/ 24 April 2007

Gimme some link-love

Without linking there wouldn’t be an internet.

It’s the web of links that leads a user from website-to-website that essentially creates the animal we know as the world wide web. Many commercial online media publishers hate linking from their websites to the “outside”, especially when there’s a competitor involved.

It’s a protective, “walled garden” mentality, prevalent in many traditional media businesses, which doesn’t translate particularly well on the wild web. It’s pretty silly, because linking is the whole point.

This is where the blogosphere could teach online publishers a thing or two. Bloggers know how to link and they do it obsessively. As a result, it’s no surprise that the blogosphere has grown so big, and so quickly. Part of the appeal of blogging is that it has made publishing cheaper and easier. People have found blogging a good outlet for their ideas and writings.

But I’d argue a key success for the rapid growth of the blogosphere is a core culture of linking to other bloggers and websites. Linking out to the world wide web is how some bloggers have generated huge traffic and kudos for themselves. The more a blog is linked to, the more its rank in Google’s search results improve.

At the heart of this linking culture is reciprocity: I link to you, you link back to me. An average blog post is full of links to other blogs and sites. When a blogger adds a comment on another’s blog, he or she is able to link back to their own blog site. Most blogs also have some variation of what is known as a “blogroll”. A blogroll is a list of links to a blogger’s favourite site or other blogs. Adding a blogger to my blogroll, may encourage a reciprocal link.

Technorati, a US-based blog search engine which is a good indication of world-wide blog activity, says the blogosphere is doubling in size approximately every 230 days. At the end of 2006 its latest estimate was that the blogs it tracks numbered 57-million worldwide. That’s a lot of blogs, and a lot of links.

This linking fever is also spurred on by a magnificent feature found in most blogging software, such as WordPress, called a “trackback”. A trackback tells a blogger if and who is giving their post or blog a bit of linklove (that is who is linking to it). It usually compels a blogger to check out what that blogger may be writing about, and compel them to reciprocate the link.

Even I find myself becoming obsessive-compulsive over who is linking to me and where my trackbacks are coming from – and I’m probably going to have to see someone about it soon. But herein lies the key.

It’s a way of doing things that most big, commercial online publishers don’t have a clue about. Online publishers tend to be protective about linking out to their competitors or the rest of the world, but they are increasingly learning that they should participate in the linkfest by giving some linklove back to bloggers, and even to their competitors.

Some savvy online publishers, like the Washingtonpost.com, have begun to play the blogger’s game. The online news site has recognised how important it is to give a bit of linklove back to the bloggers that in turn link to it. It’s a recognition that bloggers linking to media websites by highlighting or commenting on their stories can add up to substantial traffic.

It’s not rocket science, it’s the way the internet is supposed to work.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of Mail & Guardian Online. E-mail him at [email protected]