Ecosytem and the Value of Links

N.Z. Bear asked for my 2 cents’ worth on an question he posted a couple days ago:

[S]hould a link from a blogger who has hundreds or even thousands of links to anyone and everyone on their page be worth exactly the same as a link from a more reserved blogger who only has a small number of outbound links?

In the Ecosystem right now, all links are equal. But I’m considering changing that. It doesn’t seem right to me that if Blogger A links to 3,000 other blogs, and Blogger B only links to 300, that those blogs receiving the links from B get exactly the same “credit” as those receiving one of A’s few thousand links.

A link is a recommendation; it says, “Go look over here, and you’ll find something interesting.” So should a recommendation from someone who says everything is interesting be considered as valuable as one from someone who seems to choose their recommendations with more care?

I agree with the problem but not the solution. And I don’t know what the solution is, really.

The problem, as I see it, is artificial links, not profligate linking. Glenn Reynolds is a linking fool and nobody that I know of thinks that’s a bad thing. His links, as with the links that most of us generate, represent exactly what Bear wants them to: a recommendation or at least an acknowledgement of the specific work of another individual. (Or, in the case of the link to Reynolds in this paragraph, a courtesy to the linkee and potentially unfamiliar readers.)

By contrast, we have what I term “artificial” links. These are rote links, often by bloggers who haven’t even visited the site in question. The reciprocal links generated by inline trackbacks and, especially, open trackback posts, are one form. For reasons I’ve explained previously, they don’t represent a recommendation by the blogger whose post contained the link.

Two other forms are widely used: Carnivals and Reciprocal Blogrolls. The former, pioneered by Bigwig at Silflay Hraka, is a compendium of self-submitted links to blog posts published, usually on a rotating basis, once a week. Bear himself highlights the dozens of these things. Originally designed to garner traffic and attention to especially good posts (in the opinion of the creator, at least) they have become linkwhoring festivals as more and more of these beasts get created and, frankly, unread.

The latter, including such things as the Alliance of Free Blogs, the Blogroll for Bush, and the Pro Life Blogs have always been strictly link whoring exercises. Basically, one joins the group with a promise to display a link to the site of the guy who started that particular blogroll and a copy of the blogroll itself. In cases of particularly successful efforts, this can result in dozens if not hundreds of “unearned” links back to one’s site.

If Bear can figure out a way to filter out artificial links without taking out too many legitimate ones, I’m all for it. Unfortunately, all this gamesmanship on the part of enterprising climbers has pretty much ruined the Ecosystem as an interesting measure of blogosphere influence. If tweaking the counting rules to discourage these games can restore the original purpose of the list, I’m all for it.

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Blogosphere, Uncategorized, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    Sounds like bear is trying to do something akin to what Google does with its ranking algorithm.

    It’s an interesting attempt, but I feel it will be ultimately fruitless. Links have been so bastardized that they are essentially useless these days.

  2. The proper solution, of course, would be to not count links in blogrolls – only links in posts.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    On thing is for sure, no matter what N.Z. Bear does, bloggers will adapt and change their behavior to try and influence their ranking in quick and easy ways (vs. writing good and interesting posts).

  4. Jay says:

    Yep. That’s the main thing the Bear Flag League is about too, though members aren’t required to roll everybody and the only guaranteed link is from the main BFL page. Carnivals have always been partly about the links, but have become more so as they have proliferated and become more obscure. At least with CotC we get a large number of click-throughs for the participants, and have significantly met the goal of bringing more mainstream readers to business blogging.

    So where do you draw the line? How is an automated tracking system to know what’s a legitimate inline trackback, and what’s naked gaming? What about the equivalent as manual links? What about links TO open trackback posts that aren’t themselves trackbacks and garner advantage for the trackback host?

    I think I would consider stopping at banishing inline trackbacks, for now, if were Bear, to see how it goes before changing further.

  5. Aaron's cc: says:

    On thing is for sure, no matter what N.Z. Bear does, bloggers will adapt and change their behavior to try and influence their ranking in quick and easy ways (vs. writing good and interesting posts).

    Isn’t that why it’s called an Ecosystem and evolution is implied by the categories?

  6. Bithead says:

    The Blog roll Serves a purpose… creating hits.
    Most folks use BLOGROLLING.COM, which would seem to simplify his answer somewhat… simply filtering those inputs would then be a more accurate reflection of *active* links, ones actually showing links generated by content.

    That said, however, this seems to me a backwards move… removing a datapoint which reflects the opinions of a bloggers fellow bloggers… Obviusly, those who have me in their blogrolls must think something of my efforts. Is this esteem to be discounted by intent?

