OJR interview transcript: Linking policies

Written by Adrian Holovaty on September 16, 2003

Online Journalism Review's Mark Glaser interviewed me for his latest article, News Sites Loosen Linking Policies. As I have done previously, I've posted the interview transcript here for anyone who's interested.

UPDATE: Jonathan Dube and Jeff Jarvis, two other sources interviewed in the story, have posted their transcripts, too:

Here's mine:

At the sites you've worked for, what have been their policies for linking to outside sites? Any restrictions?

When I worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site, the only policy we had regarding outside links was to open them in a new window. We used them only occasionally.

Here in Lawrence, we gladly link to outside sites, including competing news sites, whenever appropriate. Our philosophy is that linking to helpful outside sites actually improves our credibility and helps solidify our reputation as the one-stop-shop for the niches we cover (University of Kansas sports, the Lawrence music scene and Lawrence news in general).

The best example I can think of is our coverage of the hiring of a new basketball coach at KU. We knew that Jayhawk fans from across the country would be checking our site every five minutes, hungry for any updates, so we gladly provided deep links to outside coverage as a service to our readers.

You know what? It worked. That coverage resulted in some of the highest traffic numbers KUsports.com had ever seen. The traffic spike was probably not *directly* related solely to our publishing of external links, but I have no doubt the links played a part. It's clear people weren't leaving our site through outside links; they were actually visiting us *more*.

Another example: On the home page of Lawrence.com, we used to have an "Overheard" box, in which our editor would put a tantalizing quote either from our message boards or from an outside message board (usually Larryville.com, a rather controversial, independently-run community board). We didn't get much feedback, good or bad, about this, but it's another example of our philosophy.

(We got rid of the "Overheard" box recently, but only because the home page was getting a bit too bloated.)

What do you think about news sites restricting links to outside sites? Is that good or bad news judgment?

I think it's more than a question of news judgment; it's also a question of business rules. Some site managers see outside links as a threat, and they make the business decision not to include them, or at least to limit their use.

I don't agree with that thinking, though. Sites that knowingly restrict links to outside sites are selling themselves short. It's a classic example of not embracing the Web.

The way I see it, editors who are afraid of linking to other sites clearly don't trust the value of their content. If an editor is really proud of his or her site, why on earth would he or she worry about users clicking away to other sites? Wouldn't it make sense that a well-done site would be visited regularly by people who are interested in its contents? Where's the trust? Where's the professional pride? I just don't get it.

If nothing else, a news site should include a relevant external link if the story itself has to do with a Web site. I've read Web stories in the past that have devoted paragraphs of explanation to a Web site or service, without linking to the thing! Can you believe that?

What about sites that don't want readers to go to other sites? Do these links drive traffic away from their site in a meaningful number?

I don't know official numbers, but, for what it's worth, I can say from personal experience and observation that links do not drive reader traffic away.

Do you believe Weblogs will change outside linking policies, making them more liberal in the future?

Absolutely. Weblogs have proved that there is value in aggregating links for a particular niche. Romenesko is the perfect example.

Any other comments about outside linking?

A side topic is the question of whether to open a new window for external links -- an issue that's been debated for quite some time. I side with the people who encourage Web developers not to open new windows, because I prefer to browse using tabs, and getting smacked with a new window is quite disruptive. I'll control my Web browsing experience, thank you very much. Opening new windows also could confuse novice Web users (I've seen it happen), and it causes accessibility problems.

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