The Link Fetish

Terry Heaton is a brilliant online philosopher. He thinks very deeply about vexing digital media issues. But in his latest post, Online Advertising’s Missing Link, he gets off on the wrong foot with me.

Links are the currency of the Web, the real value of any form of content in a hyperconnected universe. Madison Avenue wants nothing to do with this, and this is increasingly problematic for those who count on advertising to make a living.

Jeff Jarvis has been writing about the value of links for years, like this little gem from 2005:

In this new world, links are currency. Links grant authority. Links build branding. Links equal value.

Heaton goes on to talk of the value of links giving great examples of how links can create attention, but I’m not clear on how links generate revenue.

In one of his examples, he notes how another one of my online heroes, John Hegel, tweeted a link to a YouTube video that had five million views.

As impressive as that might be, YouTube is still losing money (what revenue it does get is off of passive or intrusive advertising), and there’s no evidence I know that the musical artists in that video realized any economic benefit from those five million views (conversely, they very well may sell some records and/or concert tickets from those views, but we really don’t know how much actual economic value has been created by those views).

For a link to be of real value in commercial terms, it needs to lead to profit — not just revenue.

When I see pundits talk of links replacing advertising, or how advertising and publishing are being displaced, I simply don’t see a lot of factual information to suggest the disruption taking place is generating profitable replacements.

My business, The Batavian, is profitable, but we make our money off of what I consider traditional, retail display advertising. There’s nothing fancy, newfangled or particularly innovative about our approach to making money.

And I believe it’s working very well for us.

Here’s what I agree with Heaton on:

I don’t want to be "sold," but I do want to be "aware." The problem with our culture is that everywhere we look, we’re being sold. It’s what we do. We created the form, and it’s worked well in growing businesses and fueling the economy of commerce. But somewhere along the way, we crossed a line, and now we’re turning to technology to get out of the way of the relentless bombing. "Just get ’em in the tent," is a license for distortion and any form of showing off. We pay $10 for a movie at the theater and sit through a half hour of ads before the show starts. Signs block everything. Commercial breaks on TV run 5-minutes. Websites are blocked with roll-overs (conveniently located where your mouse comes in contact with the page), roadblocks, pop-overs, pop-unders and anything else that "works" to get our attention. The print industry throws out pages that resemble NASCAR race cars.

Well, except, the home page of The Batavian is something like a NASCAR race car.

But I argue that our ad model is both passive and contextual.  Our ads don’t block content or flash at you.  They are there for you to look at if you so choose, and you have a high likelihood to look at them because (at least if you live in Genesee County, New York) they are all relevant to you. They are as local as our content.

But they’re still advertising.

And most of the people who will see those ads didn’t arrive at The Batavian because somebody tweeted a link (though some did, though many of them are already regular readers of The Batavian). More than half of our audience are people that come to the site on a daily basis with the specific purpose of looking at our local content (news and advertising).

One of the important lessons I learned from John Battelle’s book. The Search, was the importance of user intention to understanding user behavior on the web.

Every user goes to a web page with an intention — be it to search, to read an article or to skim headlines, etc.  Whatever that intention is, publishers are on dangerous ground once they expect to subvert that intention.

Publishers also train users to come to pages with intentions that are contrary to the publisher’s best interest — the way most news sites are designed, for example, with nothing but headlines and links, train users to skim rather than engage with content.

As I’ve written before, not all links are created equal. We make a mistake when we make a fetish of the link, which is where Heaton sort of lost me with his post.

The fact of the matter is, links rarely get clicked.  If even 10 percent of the readers of this particular post clicked on even one of the three links above, I would be surprised.  Why? Because the people who are reading this post came with the specific intention to read this post.  They’re not interested in having their intention interrupted.  When that intention is met (if they haven’t already fallen asleep or clicked their browser’s back button deciding this is all BS) they will go back to what they were doing before they came to this article, without clicking a single link of any type on this page).

The huge amount of traffic some aggregators can generate for some web sites has blinded some people to the true value of a link.  They ignore the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of traffic to generate an impressive number of click-throughs.  I call this the Drudge Effect, because most of us learned about how aggregators could drive traffic when the Drudge Report first became popular.  But the traffic Drudge would drive to your news site was only a fraction of the total audience hitting Drudge’s home page.

It’s not like one million people hit Drudge’s home page and clicked on every link on that page. It’s more like one million people hit Drudge’s home page and at best clicked on only one link.  If one percent of those one million people happened to click on the link to your news story, that seemed like a big spike in your traffic, but it was only a drop in the bucket of the overall traffic going to Drudge.

Here’s an unexamined truth of the web: A click has value. A link has no value (it might have some SEO value, but that’s not what we’re talking about here).

Fact: Until a link is clicked, it’s only just a few characters of HTML.

And most people don’t click on links, at least not in any meaningful proportion to the number of links created every day.

And this is why it is so hard to make money from publishing online.  The link rarely leads to actual revenue.

Until we can say with certainty that a link in and of itself creates profits, it’s a misnomer to say it has any sort of intrinsic value.

What publishers need to concentrate on, then, is not links, but content.  It’s the job of publishers to meet the needs of user intentions, or fashion content and advertising models that generate user intention compatible with the goal of making money. 

Information may want to be free, but it’s still the most valuable commodity on the web. I mean, without information, what would we link to?

Yes, intrusive advertising diminishes the value of content, but that doesn’t mean advertising is dead.

Commerce is still part of life, and so long as it is, there will be users with the intention of finding out what their is to buy in relation to their other interests.  For the local publisher, that means local ads, for the niche/special interest publisher, that means ads that fit those interests.  The ads may be delivered in mundane ways or in creative ways, but they will still be ads that match user intention.  Link or no link.

3 thoughts on “The Link Fetish

  1. Howard

    Great post. My .02 for what it’s worth.

    The same criticism you have of the link to the youtube video could be made of display advertising.

    Which is to say – where’s the money? 

    Sure – the Batavian is making money off it – but does the advertiser make money? Is there a way to track sales created from your adverts? Just as we can only guess about the band in the YouTube video – we can only guess about your advertisers. Which means the difference between the profits of your business and the revenue (without profits) at YouTube is a distinction about your related overheads – but not a distinction about the effectiveness of the video "marketing" the band vs. display advertising marketing business X.

    In either case – link vs display ad – what is really being sought after is "attention." So let’s remove "link" and put in "attention" for Terry’s post. Same with yours for "advertising" and "attention." 

    The challenge is then proving that attention from a source leads to profits for the organization paying to get that attention. Even if a site like Batavian is profitable slanging its readers attention – that won’t last if the advertisers don’t feel there’s a real ROI for their business (same for any SEO social media internet guru marketing douchebagery).

    End .02 cents here.

    Best Howard!

  2. Yes, what I think we bring is attention.

    We haven’t solved the problem of direct ROI.  That is still a weakness of advertising, but it’s been a weakness of advertising for more than a century and businesses still advertise.

    I can tell you we get tremendous feedback that advertising on The Batavian brings great attention for our advertisers.  And some have been able to quantify an increase in sales.

    Mainly, I’m not part of the "death of advertising" crowd, nor the "link changes everything" crowd.

  3. I’m with you Howard.

    In fact, my views on advrertising have taken a strong 180. I never thought it was dead – I just wished it was (as a consumer).

    But I do believe that advertising needs to be re-thought. Links and advertising are very related in my mind (attention grabbers). Neither fixes the ROI problem – neither is a perfect fit.

    I am happy to hear that the Batavian is kicking butt though – you rock!


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