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. Ryan Tate

    You imply, but don’t provide actual evidence, that Matthew is self-linking for selfish reasons. You all but call his links insincere.

    Do you have anything but your suspicions to support this?

    In my ~4.5 years of daily professional blogging, I’ve used perhaps too many links. I tend to link like a madman. Maybe it’s because I read too much Suck, or too much Dave Winer, or just am too in love with the idea of hypertext.

    I also used a hell of a lot of self links. And I’d get people accusing me, not unlike you’ve done here with Matthew, of self promotion, or being given sinister orders by my employer.

    But that was never my motivation. I simply wanted to provide as much context as possible and as much backstory for the rare reader who might be as obsessive on the topic as I was. Often, this meant outlinking. But it often also tended to mean linking to myself, for the very simple reason that when you write once about a topic, you are likely to write about it again. And when you write about it again, and you are trying to give context, your prior post is one of the most obvious things to link to. Further, the topics you are interested in, as an obsessive blogger, are all too often of interests to few other writers. Also, you are more familiar with your own work – you’re going to forget relevant posts from other writers more than you forget relevant posts you yourself have written.

    I wish you hadn’t been so quick to judge. I can’t claim to know Matthew’s motives personally, but based on my own actual experience doing a job like his, my instincts say you;ve got him wrong.

    And, setting aside people’s reputations, the fact of the matter is that the real reasons for self linking are more interesting than the ones you’ve speculated on.

  2. Nick Post author

    Are you high?

    Of course a blogger will link to past posts now and then when building on past writing. Nothing wrong with that. But if you look not only at this particular post but at GigaOM posts in general, or at New York Times online articles in general (Times Topics, anyone?), or pretty much any journalism site in general, you find rampant self-linking, which is done of course to “juice” page views and to boost SERP visibility. As I said, this is entirely to be expected, and at this point so much the norm that even web romantics like myself accept it (it seems quaint that it used to be considered lame), but self-linking by high-traffic commercial sites has most definitely played a role in debasing the value of links. Every lazy, self-serving self-link is a meaningful, thoughtful link that didn’t happen.

    I mean, eight self-links in a single brief post? Please.

    This is news to you?

    As for Mathew’s personal motivations (or your own), I have no reason to believe that they’re anything but noble, despite all those dead angels. A sincere person can formulate an insincere link.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Links are more like the oxygen for those trying to climb Power Law Mountain, which is fearsomely steep. And so it’s disadvantageous for other expeditions to have a lot of them while one’s own does not. But you don’t just hand it out to the lower lifeforms around.

    Alternately, this is another instance of framing business issues as civil-liberties issues.

  4. Ryan Tate

    I’m not sure how you’re calling Matthew lazy and greedy at the same time, or why eight links is so shocking, but I appreciate you responding, Nick, and for clarifying you earlier attack on Matthew’s (important) work. Have a nice night.

  5. Nick Post author

    You’re welcome, Ryan.

    One thing I think we sometimes overlook when it comes to the debasement of links is that the sins of omission are worse than the sins of commission because while search and filtering software can be programmed to spot and discount lazy and/or greedy links, the good link that goes unwritten is information forever lost.

    I should write about that sometime.

  6. Nicholas Lovell

    Interesting. Ryan writes an interesting thoughtful response that suggests he doesn’t agree with you.

    Your response? An ad hominem deflecting attack “are you high?”.

    It makes it hard for me to respect your other opinions.

  7. Mathew Ingram

    Well, Nick — I guess I should be glad that you included a single link in your post instead of none at all. I’m not sure I really understand your argument though — so we should just give up on linking because there are spammy SEO-driven links out there? That seems a bit fatalistic at best.

    As for “nepotistic linking,” whatever that is, I don’t know about the NYT or anyone else, but I don’t include links to GOM posts for SEO purposes. I include them because they make a point that I don’t have time to make (or don’t want to repeat myself by making) for a topic that I have written about many times before — which, as you so eloquently noted, I have done in this case.

    I must admit I was hoping for a bit more of a substantive response from you on this subject, but hope springs eternal :-)

  8. Caleb Garling

    Seems like the more constructive debate — rather than a seemingly pointless attack on Ingram — is whether “scoops” have any value at all anymore, thus requiring a link. Once information becomes a commodity — like the aforementioned patent case where all the information in the story was available publicly — does it matter *to the reader* who broke it? It does for journalists and their view of professionalism — and we always try to credit when its due — but I don’t think a reader ever cares. They just want the story and “as first reported by _____” is extraneous information.

  9. Rob Pegoraro

    The logic of this post fails me as well. Patting yourself on the back with a self-link is a worse journalistic crime than letting readers think you got the story first by not linking to the earlier report? One risks looking egotistical, the other implies an untruth.

    Meanwhile, linking to sources and supplemental material remains Part Of The Damn Job. Just because some other outlets suck at it doesn’t let me off the hook. And the author seems to agree with that when he mourns “the good link that goes unwritten.” (He may want to try a new HTML editor; the ones I use don’t impose a per-post quota on links.)

