Link journalism and the no-follow tag

It appears there is a whole discipline around how journalists use links in posts: link journalism. This is a thorny subject as it involves passing authority onto a third party over who you may have no control.

Ryan Thornburg offers a cheat sheet on curating links to his journalism students. Items covered include verifying the accuracy of any links you refer to, in addition to making sure links are as relevant and specific as possible. Links can give background, technical information, audio, video, the list goes on. This makes them a significant tool in online journalism.

One thing Ryan doesn’t touch on is the importance of the link to search engines. Google helped make search an integral part of the web experience for most of us. Their secret sauce to finding the ideal results to list involved looking at the link structure between pages (often termed pageRank). Pages that have more links flowing in are considered authorities. These pages confer some of that authority down to other sites when they link to them.

This particularly favors large encyclopedic sites. And that seems to work for us. What better source to find information on Neanderthal Man than Wikipedia? (Yes, Wikipedia is the number one link in Google). University sites and news sites also fare well under this system. So if a news site passes a link on to another site, it helps the destination site gain prominence in search (nothing to be scoffed at: I’ve seen traffic increase ten-fold for long periods of time – all due to high rankings in search thanks to a single link from a high authority site.)

In most cases this is all good. The problem comes when you are writing about something on the web in a negative light and want to link to that page to highlight your point. In the world of search, your link is taken as a positive referral – so a damning report in a reputable news source can work wonders for your search engine optimization (SEO).

To get around this (and help combat the growing problem of comment spam), the search engines got together in 2005 and created the ‘no-follow’ attribute. Add this to your link and the search engines would take it that you want to make a link for explanatory sake but you do not want to pass on that all-important link juice to the destination.

Funny thing is, it is still rarely used in the media. Case in point: take the recent gripe from the UK’s Telegraph that the Wikileaks showed political bias in distributing key information on the war in Afghanistan to to the left-leaning press (including its competitor, The Guardian):

See the link on the first instance of ‘Wikileaks’? It’s a straight link not including the ‘no-follow’ attribute.

So while Will Heaven, the Deputy Blogs Editor is lambasting Wikileaks, he’s also providing the site with a valuable link that will help it grow in prominence. I’m somehow not convinced this is the desired effect of his vitriol.

I’d call on journalists to make better use of the no-follow tag. New journalists coming through the ranks should be made aware. ‘Think before you link’ should be an integral part of link journalism education. The link is a powerful tool and should be handled with wisely and responsibly to maintain the integrity of the web.

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