The nepotistic linker

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.

38 thoughts on “The nepotistic linker

  1. Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, John — I often wonder whether I am including too many, and perhaps it has become something of a mild obsession on my part (a paragraph just doesn’t seem right without a link to back up the point), but it is something I am working on :-) Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, Nick is very skilled at redefining the terms of his argument on the fly so as to escape from any rhetorical trap you might wish to set for him.

  2. Nick Post author

    Mathew, Would you like to point out specifically where I’ve redefined the terms of my argument? It’s difficult to respond to innuendo. Nick

  3. John C Abell

    Only if you say so. You’ve created a definition that I find not useful or informative. What’s wrong with 1/3 of the abundant links (100% more than that average newspaper site) going externally?

    Where’s the fire?

  4. John C Abell

    I’ll leave that to Matthew, but the use of the word “nepotism” is, what we would have called in the old days at Reuters, a pejorative — and thus banned. So the entire thesis is suspect because of the fabulously effective SEO of a charged word.

    I’ll say it as clearly as I can: There is nothing wrong with linking abundantly to stories from your own publisher, unless stories from another publisher are more deserving.

    Analyze that, and maybe there’d be something to parse.

  5. Nick Post author

    Unlike Reuters in the old days, I cultivate pejoratives.

    As to: “There is nothing wrong with linking abundantly to stories from your own publisher, unless stories from another publisher are more deserving.”

    I could write a treatise on this (I fear), but because I’m on deadline elsewhere, I’ll keep it quick. To self-quote from my post: “A truly valuable link isn’t some routine, automatic token of credit; it represents a careful, conscious expression of personal judgment … [it is] one human being making a careful assessment of the value of the work of another human being.” If links are indeed the currency of the web, then this needs to be true. The consequences of a link, in this context, go beyond the bounds of a particular post or article. Therefore, linking abundantly to stories by your own publisher does indeed have negative effects. It sends misleading signals. It debases the currency. I agree with you that this becomes a particular problem when “stories from another publisher are more deserving.” (I would define “publisher” to include anyone, by the way – individual or organization.) I would suggest that self-linking has become so common, so automatic, in commercial publishing that rarely does a writer (or the dude who sticks links into online pieces) take the time or make the effort to discover whether, in fact, other stories are more deserving. Here, self-linking resembles lazy linking. Classic example of lazy linking: a writer automatically links any term that might be hazy to a reader to the relevant Wikipedia page – without bothering to read the Wikipedia page or to consider whether there might be a more worthy target for the link. Again, upshot: debased currency.

    Now you might say: But links aren’t the currency of the web! To which I’d say: You’ve proved my point.

    Parse away.

  6. John C Abell

    I’m sorry, but spare us bumper stickers and references to Wikipedia.

    If you can show that MI didn’t link externally when he should have, fine. Otherwise, like you, I have better things to do.

  7. Mathew Ingram

    So wait — you can quote yourself in a comment, but I’m not allowed to link to my own posts?

  8. Kelly Roberts

    Jesus Christ. What’s so hard for you marketing types to understand about the concept of overusing links to the extent that they’re no longer “a careful, conscious expression of personal judgment”? Or did I just answer my own question?

    At least half of the 20 links (20 links!) in that 1000-word piece are totally unnecessary.

  9. Nick Post author

    I don’t see the problem.

    At last there’s something we agree on. I’m happy we can end on a note of concord.

  10. Peter

    I do not really have a problem with self-linking. As an academic, I appreciate the citation aspect of linking. I would like to see the chain of logic that led to the author’s current conclusion. If that logic can be found in prior posts, as often may be the case with a blog, then please share. However, if another site influenced your ideas on the topic, then the author should cite to those. This discussion seems like much ado about nothing. At the end of the day, if someone’s self-linking is arduous and their commentary does not coalesce with the links, then people will likely choose to go elsewhere for content.

  11. Jonathan Simpson

    Who is to decide whether they are necessary or not? If you don’t want to click on them, then just ignore them — I don’t see the problem.

    Google doesn’t ignore them.

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