The fundamental art of linking is something online media could learn from the blogosphere….

Without linking there wouldn’t be an internet.

It’s the web of links that leads a user from website-to-website that essentially creates the thing we know as the world wide web. Many commercial online media publishers hate linking from their websites to the “outside”, especially when there’s a competitor involved.

It’s a protective, “walled garden” mentality, prevalent in many traditional media businesses, which doesn’t translate particularly well on the wild world wide web. It’s pretty silly, because linking is the whole point of the web.

This where the blogosphere could teach online publishers a thing or two. Bloggers know how to link and they do it obsessively. As a result, it’s no surprise that the blogosphere has grown so big, and so quickly. Part of the appeal of blogging is that it has made publishing cheaper and easier. People have found blogging a good outlet for their ideas and writings.

But I’d argue a key success for the rapid growth of the blogosphere is a core culture of linking to other bloggers and websites. Linking out to the worldwide web is how some bloggers have generated huge traffic and kudos for themselves. A more a blog is linked to, the more its rank in Google’s search results improve.

At the heart of this linking culture is reciprocity: I link to you, you link back to me. An average blog post is full of links to other blogs and sites. When a blogger adds a comment on another’s blog, he or she is able to link back to their own blog site. Most blogs also have some variation of what is known as a “blogroll”. A blogroll is a list of links to a blogger’s favourite site or other blogs. Adding a blogger to my blogroll, may encourage reciprocal links.

Technorati, a US-based blog search engine which is a good indication of world-wide blog activity, says the blogosphere is doubling in size approximately every 230 days. At the end of 2006 its latest estimate was that the blogs it tracks numbered 57-million worldwide. That’s a lot of blogs, and a lot of links.

This linking fever is also spurred on by a magnificent feature found in blogging software, such as WordPress, called a “trackback”. A trackback tells a blogger if and who is giving their post or blog a bit of linklove (that is who is linking to it). It usually compels you to check out what that blogger may be writing about, why he or she is shagging your link, and perhaps compel you to reciprocate the link. Well, if you play the game.

Even I find myself becoming obsessive-compulsive over who is linking to me and where my trackbacks are coming from – and I’m probably going to have to see someone about it soon.

But herein lies the key. It’s a way of doing things that most big, commercial online publisher’s don’t have a clue about. Online publishers tend to be protective about linking out to their competitors or the rest of the world, but they are increasingly learning that they should participate in the linkfest by giving some linklove back to bloggers, and even to — ohmygod, ohmygod! — their competitors.

Some savvy online publishers, like the Washingtonpost.com, have begun to play the blogger’s game. The online news site has recognised how important it is to give a bit of linklove back to the bloggers that in turn link to it. It’s a recognition that bloggers linking to media websites by highlighting or commenting on their stories can add up to substantial traffic.

It’s not rocket science, it’s the way the internet is supposed to work.

18 Responses to “Linklove: what big media can learn from bloggers”
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  8. Hi Matt,

    Sullivan, at http://searchengineland.com/070315-221747.php contends that: “People still continue to mistakenly think that doing well at Google is about getting as many links as you can. It’s not. It’s about getting quality links from important sites and ideally, very descriptive links — links using the terms you want to rank for in the anchor text.” However, I would agree if you responded to Sullivan that ‘quality links from important sites’ are ultimately a matter of how well-linked those sites are.

    PageRank works because, to a first approximation, better nodes tend to be more densely connected. But, note the qualifier. That there is so much that is low quality but well-connected (consider any arbitrary YouTube orgy of drunken mindlessness) suggests that different users have different conceptions of what makes a link worthy. The PageRank results allow some large chunk of the internet to be mapped, or represented, but it does so only in terms of a single parameter – linkiness. The number of links each node has is one very useful feature of a network but it does not exhaust what we might find interesting about it, nor what could be used to map and organise it.

    If the goal is to enhance blogo-readership, perhaps maximum linkiness is wise. But if the goal is to augment the function of the network, enhance its ‘intelligence’, then “…both brains and cities do more than just connect, because intelligence requires both connectedness and organization.” (Steven Johnson, Emergence).

    I imagine a more sophisticated, selective, PageRank2. It is built with me in mind, adapts to my interests, learns what I count as high and low quality. It notes who I trust, who they trust and what we all link to. It throws in some fuzzy randomness every now and then, just to mix things up and keep me on my toes. It is certified in meme epidemiology, able to avoid tracking and enhancing useless and boring forms of mob behavior. In sensing a wider array of the network’s properties, PageRank2 more intimately and accurately models the structure and function of the noosphere (and the tiny blogosphere it contains).

    And, if it could also make good vegan chocolate ice-cream…

    Luke

  9. aaah my genius brother who is studying at Rutgers in NJ speaks… Luke — is this the first time u’ve comment on this here blog?

    RE: yr point. The essence of Google’s pageRank algorithm which allows it to show the most relevant and authoritative websites when searching relies on linking. It uses other metrics such as relevance of keyword and domain as well as age of the domain, but linking is at the essence of how Google ranks search results. The more links a site gets and the higher the quality of that link (quality of a link is determined by the ranking of the site that links to you) determines the site’s ranking on Google’s search results. It’s a way of sorting out the rubbish from the good sites…. and it seems to work?

  10. Your suggestion that ‘linking is the whole point of the web’ reminded me of Stuart Kauffman’s experiments with networks of linked light bulbs in which bulbs follow simple rules of turning each other on and off. Some networks had more ‘dense’ topologies than others, i.e. there were more connections, on average, between the light bulbs. He found that a certain, midrange density – around two connections per bulb – generated persistent organized, complex structures. Too dense a network and a fixed and terminal pattern quickly formed; too sparse and the patterns cycled through endless, uninteresting variations.

    So, tendentiously, perhaps mere connectivity is not the Platonic ‘form of the good’ for the interweb. Perhaps the socio-cultural, geo-political, and cognitive characteristics of the users, as well as the features of the underlying technology make some densities of network more efficient, useful and interesting than others.

    If we are selling stuff or attracting readership, maximizing our connectivity may well be the best strategy, but in a world in which everyone follows this dictum, directed advertising may be more powerful. We also don’t want arbitrarily high degrees of connectivity if that encourages links to those who would spam or otherwise exploit us. More generally though, selective linking can be a source of collective organization – an unconscious group editing on a massive scale; a way of winnowing the vast amounts of internet chaff (57 million blogs!) from the good, high-quality stuff that we really want. Too much linkiness would make this emergent, self-organizing feature of the network impossible.

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