    Sure, I link to my past work on the subject when I think it relevant–far less often than I link to other sites–and I don’t think my editors have minded. As Ryan Tate noted, it’s an effective way to provide context and answer readers’ questions in advance. Referring to your prior coverage can also demonstrate your experience with the topic. Both motives seem more self-defense than self-serving when regular readers are outnumbered by those who arrive via searches and, yes, links.

    (Disclosure: The link to my own blog in this comment is largely self-serving.)

  10. Mathew Ingram

    That’s a fair point, Caleb — and it probably doesn’t matter to most readers at all. But it could to others, especially if they are trying to confirm that something is true or not, or follow a chain of evidence. In any case, I think it is one of those things that is good and ethical practice, even if the external benefits are not obvious :-)

  11. Nick Post author

    so we should just give up on linking because there are spammy SEO-driven links out there?

    No, but if we’re going to attack others for what we see as inappropriate linking, then we might want to think a little more deeply about what we mean when we call links “the currency of the web” and how our own habits and practices of linking may have played a role in the devaluing of that currency. As I said, in the context of that bigger and more important story — a story about the history of the web as both a popular and a commercial medium — the issue of scoop-links is pretty trivial. And if you write for a popular site and more than 40% of the links you include in your pieces are self-links, you may want to pause and interrogate your own habits and their implications when positioning yourself as a defender of the sanctity of the hyperlink.

  12. Nick Post author

    Patting yourself on the back with a self-link is a worse journalistic crime than letting readers think you got the story first by not linking to the earlier report?

    The question of journalistic “crimes” in the deployment of links is a different question from the more general question of the use and value of hyperlinks. My comments were about the latter question, a point I thought I had made clear (but apparently did not). In that broader context, I would indeed argue that self-linking is the more pernicious practice.

  13. Mathew Ingram

    I have thought about the way I link, thanks in no small part to critics like yourself — as I said, the links to my past posts (and those of others at GigaOM) is done to support an argument or connect it to a line of thought and analysis that we have written about in the past, the same way researchers cite academic papers they have written. I stand by that approach, and in my defence I also think that a 40-percent ratio is a lot better than many other blogs and even mainstream sources like the NYT have when it comes to self-linking. Have you done any other research, or did you just want to single me out for condemnation?

  14. Nick Post author

    It makes it hard for me to respect your other opinions.

    See how easy it is to lapse into ad hominem judgments?

    I think that, after my admittedly snide opening, I did manage to squeeze a little substance into my comment.

  15. Nick Post author

    I also think that a 40-percent ratio is a lot better than many other blogs and even mainstream sources

    You may well be less bad than the worst. In any case, I’m happy to see that you do think the practice of self-linking is problematical.

  16. Kelly Roberts

    It’s good to know so many readers don’t care whether “something is true or not” and can’t really be bothered to “follow a chain of evidence.”

    Go America!

  17. Nick Post author

    Good piece. There is a cost to this inside-the-blabway obsession about who published the news first and who gets the credit. Sometimes, it really is important. Usually, it’s not.

  18. Seth Finkelstein

    Summarizing the above – Mathew to Nick, querying why he (Nick) is using M’s post to talk about the general distribution of attention (links), when M is concerned in the post with credit from other BigHeads and higher-level BiggerHeads.

    And when viewed that way, the issue should be obvious. That is, M’s post is not wrong _per se_ in its own terms as part of the competition and rules on a call regarding a specific play within the game – but it’s a pretty loaded game itself, and it’s very reasonable for Nick to point that out.

  19. Clyde Smith

    This is kind of a nonsense attack. The only real problem with self-linking is when people talk about another website but don’t actually link to the site. Instead they link to their coverage of the site. That’s something you see a lot in tech blogging and I don’t see anyone discussing that.

    Every link I checked in his blog post linked to the thing he was describing. That’s appropriate.

    I remember when you used to have something valuable to say. Try doing that again.

  20. John C Abell

    Late to this but, goodness. Talk about a solution in search of a problem.

    Links serve two vital purposes: They a) provide background that would complicate the narrative, and b) give credit where credit is due. Nothing about journalistic integrity requires outside links, unless another party was responsible for thinking up the point you are making.

    Having said that, I have mentioned (to myself) that Matthew’s posts tend to have lots and lots of links, which may actually defeat the purpose of “a”. Not everything needs a footnote. But that is a style quibble which hardly rises to the level of criticism in this post, and the precise reason I have kept that thought to myself until now.

  21. Nick Post author

    Again (broken record), you’re looking at this through a journalistic lens; I’m looking at the question through the lens of the structure of information online – the lens that Mathew looks through when he terms links “the currency of the collaborative web” and “one of the crucial underpinnings of the internet and the web.” When you say “links serve two vital purposes,” you’re interpreting links purely as journalistic tools. When we talk about the structure of the web, and certainly the “collaborative web,” we have to think much more broadly about the “vital purposes” of hyperlinks. Surely they’re not limited to the two you specify.

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