Is the link economy suffering from inflation?
If Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that he plans to withdraw his news content from Google’s index is any indication, the value of the link is still a topic of debate. Proponents of the “economy of the link” who consider the hyperlink to be the ultimate form of flattery — from which revenue will flow — argue that the aggregators, search engines, and blogs send firehoses of traffic that can then be funneled toward some monetizable end. But any website owner who obsessively monitors his Google Analytics, Sitemeter, search engine, and back links data knows that the value from a link is much more nuanced. Early last year, A-list blogger Jason Kottke made a little-noticed comment, saying that one of the “dirty little secrets of the blogosphere” is that “the big blogs that extensively summarize/excerpt don’t drive that much traffic.” While a link prominently displayed on the front page of the Huffington Post sent me 30,000 hits in a single day, links buried within (or, even worse, at the bottom) of posts from supposedly widely-read blogs can often direct a mere sprinkle of pageviews. And given the proliferation of search engine optimization, Google has continuously devalued the ranking power of links, employing the use of dozens of other factors in order to battle the promiscuity of self-linking, “link exchanges,” and any number of other tactics practiced by those unable to create naturally-linkable content.
But still, the link maintains its value as a contextual device, one that allows the reader to navigate his way through labyrinthine topics, chasing them down the rabbit hole of sources to some modicum of understanding not afforded by less “evolved” mediums. Theoretically, with the links I’ve provided thus far in this article you won’t have to take any of my arguments at face value but instead can examine the source material and reach your own conclusion. This article is merely a guidepost from which a thesis begins but doesn’t necessarily end.
Or, if you’re Nicholas Carr, you think that any contextual benefits I’ve provided above are outweighed by the cognitive burden I’ve placed upon your brain, a brain that has been limping through this article under the weight of links that have crippled your reading comprehension.
In a widely-linked (some people find this ironic) post titled “experiments in delinkification,” he drew from his soon-to-be-released book, The Shallows, which argues that the Internet is rewiring our brains. Citing research that found reading comprehension drops with the inclusion of links, Carr suggested that perhaps we should return to the era of footnotes and cordon off our contextual links at the bottom of a post, a format used to some extent on Wikipedia (though on-site inner linking is allowed within wiki articles). “Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out),” he wrote. “But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read.” True to form, he displayed his citations of works mentioned in the post at the bottom and urged his readers to “try it yourself. You may be surprised.”
To many — even those who may agree with his central thesis — the suggestion seemed anachronistic. While the value of links to the content creator has always been debatable, few would dismiss the value extracted by the reader. How could too much context be a bad thing?
“I feel like the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages,” Matthew Ingram told me in a phone interview. Ingram, a former communities editor for The Globe and Mail who now writes for Gigaom, was one of the first to criticize Carr’s missive. “That includes any disadvantages in terms of cognitive overload or comprehension. There’s a whole host of things that can interfere with you and your reading — flashing banner ads, something in the sidebar, or an ad inserted in the post. Compared to those things, links are rather innocuous, provided they’re styled the right way.”
But Carr told me that most of his critics had misread him. His problem isn’t necessarily with the hyperlink, but with the very web itself. “Obviously the web exists,” he said in a phone interview. “The central structure of the web as a medium is the link. It’s a hyperlinking system, it’s a hypertext system, it’s a hyper media system. So it would be silly to argue that links aren’t compelling and don’t give huge benefits and aren’t an effective way of highlighting related works … I think it’s interesting to think about where links appear and where we link because it gives us insights into how we read and how we think. But I’m not naive about people suddenly not including links in their online writing.”
Despite his suggestion that links should be relegated to the bottom of essays and blog posts or done away with all together, one of Carr’s main complaints is what he called the “debasement of the link.” It’s not the existence of links that bother him, but that websites are too promiscuous in using them. “In the beginning it was assumed that a link was a sincere citation, that you were highlighting something that you thought was important or worth reading,” he said. “In fact, the entire Google search engine as first envisioned by Larry Page was entirely a reflection of the fact that links were sincere tokens of value. They were a true currency of the importance of different things. One of the unintentional byproducts of the Google system becoming so popular is that it has been debased as a currency. What we see today is all sorts of gaming of links, all sorts of elaborate self linking, all sorts of automatic linking, where people don’t think about where to link to. They’ll link either back to their own site or into Wikipedia without going out and assessing what they’re linking to. I think the entire — what’s been called the link economy — is much less valuable than it used to be. That’s the process that we have to judge the effectiveness and the value and the quality of the entire web system today. It’s a big problem.”
But Ingram provided a different reason for Carr’s worry, one that didn’t stem from his concern for the web user but for his own authority. Echoing criticisms launched at newspaper curmudgeons who say that the internet is a wild wild west that doesn’t reward credibility, Ingram argued that Carr is giving voice to a “very powerful subconscious, or in some cases conscious” reaction to linking. “And that is you send people away from what you’ve written. That is a fundamental thing about the link, is that you’re effectively saying, ‘hey go to this other place.’ I think the fear is that people might like what they see there better or might not come back, or that you are somehow saying what other people have to say is equally important to what you have to say. I think particularly for academics and authors like Nick, that’s an uncomfortable admission, that other people have things that are equally valuable to say. So they’d rather have people stick with you for 800 to 1,000 words and not have any links at all.”
And for Ingram, including links at the bottom of the posts isn’t adequate. Without links in the text, he said, it would be difficult to extract any context from the content in the post or essay, which in his mind creates a kind of irony. “Nick’s talking about the comprehension and cognitive overload, but you have to do a lot of work by the time you get to the bottom of the post to figure out what the heck those links refer to. So you have to go to back to the text and say, ‘oh I guess this is what he was talking about with this link.’ So even if you get to the bottom you still have to do a lot of work.”
Perhaps another irony is that the footnote — the old-school citation on which Carr models his own delinked posts — is perhaps one of the biggest reading distractions of them all. How many times have you paused in your reading to scroll your eyes down to a tiny textual nugget of arcane knowledge before trying to resume the main narrative of a book? The world is full of distractions, the link is just one of many. And some distractions, I would argue, are welcome.