I’ve been seeing an increasing number of mentions in the tech press about the link economy and how it is broken. A few representative quotes:
- All content must be transparent: open on the web with permanent links so it can receive links.
- The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring.
- Links are a key to efficiency.
- There are opportunities to add value atop the link layer.
In fact, there is an entire blog devoted to “Google juice“, although its page rank of 2 suggest to me that there may be more expert sources on the subject.
Search engine optimization (SEO) has been around for over a decade, playing a key role in the adversarial struggle for higher ranking on Google or its predecessors. But SEO now goes far beyond editing and organizing a site’s content. In an world of blogs, tweeting, and aggregation, the increasingly popular approach is linkbaiting, which means what it sounds like: doing whatever it takes to generate incoming links to a website or blog from other sites.
As a blogger, I understand the desire to attract traffic. Even though I don’t make money from this blog, I write in order to be read, and I’m not averse to spreading some bait to attract readers. I also link generously to other sites, mainly to provide value to my readers, but also to give credit where credit is due. And I’m fully aware that some of the folks I link to see those links as a favor worthy of reciprocity. I don’t complain.
But I can’t help laughing when I hear pronouncements about the link economy and how miserly sites are breaking it by excessive internal linking. Especially when there’s a real economy that is really broken!
Attention will always be a scarce, highly contested resource. Many people will use whatever means they have at their disposal to obtain and in many cases monetize it, ranging from the straightforward (e.g., publishing good content) to the blatantly unethical (e.g., browser hijacking) to the absurdly humorous (remember the subservient chicken?) Some people will try to create “sticky” sites that emphasize internal linking, while others will create sites that serve primarily as guideposts, sending people away to other destinations as quickly as possible.
Are authors responsible for cultivating a global link economy? Do we need social pressure or even regulation in order to ensure the optimal allocation of attention? In short, I don’t think so. While we need to combat strategies that clearly cross the line into the unethical (and in many cases criminal), I’d be wary to go beyond that. The financial economy may be in need of more effective regulation, but social media seem to be doing just fine.
Besides, the wonderful thing about attention is that there is no switching cost. Give democracy a chance!