So who are Australia’s bad search citizens? Fairfax Digital Media — j’accuse.
I probably should explain. By bad citizen, I mean failing to contribute to the ecosystem of the blogosphere.
Now there’s a real danger that this sounds like a small player moaning about a big player, but in this case even news.com.au isn’t as bad as Fairfax.
What am I banging on about? External links. You’ll just about never see them from a Fairfax news story, no matter how relevant or helpful for the reader. I can think of a couple of reasons. First, if you offer links out, then you risk losing your user to something they find more interesting. And second, the somewhat more questionable theory that if you link outwards you’ll lose your magic Google juice.
To tackle the second point first, although never entirely transparent on the issue, Google’s genial search guru Matt Cutts has dropped some pretty hefty hints that if you link to quality or relevant pages, that will do you no harm at all.
So it really comes down to the risk of losing your user at the time.
And that’s where Fairfax seems to prefer to treat its readers a bit like a jealous man who tries to stop his girlfriend from meeting other men in the hope that this will protect the relationship. One Fairfax journo told me that the management “aren’t keen on linking outside”.
It’s a pity, because of course search engines like Google base their recommendations on who links where. When a giant publisher doesn’t play, it makes the online experience fractionally poorer for everyone than it would otherwise be. The recommendation engine of hundreds of Fairfax journalists is unavailable to the outside world.
This keep-your-girlfriend-locked-in-the-cellar approach was obvious when April Fool’s Day came. While news.com.au had a higher value (for the readers) roundup of what pranks had gone on in the blogsphere, with links to all of the ones mentioned (declaration of interest — including Mumbrella), the story on smh.com.au looked slapdash, with just three of them linked to. Then it dawned on me, the only ones that got a link were to Fairfax properties.
For readers who thought about it, it would be a display of bias, just the same as if the newspaper had written about Fairfax on its business pages in a partisan way. Not a good way to build trust.
But on Thursday of last week, smh.com.au made itself look truly idiotic. It ran a long piece on “mummy bloggers” — Australian women writing about parenthood. Mia Freedman’s mamamia blog was a major focus. But not a single one of the blogs mentioned were linked to. Which just looked weird or incompetent, as it had obviously decided, by running the piece in the first place, that they were worth telling readers about. With an item like that, it was utterly lame not to link to any of the sites it was writing about.
But this piece went even further – it finished with a message to readers promoting a site that hadn’t been mentioned in the article at all. It urged readers: “For more on parenting and pregnancy: www.essentialbaby.com.au” (I haven’t hyperlinked it, because I don’t think they deserve it, do you?). You’ve probably already guessed that this is a Fairfax site.
This all feels like a hangover from the days of print media competition. Better to be unhelpful to your readers than to give any kind of potential rival even the slightest leg-up.
But online, it just feels old fashioned, particularly when few of its digital-only rivals do it. Instead, the price of preventing people from navigating away at that moment is to make using the smh.com.au a marginally less useful experience than it otherwise could be. It also treats the users like idiots who won’t notice the walls around them. And it’s an approach that forgets that these days, everyone’s home page is Google anyway.
I’d love to know if any studies of bounce rate versus the quantity of outbound links have been carried out, but I’d be willing to bet that users keep coming back to the sites that offer them interesting links to other content, rather than trying to keep them locked in within their own network.
As Jeff Jarvis puts it: “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.”
Or to put it in old fashioned language that Fairfax might understand: “If you love somebody, set them free. If they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”