Rethinking The Link Economy

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There is no question that the value in reading online (and this is everything from long editorial pieces to Blog postings and Twitter) is the links (or hyperlinks as we used to call them), but things may be changing.

The more you link out and the more others link in to you, the more reputable you become and the higher you will rank (on certain keywords) in the search engines. This is critically important as more and more online marketing professionals are getting smarter and wiser when it comes to ensuring that their clients rank at the top of the major search engines. It’s not only serious business, but it is (very much) a game. Things can change in both an organic way and in how the search engines tweak and optimize their algorithms as they constantly explore more ways to serve more relevant search results.

Many pundits (myself included) claim that the major newspaper publishers still don’t value the concept of linking people out to content that might be more valuable to them. Their online attitude is – generally – "keep them in our space at all costs." They’ll pump up the pageviews to drive more advertising revenue and then complain that those ad sales are not equivalent to (or surpassing) what they are accustomed to in their print editions. Jeff Jarvis (Blogger over at BuzzMachine and author of What Would Google Do?) spends his days (and nights) begging the industry to embrace the notion of the link economy. The value of the content is in how people link to it and share it, or "he who has the most links, wins."

How sustainable and scalable is the notion of the link economy?

The more people that are creating content, the harder this will be to manage, optimize and monetize. It’s a fact. From a personal perspective, I link out from this Blog, Twitter and Facebook frequently. Often with different types of contents (and variations – on Twitter, most people are using some kind of URL shortening service). There are other places where I do other types of linking (just a little less frequently) like Delicious, LinkedIn, Flickr, Google Reader and more. On top of that, links are no longer just searchable pieces of text – they can be videos, images and audio (all of this is nearly impossible for the search engines to index unless they are properly tagged).

So, if content is not as easy to index (we’re seeing more and more audio, images and video), and URL shortening services acts as a re-route for the more traditional links, and fewer and fewer people are as interested as they once were in longer text-based pieces of content online, just how viable and profitable can the link economy be?


  1. This is not just relevant for traditional content producers such as newspapers, Mitch. Much online revenue for entrepreneurs is based on affiliate links to places such as Amazon, other content producers, etc.
    If the link economy falls over (as things are regularly wont to do in the online space) then what new methods will be constructed to get eyeballs over from the affiliate to the content producer/retailer?

  2. Very viable and profitable for URL shortening services if they use it properly. As more links will equate to more data to analyze and chances to profit.
    For the rest of us, the links will lose their juice value.
    Alex “Link” Ikonn

  3. I understand that URL shortening services like and tinyurl use their own metrics, but I have to wonder if this is a bit stained already? If you make a short-url and use it, and I use your short-url as well, for the sake of reducing my effort, who gets the juice? And, unless I’m totally mistaken, analytics sites can’t read referrals from shortening services – thirty people using a short-url come back as just that one reference, rather than thirty blogs.
    Is there a piece I’m missing here? It sort of feels broken. Linking is about tracking, and call me crazy, bt TinyURL and Bit.Ly break tracking.

  4. I suppose it can be valuable if you view the person as the channel.
    A link from a trusted resource, such as you, is going to be worth more to me than some random person. So, the link economy in the way that Jaffe talks about it in terms of linking between two points is part of it, but I also look at it in the Chris Anderson model of paying people with attention, one of which is links.

  5. Mitch, I must be missing your point. With more people creating content, more people searching for content and more options for linking to content, the value of the link economy is only going one way – UP. However, if what you mean is that it is increasingly competitive to stay near the top of the search rankings – and your economy (a brand, adwords revenue, etc) depends on that – then yes, times may be getting tougher. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure a key part of the answer is what you’re already into – multiple streams of distribution. Simply having a web site is no where near good enough – from Flickr to GReader, having a presence on all those other distribution channels is fundamental now. Personally, I know I get some huge multiple more hits (and most of the first page on Google) now that I distribute content on everything from Posterous to Flickr (on day one, my Posterous site – which I use to redistribute other people’s content, like yours – got 200% more hits than my blog of 5 years). One thing hasn’t changed. Good content is still THE primary driver of hits, links and revenue.

  6. Interesting point about Posterous (which I don’t use but will now). Five years ago a great way of generating traffic and inbound links was through article marketing. We were worried at the time about duplicate content, too. But in today’s climate of repurposing and republishing everywhere and anywhere I’m guessing that both models are now ‘old hat’.

  7. Btw, has anyone had any experience of squidoo? I signed up when Seth first released it but never really did anything with it. Mark Joyner rates it, but does any of the crew here have stories to tell?

  8. That’s where I was going Lee. From my perspective, many people are still “selling the dream” that this is the way to build business, and I’m wondering if the value is less in the links and what Google does with them and more in the simple act of being engaged in different places with different types of content.

  9. I wanted to comment quickly on Jim and Mitch’s last insights. It sounds like the issue may in part be figuring out how to “centralize” all of the engagements/conversations/content that you put out there.
    To Mitch’s point, I do agree being engaged in different places with different types of content is important. All of this essentially comes backs to you, the person, your name, maybe your company. Really, we’re talking about the same thing that brands did before the internet: they wanted *something* to be associated with their brand and they did it through often “unlinked” and decentralized channels, but they put them out there anyway. All you got in a magazine ad was your logo on a piece of paper. People made their own association with the brand and brought that association with them for when they encountered it in the future. Sometimes they may have even acted on that ad, but it was still up to them to make the “link.”
    Or: “Oh, you’re Kate Brodock. I remember reading that awful article in xxx magazine that you wrote last year. It’s so great to meet you!”
    To Jim’s point, technically speaking then, how do we aggregate all of these decentralized pieces of content that we’re trying to associate with ourselves, but the link structure isn’t working out? Mitch, perhaps you would say we DON’T have to? If that’s the case, then yes, the link economy may need some reforming. But maybe it can still stay alive if people figure out how to “count” all these links.
    I’d say I’m more with Mitch on this though. While I do try and create links to me or my company or what-have-you, I still 1) prioritize the value of the content over linking and 2) value any piece of content that has no link but merely has my name slapped at the top of it that someone may come across and either like or hate.
    Great conversation as always Mitch.

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