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.

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. 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.