Linking Still Matters

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And with a headline like that, I’m sure everyone interested in SEO – Search Engine Optimization is now reading.

Back in the early nineties I published a national (and free) magazine called Enrage Magazine. It was all about bridging new culture. I had this crazy idea that bands like Slayer could coexist alongside Green Day and that stories about cyber culture could line up nicely with articles about Jim Rose and his Circus Sideshow. In fact, I recently came across this item (courtesy of Mark Shainblum) – Enrage On Net! (I think it was meant to be a press release). Check out this quote of mine from 1994: "The Net and other digital media are the future of publishing… We must be out there getting our message across in this medium or we risk becoming irrelevant." Mark also makes this interesting comment: "Enrage, published by Mitch Joel, was arguably one of the earliest magazines in the world to go online. When I laid eyes on the World Wide Web for the first time, on a Sun SPARCstation running Mosaic, my words were already there. That was an experience."

What did I know? This Internet thing is still probably just a fad 😉

Back to the story… the first issue of Enrage had a cover story feature on the Internet. Circle back to those times and the Web was still extremely nascent. The latest breakthrough (beyond the basic Web Browser) was hypertext – the ability to have links on a page that people could click on and be transported to another page. I know, it sounds so basic and lame, but at that point in time, this was breakthrough technology. The point of hypertext was to help link related pieces of content together, to help foster some kind of cohesion around the many different voices that were popping up online, and to make the content increasingly easier to find and organize.

We tend to forget where we came from, and we tend to only look at where we’re going.

Now, links are all about Google Juice. Links are only about increasing your visibility in a search engine to increase traffic or acting as some kind of digital beacon to let another website know that you’ve mentioned them. If you read this Six Pixels of Separation Blog on a regular (or even semi-regular) basis, you’ll notice that I link to everything. If I mention Google, Facebook or Twitter, I still hyperlink to them on the first mention. Do I really believe that I am increasing my searchability by doing this? Do I think that companies of that size are even noticing that I’m mentioning them?

The answer is "no" to both.

I link to make your online experience that much better. I know full well that you know how to type in into your browser, but that isn’t the point. First off, I want to make the experience seamless for you, so adding in clickable links that enable you to move around the Web is simply a common courtesy. Second, what has always made me love the digital space is the non-linear and non-hierarchical nature of it. Links give you this amazing freedom that regular text can’t. It takes you from a two-dimensional context into a three-dimensional matrix-like grid world where the words can literally transpose you all over the place and into a forest of new and exciting content.

So, maybe the power of reciprocated links is loosing some steam in the search engine optimization world. Maybe if you can’t benefit from that in terms of increased traffic or a higher PageRank, there is no real point in taking the time to add links.

I think differently.

I think links are what makes reading content online so interesting, engaging, exciting and fresh. I choose to link in hopes that others do as well. I choose to link in hopes that it becomes standard operating procedure and a best practice for online content. I choose to link so that you can choose where you want to go now or next. Linking has become way too much about what it can do for the content creator. I think it’s time to go back to the beginning and start linking because it’s about what it can do for the reader and their online experience.


  1. hey, Mitch — I thought David Weinberger, the king of linking, author of “Everything Is Miscellaneous,” and Harvard Berkman Fellow would like this post…
    so, I sent him the…uh, link 🙂

  2. Hi Mitch,
    Hyperlinks are extremely important to user experience, often acting as social citations, or a jumping-off point to access information (both external and internal) that may be of interest to the site visitor. Many times they act as an acknowledgment/tip of the hat for the work of others. By their very nature, hyperlinks can raise the value of any page and help it be more than the sum of its parts (not in a narrow SEO way) but as informative, educational wayfaring signs. Each link acts as a possible conversation starter, a way of increasing engagement and a collaborative approach toward findability.
    And, the text we link from holds semantic value and social meaning. As a collective whole, we provide a sort of ‘wisdom of crowds’ approach when we choose particular words as the hyperlink to any given page; this allows search engines such as Google to figure out contextual relationships and relevancy to various search engine queries. This is important, as (to quote the oft-used maxim) it isn’t about search any more, it’s about ‘find’.
    While an individual may try to manipulate their site’s rank through buying or trading links, link spamming, etc., the crux of the matter is this: if it doesn’t add value to the site visitor it’s a complete WOMBAT (waste of money, bandwidth and time.)
    You are correct: hyperlinks offer a seamless experience.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you….
    I was actually going to ask you questions about this today and voilà, you read my mind. I wasn’t sure when it was unnecessary or necessary to link to other sites. Thanks for answering my questions.