    I would suggest, too, that one method of dealing with the issue, is simply weighting hitcounts higher, except that, as I pointed out last night, those are becoming increasingly unreliable, as well.

  7. Jay says:

    I left this suggestion for NZ…

    A thought:

    You track number of unique links from blog A to blog B now, along with total unique links blog B gets.

    Why not devalue links from blog A to blog B as the number increases, or cap them at some number like 5 or so as far as actually contributing to rank?

    It would mitigate the potential problem of someone who has a blog starting another blog and repeatedly linking themselves to game the system.

    It would leave inline trackbacks as a thing of linky value, but would limit the value of inline trackback overuse.

    It would address manual trackback fests the same way, not having to distinguish inline trackbacks.

    It would reduce the value of “link to this post and send a trackback so it links you in turn” links to the blogger holding the open trackback fest.

    Just a thought. It makes more sense to me than anything else as a blunter of abuse that won’t kill all abuse or take the fun out of the Ecosystem rankings race.

  8. Aakash says:

    I stopped checking my Truth Laid Bear ‘Ecosystem’ ranking awhile back… I don’t know why. Perhaps I should start doing so again… Especially due to it being time for Kevin’s ‘Weblog Awards Contest’.

    Speaking of the topic of links… Thanks for having a reciprocal link policy (and linking to mine!). I hope that you and yours have a great Thanksgiving weekend!

  9. ed says:


    What exactly is the ranking system for? To determine how popular a blog is? How well known it is? How visible it is?

    Isn’t this what unique hits/visitors are for?

    Why don’t you calc the value of a link in combination with the number of unique visitors to that site.

    If you’ve got a blog with 500 linked blogs but only 20 unique visitors per month, then there isn’t really much visibility going on there. But if you’ve got 500 linked blogs and 100,000 unique visitors per month, then that’s a completely different story as that linked blog is now more visible to more visitors.

  10. I never understood this whole ecoblog thing. I should be at rock-bottom in the Bear system as I have hardly any links and haven’t added any in ages. But I’m not at rock bottom. Something’s screwy.

  11. Steve Verdon says:


    Absolutely. So, it is rather amusing for me to watch.

  12. Matt says:

    I’m on the verge of thinking that this is much ado about nothing.

    The link parties hurt absolutely nobody. In fact they provide a gret way of finding new blogs. My blog surfing habits have changed quite a bit over the years. i hardly ever use anyone’s blogroll and instead follow threads of conversations using inline trackbacks. If nothing else, people are making an effort to get some visibility and you can’t blame them for that.

    Trackback parties aren’t gaming the system. Creating a bunch of blogs and linking back to yourself is gaming the system.

  13. I don’t see how an open in-line trackback significantly differs from linking to yourself. So, count it as such.

    And yes, people will continue to game the system.

  14. Eric says:

    In my opinion, humble or not, open trackbacks, inline trackbacks and carnivals are efforts to create new ways of organizing and accessing information on blogs. Sure, some folks are gaming it, but my personal observation is that it isn’t having a lot of effect. What is happening, as Matt points out, is that my own blog surfing style has changed and I’m able, once again, to discover new and fresh sources of information. Open trackbacks means that, instead of one InstaPundit, we have a thousand InstaPundits, ten thousand, whatever.

    The point? Bear can figure out how to not count them within the ecosystem, but it won’t stop their use or value. Viewing them as a negative, which is implied by saying they are used to game the system, is a great way to avoid seeing the value.

  15. Jeff Soyer says:

    I would like to see the ecosystems combined into one, with a formula taking both linkage AND traffic into account. That would be more realistic since there are blogs out there that have almost no traffic but rate in the top hundred or two of the ecosystem because of having so many artificial links or who comment like crazy all over the place.

  16. Eric says:

    Jeff, I happen to normally rank around 110 in the ecosystem, but have artificially low traffic because almost all of my readers use my RSS feeds. According to Sitemeter I average around 200 visitors a day. According to AWStats, which is working directly off my web server logs, I am averaging nearly 1000 unique visitors per day. About 450 of those are hitting my html, the rest are hitting the RSS feeds. Sitemeter is an awful source for determining how many visitors you have. But, because the ecosystem uses it, we are constrained to having it be our visible source of traffic data. By the way, I don’t have “artificial links” or “comment like crazy” Instead, I belong to several interlocking communities and we work together to give everyone in them exposure. Which is what I was trying to describe above.

    I really think there is an element of “stuck inside the system” going on here and failing to recognize the value of new means of connecting the dots of information together.