The Click Economy
The economy of the web runs on clicks and page views. The way web sites turn traffic into profit is complex, but I think we can get away with a broad gloss of the link economy as long as we acknowledge that greater underlying complexity exists. Basically speaking, traffic (measured in clicks, views, unique visitors, length of visit, etc.) leads to ad revenue. Web sites benefit when viewers click on links to their pages and when these viewers see and click on ads. The scale of the click economy is difficult to visualize. Direct benefits from a single click or page view are minuscule. Profits tend to be nonexistent or trivial on any scale smaller than unbelievably massive. This has the effect of making individual clicks relatively meaningless, but systems that can magnify clicks and aggregate them are extremely valuable. What this means for the individual person on the web is that unless we are Ariana Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, or Mark Zuckerberg we probably aren’t going to get rich off of clicks. However, we do have impact and our online reputations can significantly influence which articles and posts go viral. If we understand how the click economy works, we can use our reputation and influence responsibly. If we are linking to content we think is good and virtuous, then there is no problem with spreading “link juice” indiscriminately. However, if we want to draw someone’s attention to content we object to, we can take steps to link responsibly and not have our outrage fuel profits for the content’s author. 1 We’ve seen that links benefit the site’s owners in two way: directly through ad revenues and indirectly through “link juice” or the positive effect that inbound links have on search engine ranking and social network trend lists. If our goal is to link without benefiting the owner of the page we are linking to, we will need a separate technique for each the two ways a web site benefits from links.
For two excellent pieces on the click economy, check out see Robinson Meyer’s Why are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere?2 in the Atlantic Monthly and Clay Johnson’s book The Information Diet especially The New Journalists section of chapter three3
Page Rank is the name of a key algorithm Google uses to rank web pages it returns. 4 It counts inbound links to a page and keeps track of the relative importance of the sites the links come from. A site’s Page Rank score is a significant part of how Google decides to rank search results. 5 Search engines like Google recognize that there would be a massive problem if all inbound links were counted as votes for a site’s quality. 6 Without some mechanism to communicate “I’m linking to this site as an example of awful thinking” there really would be no such thing as bad publicity and a website with thousands of complaints and zero positive reviews would shoot to the top of search engine rankings. For example, every time a librarian used martinlutherking.org (A malicious propaganda site run by the white supremacist group Stormfront) as an example in a lesson about web site evaluation, the page would rise in Google’s ranking and more people would find it in the course of natural searches for information on Dr. King. When linking to malicious content, we can avoid increasing its Page Rank score, by adding the rel=“nofollow” attribute to the anchor link tag. A normal link is written like this:
<a href=“http://www.horriblesite.com/horriblecontent/“ target=”_blank”>This is a horrible page.</a>
This link would add the referring page’s reputation or “link juice” to the horrible site’s Page Rank. To fix that, we need to add the rel=“nofollow” attribute.
<a href=“http://www.horriblesite.com/horriblecontent/“ target=”_blank” rel=“nofollow”>This is a horrible page.</a>
This addition communicates to the search engine that the link should not count as a vote for the site’s value or reputation. Of course, not all linking takes place on web pages anymore. What happens if we want to share this link on Facebook or Twitter? Both Facebook and Twitter automatically add rel=“nofollow” to their links (you can see this if you view page source), but we should not rely on that alone. Social networks aggregate links and provide their own link juice similarly to search engines. When sharing links on social networks, we’ll want to employ a tool that keeps control of the link’s power in our own hands. donotlink.com is an very interesting tool for this purpose.
Page Views & Traffic
All of the techniques listed above will deny a linked site the indirect benefits of link juice. They will not, however, deny the site the direct benefits from increased traffic or views and clicks on the pages advertisements. There are ways to share content without generating any traffic or advertising revenues, but these involve capturing the content and posting it somewhere else so they raise ethical questions about respect for intellectual property. So I suggest using only with both caution and intentionality. A quick and easy way to direct traffic to content without benefiting the hosting site is to use a link to Google’s cache of the page. If you can find a page in a Google search, clicking the green arrow next to the URL (see image) will give the option of viewing the cached page. Then just copy the full URL and share that link instead of the original. Viewers can read the text without giving the content page views. Not all pages are visible on Google, so the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive is a great alternative. The Wayback Machine provides access to archived version of web pages and also has a mechanism (see the image on the right) for adding new pages to the archive.
Both of these solutions rely on external hosts and if the owner of the content is serious about erasing a page, there are processes for removing content from both Google’s cache and the Wayback Machine archives. To be certain of archiving content, the simplest solution is to capture a screenshot and share the image file. This gives you control over the image, but may be unwieldy for larger documents. In these cases saving as a PDF may be a useful workaround. (Personally, I prefer to use the Clearly browser plugin with Evernote, but I have a paid Evernote account and am already invested in the Evernote infrastructure.)
In conclusion, there are a number of steps we can take when we want to be responsible with how we distribute link juice. If we want to share information without donating our online reputation to the information’s owner, we can use donotlink.com to generate a link that does not improve their search engine ranking. If we want to go a step further, we can link to a cached version of the page or share a screenshot.
- Using outrageous or objectionable content to generate web traffic is a black-hat SEO technique known as “evil hooks.” There is a lot of profit in “You won’t believe what this person said!” links. ↩
- http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/why-are-upworthy-headlines-suddenly-everywhere/282048/ ↩
- The Information Diet, page 35-41 ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PageRank ↩
- Matt Cuts How Search Works Video. ↩
- I’ve used this article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/business/28borker.html to explain this concept to my students. It is also referenced by donotlink.com in their documentation. ↩