  4. I made some tests back in 2004, and yes Google at that time, bonify a page linking to them vs a page where only the word Google on there.
    Another point in the blogs and on many sites like this one, is the structure and the sustainability of the information on a page. The Recent Blog posts or Recent Podcasts here change time over time and thoses will not favorize indexation by a search engine.
    Another thing is the huge amout of links. This page have more than 160 links. After a hundred Google stop indexing them. Tags and Tag Clouds are very good for the users experience but are not very good for SEO. They dilute the power of the linked information. The Nofollow parameter should be use in thoses.
    My 2c

  5. I am a strong believer of sharing the link love. For me, providing useful links to my readers is part of the discussion. I do it on every post. Regardless of the Google effects, you win in the long run because the readers value this service.

  6. The roots… We forget the roots. As always.
    We’re often looking forward for the next big thing or the next money-making strategy on the internet and because of that, the user-experience and the quality of the web content is loosing big in quality.
    It’s the kind of blog posts like this, wrote by BIG NAME WRITERS like you, who is helping the web to grow in the good way.
    Thanks for that Mitch!

  7. Not only is it good etiquette, it’s the wiring that will let us thread this needle of crazy information. The more the spiders crawl, the more we can find things in our atomized landscape. It’s almost an imperative to store our offdeck memory.
    Slayer. Mmmm. : )

  8. Mitch:
    I agree completely. I think many web venues today have forgotten about the basic premise of making it easy to find useful, relevant information.
    Although the context is slightly different, I believe the notion of what is implied by the “linking” you’re discussing and the reasons for the major growth of “social linking” sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, are closely related.

  9. I really like what you said about using links to improve the experience for your readers. To me, it’s a little about “customer service.” It’s smart to make things easy for your customers whenever you can, and linking is a really simple way to do that. Well said.

  10. My 76 year old father says links only confuse him. He “keeps clicking on them and ends up somewhere else” 🙂

  11. Great post.
    As a reader I love links because they literally and figuratively add depth to a post. One of my favorite blogs is things magazine ( which at times is nothing more than a fascinating collection of links. You never know what you will discover next.
    Also, for some strange reason, I find longer posts with lots of links easier to read than those without. Maybe I’m just giving more credit to the writer for putting more into it.
    As a blogger I love links for nearly the same reasons. I find myself in places I might not otherwise have visited and I end up learning something new or just have fun discovering something interesting. You never know where you might find fodder for your next post.
    I never link for seo or other reasons because frankly I’m just not that smart. 🙁
    Simply, I love links!

  12. I agree with what you wrote 100%. Links add tremendous value to the user experience, enabling the user to simply click to the company or topic instead of having to search or type in the address bar the desired link. It is also a great way to let the website or company know that you are writing about them, which often can lead to great comments from them below the post or raise their awareness of your site. Although I agree that sites like facebook or google may not notice there are many smaller sites that notice a certainly appreciate receiving a link. Hopefully as time goes on the practice of linking becomes more and more common but I am not sure this will occur.
    I think one of the biggest impediments to wide spread linking is the search engines and websites attempting to ensure a high ranking for their site. Linking to outside sites can actually hurt your search ranking and reduce your google juice as you are giving some to the linked site unless the no follow parameter is used.
    I would love to hear your thoughts on the use of nofollow when linking to other websites. I notice you currently do not use them and was wondering if this was a conscious decision one way or the other.

  13. Mitch!
    Thanks for the link back to my embarassingly 1995 writing archive page. I’m glad you came across the old Enrage pieces I put up. Amazing how fast those became historical artifacts, eh?
    I guess I’m just not Web 2.0 enough, because it never occurred to me that linking was old-school. When I link, I’m not thinking about Google juice at all, it’s entirely for the benefit of the reader. That said, even in the old HTML-only days we were cautioned against excessive linking because you risked losing your reader on the first click. Later research proved that not to be the case, but I still find sites where every third word is a link hard to read.

  14. Very true. What I’m liking a lot is the Zemanta plug-in for WordPress. What I get with that is suggestions for all the links I should insert into a post. So if Zemanta sees that I use words like “Twitter” or “Media Wiki”, it lets me automatically link to pages for those terms.
    A great way to save some time on preparing a post.

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