The myth of the deep link

Not all links are created equal.

Not all links generate traffic.

Some links are downright harmful.

Yet, to a large class of digerati, the link is a fetish.

Woe to he who questions the value of a link.

I’m sorry to state the truth, but just because you create a link doesn’t mean a single user will click on it.

Even Google doesn’t treat all links equally. Internal and external links appear to get weighted differently, and the better the Page Rank of a site, the more valuable are its external links.  For Google, too, the words associated with a link play a role in how its algorithm evaluates the link.

Not all links are created equal.

And some links can be downright harmful.

The first time my blog was hacked, some spammer filled it with redirects and then linked to it from a hundred other blogs. Google immediately punished my site by  lowering its Page Rank. HowardOwens.com went from the first search result for "Howard Owens" to a single interior story link on the fifth page of search results. I was dead to Google for about three days. (Thanks to Matt Cutts for resurrecting me.)

Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with those 100 unwanted links.

A link can also be harmful when it is associated with words that misrepresent the content of a site.  This can harm search results or leave people with a false impression of the site being linked to.

A link from a mega site like Fark might be fun, but it isn’t necessarily helpful to a local publisher.  Some publishers will complain about the non-monetizable traffic, but bandwidth sucking links isn’t the real harm. The real harm is for publishers who sell ads on a CPM basis. 

A local advertiser, on a CPM model, can see an entire month’s worth of bought-and-paid-for inventory served up to a non-local audience in a matter of hours based on a Fark link.  And the Publisher is left serving up less valuable remnant ads for the balance of the month, and the advertiser is left wondering why his ad stopped appearing on the site.

Modern ad serving software has methods to help account for such spikes in traffic, but such balancing isn’t perfect and some impressions are wasted.  Mainly, the example still demonstrates that not all links are created equal.

And depending on the context, a link might act as a substitute for actually visiting the site receiving the link.

If a headline and lead, for example, tells a user all he or she needs to know about a particular news story, why would that person click on that link? In that scenario, you can drew one of two conclusions: Either the story wasn’t sufficiently compelling that the non-visiting user probably wouldn’t have gone to your site to find such a story anyway, or the user will decide, "well, now I don’t need to visit that site because I already know all I want to know about the news."

One result is neutral, the other result is harmful.

None of this is to say I don’t believe in and support deep linking, or linking of any kind.

Back in 1996 or so when the first arguments over deep linking emerged, somebody on Steve Outing’s old Online-News e-mail discussion list pointed out the value of linking, of networked sharing, by using this metaphor: when the water level increases, all boats rise.

I still believe in all boats rising, but I’m also not interested in making a fetish out of the link.

Any professional charged with growing a web business needs to make calculated observations about the benefit or harm of any web practice and decide for himself whether a particular practice or belief is going to benefit the long-term viability of the business.

When you blindly follow the herd, you’re not doing your job.  I’m sure a guy like Eric Schmidt at Google would agree. That’s "What Google Would Do" – encourage you to make your own evaluations and observations.

Linking is one of those issues that should be carefully considered so that you ensure your linking practices and policies are a benefit to your business organization and not a detriment.

Not all links are created equal.

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