Link crazy

16 September 2008

One of the most depressing things about media on the Internet is the way that people make fetishes out of otherwise unremarkable pieces of web infrastructure to the point that they start to think an entire economy could rely on them.

Take the link. Scott Karp regards the link as the key to entire media businesses. The poster children for the church of the hyperlink are Google, Drudge Report and the blogs on which they write. All make heavy use of links, naturally, and at least two of them have made business out of exploiting links. But to fixate on the link itself is a bit like saying roads are dangerous because people get killed on them.

Roads are safe; they are idle bystanders in the daily carnage. The cars are the things you need to watch out for.

If links provided the only currency, Google engineers would hardly be spending their working days trying to work out how to knock spammers' link farms off the results pages. If all links are good, why aren't theirs?

The reality is that people come back to sites that are relevant, useful or just fun. Or all three. For a community of Internet users, Matt Drudge has a knack of seeking out the stories they want to see, so they keep coming back.

You go back to Google because you know roughly what you're going to get in terms of results. If you didn't you'd be going to Live.com, Yahoo or Ask. The links simply provide a means to an end for the search engine and its users. Relevance determines the utility of the search site.

And blogs? Well, there's always some original content at the end of the link. Or at least you'd hope so.

Karp is right in recommending that media sites link out more. If you find a constituency of regular readers and contributors, then giving them links they want to use is a good way to keep them coming back. But if the stuff out there is lacking for your consituency, then you have to provide that material yourself. Adding more links because "links are good" won't be any help at all. But, if you can get to understand why people are turning up at your site, then that's the key. Links simply provide a means to an end.