Mathew Ingram, GigaOM’s media blogger, gave one of his semiyearly lectures on the sanctity of the hyperlink yesterday. Linking is “a core value of the web.” Links are “the currency of the collaborative web.” Links are “one of the crucial underpinnings of the internet and the web.” Links are “the lifeblood of the internet.” Etc.
Ingram certainly crams a lot of links into his post. The net’s lifeblood squirts out all over the place. But I did a little forensic examination of his links, and I discovered that fully 42% of them point to other GigaOM articles. That’s right: Nearly half of all the links in Ingram’s story about the sanctity of links are self-links! If links are the currency of the web, Ingram should be jailed for nepotism.
What spurred Ingram’s post is his annoyance at media outlets that, in his estimation, fail to provide a link to the original source of a story. He sees internet hyperlinking as an elaborate intrajournalistic tribute system, a mechanism through which pixel-stained wretches credit and track scoops. Being meticulous in issuing scoop-links is “a principle that distinguishes ethical outlets from unethical ones.” He complains, for instance, that after GigaOM recently “broke a story” on a patent fight, “several outlets covered the same news without providing a link to our post on it.” The nerve!
Now, I’m sure that the painstaking monitoring of scoop-links is a very, very important activity in some obscure corner of the universe, but for most people the real value of links, as a form of currency, lies in the way they can encapsulate a personal assessment of the worth of a piece of content on the net — a webpage, or a blog post, or a YouTube video, or whatever. A truly valuable link isn’t some routine, automatic token of credit; it represents a careful, conscious expression of personal judgment. In its original form, Google worked because links meant something. If you could trust the sincerity of links, you could count them up and have a reliable indicator of collective wisdom.
Those days are gone. Meaningful links are still out there, of course, but they’ve been overwhelmed by spam links, lazy links, automatic links, SEO links, promotional links, and, yes, self-links. The good links have been crowded out by all the links that exist for ulterior, usually self-serving purposes — that have nothing to do with one human being making a careful assessment of the value of the work of another human being. The currency has been debased. That’s why Google now has to evaluate something like 200 different signals to rank search results. Links are far less reliable than they used to be.
It’s silly to get riled up about a commercial publication linking to its own content. That’s just business. It was always going to happen, and it happened. Not long ago self-linking was controversial; now it’s pretty much invisible. But to climb up on a high horse and criticize others for failing to issue scoop-links while you yourself are engaging in rampant self-linking is a bit rich. Self-linking has undermined the currency of the web to a far greater extent than has the occasional omission, accidental or deliberate, of a scoop-link.
Ingram suggests that outlets may avoid handing out scoop-links because “the financial model for digital media — that is, advertising — relies on page views, and one of the ways to juice those numbers is to pretend you broke a story. But regardless of whether this inflates reader numbers in the short term, it ultimately depreciates the value of the blog that does it, and that leads to a loss of trust.” He could, of course, have leveled pretty much the same charge against his own nepotistic linking. Every time you self-link to a GigaOM post, Mathew Ingram, an angel dies.