The Huffington Post, one of the most prominent political blogs on the web, usually courts political controversy for its unapologetically liberal perspective. But now it finds itself in a different sort of controversy over they way it aggregates content from other sites.
It started with a complaint from Whet Moser at the Chicago Reader:
The Huffington Post’s local “aggregation” wing straight stole our entire Bon Iver Critic’s Choice–they didn’t ask permission (“read the whole article”? that is the whole article, dumbass),
This isn’t an isolated incident. As Henry Blodget puts it:
The Huffington Post’s news aggregation business drives enormous traffic to the third-party sites its editors link to (including, occasionally, this one). The Huffington Post also often excerpts liberally from third-party sites’ stories and uses this content to drive significant traffic to itself.
Ryan Singel presents both sides of the story at Wired, including Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti’s contention that the excerpts drive traffic to the original sites from which they were aggregated.
What fascinates me is that, while the legal and ethical arguments are about what constitutes fair use, the driving concern is search engine optimization (SEO). In many cases, The Huffington Post is excerpting stories without adding any new content, but is then drawing a significant amount of search traffic to its site that, presumably, would have otherwise gone directly to the original articles. In other words, they’re putting themselves in the middle and taking a cut through the resulting advertising revenue.
I can certainly see how this behavior drives online news providers up the wall. Even if The Huffington Post is acting within the legal constraints of fair use, its actions certainly seem parasitical. Unless they are driving traffic to the sites they aggregate that would not have otherwise gone there directly, they are simply profiting from being better at the SEO game.
I see this scenario as a cautionary tale for our excess dependence on traffic from search engines that promote an adversarial model. This is the dark side of SEO–a no-holds-barred fight for a piece of people’s scarce attention.