by Eric Ward

Originally published February 2002

Linking from one web site to another and from one web page to another is the fundamental essence of why the Web was invented.  In a nutshell, researchers needed a way to link between similar documents, and before any dot com even existed, the Web was helping academics and scientists do just that.

Having built and executed content linking campaigns for many years for consumer content sites, I’ve found that most brand web sites fail to provide the type of content that engenders, inspires, or encourages other site to link to them, or online editors to write about them.  I first called this concept “linkability” at a web conference in 1998.  Some sites have a lot of it, others have very little.  Linkability can be thought of as a continuum. A site with nothing worth linking to will fall on the left side of the continuum, and a site with significant linkable assets will fall on the far right.

Case in point. On the far right side of our linkability continuum, I give you the National Library of Medicine web site, which as of this writing has nearly a million links pointing to various pages of their site.  Why?  Because they have great content, many linkable assets, easily located and with short URLs.  See why they are on the right end of the linkability continuum?  On the left end are three page marketing sites, aka glorified business cards, and/or sites with little content or with content that’s hidden within databases or behind pull down menus or buried within Flash elements.

Ironically, I have also had cases where I worked with sites that did have excellent content, but whose sites were designed in such a way as to make linking to that great content impossible.  Like locking away an encyclopedia in a safe.

One major print magazine had a web site where they posted all their articles from the print magazine on the web after 60 days.  Doing this makes sense for them. The problem was that all the articles were buried within a database that could not be linked to in any way, thus negating one of the web’s greatest powers; linking from one page to another.  The URLs for these articles changed with every page load, further limiting the chance for pass along of the URLs from one person to another via email, discussion lists, etc., since the URL you sent for that great article you were reading would not work for me when I clicked it.

These and other linkability problems are both important and correctable.  There are some key site architecture issues to consider from a linking perspective, just as there are from a SEO (Search Engine Optimization) perspective.

But before focusing on site architecture issues, remember that the key driver of links is and always will be the quality of the content.  People run web sites, and those people make linking decisions every day.  Some sites don’t offer links, others do. Some sites want money for links, others don’t. Some sites want links back to them in return, others don’t. For every web site, there are a collection of online venues (search engines, directories, web guides, topical link lists, discussion lists, writers, etc., that may link to it, based on the subject matter and content quality. The challenge is finding them and contacting them properly.

Eric