January 10, 2018

Linking Less and Talking More: Disappearing Web Mentions

The World Wide Web was designed to primarily do three things - inform, discover and connect. A globally connected series of documents could instantly bring you to the thoughts and experiences of someone across the world. In the earliest designs of the Web, it was through hyperlinks that you would find those new voices. Links brought you new sources of data, and those downstream documents led you even further to new people and ideas.

As the Web evolved, and incorporated photos, videos, streaming, and all manner of media, discovery expanded to include search. Without an explicit link, you could still find pointers to new content in the results of your query. Destination sites, acting as content hubs, would surface new content, usually within their network, of recommendations you might like. Ads, essentially links with pretty pictures, would offer another exit.

WebCrawler: One of the Web's first search engines
When blogging was the main medium of first person information sharing, prior to the rise and later domination of real time social streams, the way we discovered new voices was through links to others. I'd mention those I agreed with and highlight, with more links, those I didn't. One popular feature in practically everyone's sidebar was a blogroll, to show those with closest ties or just who we liked to read. And there were custom search engines, like Technorati, which when combined with tools like Google Alerts, could let you know when somebody mentioned you on the Web.

Technorati: The original blog and link search engine
But over time, a number of things happened to chop away at this fluffy cloud of friendly discovery.

1. Many Blogs Gravitated Toward Internal Linking, Not External Linking
The big sites realized that keeping visitors on their own site was more profitable and aided their metrics more than sending them away did. And while there is obvious irony in my posting to my own discussions on this from the past, we actually had lengthy discussions about these internal linking practices in 2007 (Part two and part three
Arguments a decade ago in favor of internal linking were that site visitors were familiar with companies and topics discussed, and could see previous coverage by their publication to learn more if they weren't. And any link off site started feeding the ad revenues of a potential competitor.
2. Dedicated Blog Search Sites Didn't Graduate to Quality Businesses
Technorati was a specialized blog search engine that skipped the general Web and went directly to blogs for its content. Its leaderboard of bloggers was closely watched, as were trending topics on the site that led to see what the blogosphere was discussing. But it was seemingly always in financial trouble, and has pivoted beyond recognition to whatever it is now.  
A 2010 interview I had with the company's leadership team claimed a pivot to quality, but their CEO was gone a year later, and so are pretty much all the discovery tools that initially aided me to find some of the best voices of the Web 2.0 era. And yes, Google Blog Search quietly disappeared not too long afterward.
3. Blog Discussions Pivoted to Real Time Streams and Sharing
As I noted in 2009 (yet another internal link, am I right?), linking between communities was declining in favor of retweets on Twitter or sharing into the stream. The microburst of a little site traffic would provide that one time dopamine hit, but not leave a trail for later web spiders to find.
My top referring sites, via Google Analytics, from previous years

As the social streams of Twitter and Facebook took over, and bloggers (me too) got distracted, the share became the canonical mention. Your mentions on Twitter, or your notification of shares on Facebook, were faster delivered and easily quantifiable. And individual profile owners are quite unlike the publishers looking to deep dive into their analytics to discern where traffic came from.

Today, Brent Simmons laments the result of all the mentions going to the streams and leaving the Web. With links decreasing, and blog search being a relic, he yearns for a way to find again how his business is mentioned on the web or when he is being linked to. Joe Gregorio, like me, wistfully remembers analysis of referral logs to find how people found you... all through links.

Simmons' proposal is a limited one, keeping it to the MacOS/iOS community. A small project like that shouldn't be too challenging, but it speaks to a bigger problem, where the connections we once demanded are an afterthought behind the latest viral tweet and trending Facebook share. Streams are ephemeral, but the Web was built to last. It'd be great to see new voices building, informing and connecting again.

Disclosures: I work at Google and am on the Google Analytics product. So I think about publisher tools and visitor stats more than most.

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