Last year, Bill Janeway really got my attention (pdf) when he noted that “over time, Wall Street ‘firms began to trade against their clients for their own account, such that now, the direct investment activities of a firm like Goldman Sachs dwarf their activities on behalf of outside customers.’” As I wrote in my blog post at the time, Trading for Their Own Account, “I thought, whither Google, Yahoo! and Amazon?”

At the time, I noted the way that more and more information that was once delivered by independent web sites was now being delivered directly by search engines, and that rather than linking out to others, there were strong signs of a trend towards keeping the link flow to themselves.

This thought re-surfaced when Techcrunch launched Crunchbase. Now, rather than linking directly to companies covered in its stories, Techcrunch links to one of its own properties to provide additional information about them. I noticed the same behavior the other day on the New York Times, when I followed a link, and was taken to a search result for articles on the subject at the Times (with lots of ads, even if there were few results).

Journalism professor Jay Rosen noticed this too, and wrote the tweet that sparked this post:

@NYTimesComm Could you try to find out for me why Week in Review pieces do not link out even when vital to the story? http://is.gd/1Hzd

Follow Jay’s link and you come to a story that indeed doesn’t have any outbound links, except to other Times stories. Now, I understand the value of linking to other articles on your own site — everyone does it — but to do so exclusively is a small tear in the fabric of the web, a small tear that will grow much larger if it remains unchecked.

Business Week is also getting into the act, per a New York Times article entitled Topic Pages to Be Hub of New BusinessWeek Site:

The core of Business Exchange is hundreds of topic pages, on subjects as broad as the housing market and as narrow as the Boeing 787. Plans call for the number of topic pages to grow quickly into the thousands. (The first one created, which may or may not be in the public version of Business Exchange, was “BlackBerry vs iPhone.”)

Want to place a bet whether articles in the magazine will link exclusively to these “topic pages?” At least Business Week plans to have outbound links from the topic pages (Crunchbase does this too, just siphoning off the first step in the link stream, unlike the NYT roach-motel links.)

Each Business Exchange topic page links to articles and blog posts from myriad other sources, including BusinessWeek’s competitors, with the contents updated automatically by a Web crawler. Nearly all traditional news organizations offer only their own material, spurning the role of aggregator as an invitation to readers to leave their sites.

When this trend spreads (and I say “when”, not “if”), this will be a tax on the utility of the web that must be counterbalanced by the utility of the intervening pages. If they are really good, with lots of useful, curated data that you wouldn’t easily find elsewhere, this may be an acceptable tax. In fact, they may even be beneficial, and a real way to increase the value of the site to its readers. If they are purely designed to capture additional clicks, they will be a degradation of the web’s fundamental currency, much like the black hat search engine pages that construct link farms out of search engine results.

I’d like to put out two guidelines for anyone adopting this “link to myself” strategy:

  1. Ensure that no more than 50% of the links on any page are to yourself. (Even this number may be too high.)
  2. Ensure that the pages you create at those destinations are truly more valuable to your readers than any other external link you might provide.

The web is a great example of a system that works because most sites create more value than they capture. Maybe the tragedy of the commons in its future can be averted. Maybe not. It’s up to each of us.

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