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Don't be a 'rope site'—learn to link

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Swimming Hole Rope

Source: cindy47452's Flickr stream

I’ve taken to calling poorly linked sites “rope sites.” The gist is pretty simple: A rope, unfurled and dangling, can be pretty useful—repelling down a wall, for instance—but once you get to the end off it, all that’s left to do is hang on or fall off. If the ground’s right there, you’re going to let go immediately, and everyone’s going to let go eventually.

Much like dangling ropes, sites and pages that don’t link to themselves or to others are destined to be useful only for a short time.

The news industry is probably the worst at producing rope sites. Despite the fact that they’ve got multiple people producing multiple pages 24 hours a day, something (probably the Old Print culture) has kept them from embracing the ethic of the link for far too long. Just a couple weeks ago, I came across a page on The Seattle Times site; it was a story that referenced a huge investigative piece the Times had produced several years ago—but there was no link to the piece. I Tweeted the missed opportunity to the Times and, socially savvy people they’ve become (more on that in the coming weeks), they responded and added the link (third paragraph).

Good on the Times for seeing the value in a self-link (it’s also good for SEO), but I think we can all agree that it’s not exactly the industry wide standard that it needs to be.

The reason we’ve coined the terms Internet and Web (or in lolspeak: interwebz) is because this big mess of digital information is interconnected with links and those links create a web or net. Nets and webs are nothing more than ropes that have been tied together, but they’re arguably much more valuable. Unlike a rope that has a definite end to it, webs spread out; they catch things.

Web master | Веб мастер

Source: Anatoly Kraynikov's Flickr stream

If you’re a news site, a web catches readers and there are essentially two types of webs you can build: a self-contained web (i.e. links to other pages on your site) and an all-encompassing web (i.e. links to other sites). A good site will build both kinds of webs: it will self-reference when appropriate (re: the aforementioned Times story) and it will link out when it references another site or page. Two sites to pay attention to when considering either of these approaches:

Wikipedia (self-contained)

Since I always reference the Wikipedia page on time-travel, I’ll use it again here: visit it and try not to click through to a few other pages. Wikipedia has mastered the art of self-reference. Now think of your news site as Wikipedia. How many times a week do you post a story that references something you already reported? How many times do you think to link back to that story? Fix that. And link to everything you’ve written before. (Note: Wikipedia also links out, for purposes of citation.)

Google (all-encompassing)

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: What does Google do all day? Link to sites that aren’t Google. What do people do all day? Keep coming back to Google. It’s real simple: People don’t just want to consume information, they want to be connected to it. If you’re writing about a concert, link to where tickets can be bought (and add value by linking directly—I can log on to Ticketmaster’s home page and do a search on my own); if you visited three Web sites while researching your story, link to those; etc. People aren’t going to leave your site and never come back; they’re going to remember you as a good, savvy source of information and look to you for another need, or for the same need in the future.

One last thing: Great content is always important and bad content will almost always kill a site. But as important as content is, it’s not enough to build traffic. Learn the ethics of how the Internet operates—learn to link and know how and when to link. Paired with great content, it’s a combination that will give you the best return for your efforts.

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