refers to some comments made by CNET editor Dan Farber in a Talkback response to my post, but for the life of me I couldn’t find that anywhere on CNET’s site (in this case an internal link would have helped).”

    actually matthew, farber's reply is here on your talkback board, responding to your earlier piece :)

  24. It is true that CNET is not the only one. The NYTimes constantly puts URLs in posts without any links which seems silly. Many sites link back to search results containing the anchor text in question which is simply more annoying as it just brings up a search results page with other stories from the same source containing that word. There are some options out there for blog platforms to make finding credible links about the same topic easy to place in your writing – but not everyone uses them. Going to Google Blog search can be helpful, but you cannot be sure as some have mentioned before, that the links will stay active in the future.

  25. […] long after, Matthew Ingram piled on with a post dinging us for attempting “to prove how authoritative” we are “by making it look […]

  26. Thanks for the comment, Dan — I must have missed it somehow.

  27. Oops — must have missed that somehow. I think Charles Cooper threw me off by calling it a “talkback.” Thanks for letting me know.

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  34. […] כלכלת הקישורים שבורה. היא שבורה פעמיים. ראשית משום שבמרבית המקרים תכנים משלבים קישורים פנימיים ולא חיצוניים (כלומר, אתר תוכן מפנה בעיקר לעצמו ולא לאתרים חיצוניים), על אף שאינטראקציה דו-כיוונית כזו טובה ל-SEO, טובה לגולשים ובעצם לכולם. הסיבה לכך אינה בדלנות או חשש לאבד גולשים אלא ברוב המקרים בשל חוסר זמן של העורכים ואי הכרה של קישורים חיצוניים רלוונטיים. […]

  35. […] was the case with a post yesterday by Mathew Ingram; a fellow blogger, journalist and (hopefully) a friend, where he suggest that when this happens […]

  36. Twitter Comment


    Interesting article “broken link economy” [link to post] : media by linking only to themselves, assuming their last findings ok, miss it

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

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  38. […] done a semi-crappy job of noting things happening elsewhere in the web. But the link economy is strong and I should be adding to […]

  39. of course it is a little broken

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