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Why does the BBC want to send its readers away? The value of linking

The BBC aims to double the number outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That’s double the number of people sent away from the BBC site — intentionally. In a recent BBC blog post, BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann cites a BBC strategy review document which lays out the goal of

Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites.

One external link per page will seem laughably low to any seasoned blogger, but intentionally increasing outbound traffic is positively radical for a mainstream newsroom. It’s a goal that might baffle proponents of the walled garden approach to web sites, or raise howls of protest among those who feel that aggregators are parasites, but Herrmann wrote that the BBC sees it as a service to its readers:

Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story — take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites — link to them.

This comes in the wake of £600 million in cuts to the BBC budget, about 15 percent of the huge organization’s spending. That includes a 25-percent cut to the BBC website’s budget, which will halve the number of top-level sections by 2013. The BBC has also delayed its iPad/iPhone news reading application in the U.K. after industry complaints that it is crowding private newsrooms out of the market. (American users can already use the iPad app.)

Is the BBC’s plan to increase external links an enlightened editorial policy, or is this just spin on a downsizing announcement? Are they aiming to provide a valuable curation service to their readers, have they been forced by regulators to reduce the scope of their work, or is this really a cash-strapped move towards a cheaper, aggregator-style news organization? I asked Herrmann to explain.

He told me by email that

The strategy envisages the BBC as a cultural and public space, one that isn’t trying to sell anything and can be trusted. It sets out the aim of building this broader public space by working with other public cultural organisations to share and promote a wider range of content.

So the principle for BBC Online, which covers news, weather, sport and programme content, is that it should be “a window on the web”, guiding audiences to the best of the internet as well as partnering with external providers — and that is why we want to increase the click-throughs.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that competitive concerns played some role in the decision. “We do need to leave space for others,” he wrote.

The move is also about transparency. In an age where many source documents are available in electronic form online, there’s often little reason that readers shouldn’t have access to the same material that reporters use to write their stories. Yet the practice of showing your sources is still less then common among many news organizations. I asked Herrmann if the BBC had a specific policy on source linking.

This is something else I have raised in the blog. There should be a principle that we do link to the most relevant and useful information, including the source documents, wherever we can. That’s not something new — we’ve always had huge interest from users in the source documents we make available for government budget announcements, for example — but it is a restatement of the principle, and a signal of our intent to try to do this as well as we possibly can. Also, as I have started to discuss in the blog post, there is some devil in the detail — for example sometimes the source document isn’t online at time of writing, or it is behind a paywall, or requires subscription — so we are thinking these things through. I’m interested in trying to formulate and develop the best policy with the help of the detailed feedback we are getting from our users.

There is a lively discussion around the details of an ideal source linking policy in the comments to Herrmann’s post, especially as regards academic journals and other non-free sources. It’s also worth mentioning the DocumentCloud project, a serious attempt to build a journalistic document repository which solves some of these problems, such as keeping documents private before publication.

But does the courtesy of linking extend to your competition? “Do what you do best and link to the rest” has become a new-media maxim, but mainstream news organizations are still loathe to send readers to someone else’s reporting. So does the BBC intend to link more often to stories produced by other news sources?

Yes, news organisations and other sources. That is the focus of my recent blog post. We are in the process of working out what this means for our day-to-day working practices on the newsdesk, how to link more but also better. We’ve had links on stories since we started, and we have long had an automated module that pulls in related stories from other news sites, but how can technology help us to do this even better, and what does the journalist working on a story need to change in the way they approach what they do?

Aggregators flourish because users find them useful. The weekly link roundup and the top-ten list remain perennial blogging forms. And while every statement in news writing is supposed be attributed, in practice Wikipedia articles link to their sources far more reliably than news stories. The BBC may be on to something here.

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  • Frank

    I don’t think you fully appreciate how much pressure the BBC is under from commercial news producers. Providing outside links is one way to mollify them, though it’s absurd to package them as ‘sources’ when in actual fact they’re simply reprinting the same wire story the BBC worked off most of the time. Don’t fall for the spin that outside linking is some sort of public service. It’s a political necessity if they want to survive under what could soon be a Conservative, anti-BBC government in Britain.

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  • Steven Rothberg

    There’s also significant search engine optimization (SEO) value to the site with outbound links. When you have a handful or two per page and they’re not part of your template, Google, Bing, and the other major search engines are smart enough to understand that you’re helping your readers find additional relevant content. And that makes your site more relevant to your readers and therefore to Google, Bing, and the other search engines.

    Sites which are deemed by Google, Bing, and the other search engines as being more relevant appear higher in the search results and therefore receive a much higher percentage of traffic from those search engines. So when the BBC sends some clicks away to other sites, it is likely receiving even more clicks from the search engines. Clever. Very clever.

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  • Kevin Heisler

    Thanks, Jonathan for linking to the BBC Strategy document and offering a thoughtful analysis of the value of linking, a practice that benefits readers and the current incarnation of the Internet. I appreciate your efforts to encourage mainstream media journalists to link liberally.

    Unfortunately, outbound linking doesn’t have the impact on SEO (search engine optimization) that Steven suggests. In fact, the NYT and WSJ have the right business strategy for traditional newspapers online. Linking to their own articles improves their ranking in search engines, based on the search algorithms of Google and Bing. Their teams of SEO professionals are among the best in the industry.

    Wikipedia has rather severe restrictions on external linking and actually discourages the practice within the body of an article, where the anchor text would have SEO value. Here’s the :

    Who does Wikipedia recommend NOT linking to?

    “Links to blogs, personal web pages and most fansites, except those written by a recognized authority. (This exception is meant to be very limited; as a minimum standard, recognized authorities always meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria for biographies.)”

    Wikipedia article writers most often link to newspapers, magazines, academic journals and the mainstream media.

    Per Wikipedia, “Self-published media—including but not limited to books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, Internet forum postings, and tweets—are largely not acceptable.
    Self-published material may in some circumstances be acceptable when produced by an established expert on the topic of the article whose work in the relevant field has previously been published by reliable third-party publications. Caution should be exercised when using such sources: if the information in question is really worth reporting, someone else is likely to have done so. Self-published sources should never be used as third-party sources about living persons, even if the author is a well-known professional researcher or writer.”

    I have to agree with Frank that the BBC has no choice but to function as a hub or window on the web given their government funding and competitive strength. Most breaking news is essentially “duplicate content” on the Internet. The BBC can’t compete globally for breaking news with Twitter, bloggers and citizen journalists. For-profit media conglomerates have no choice but to fire staff, as ABC did, and share news resources, as CNN/CBS often discuss.

    Sources and access are the only competitive advantage that journalists possess. If Google decides to give a search engine story to the New York Times first, the Times is not going to link to Google’s yet-to-be published blog post, or a digital recording of say, Marissa Mayer’s phone conversation with a reporter, including the reporter’s questions.

    Google will eventually post the news in greater depth than the Times website will. It’s not realistic to expect journalists to give away the only thing they can sell to us.

    I’m much less cynical about Steve Herrmann and the BBC News website’s efforts to crowdsource their linking policy. They’re being transparent and open about the process and have encouraged debate about the Link Economy. That’s a good thing.

  • Jonathan Stray

    Kevin, thanks for the thoughtful comments. A few notes.

    - I agree that outbound linking doesn’t directly affect SEO. But if your pages are more useful to others, well, they’re more likely to link to you, which does affect SEO.

    – A note on the Wikipedia linking policy for those who might not be as deep into this as you and I. Wikipedia does not discourage external linking when used to cite sources. In fact such links are in principle required for every factual statement. The policy you referred to says, “The subject of this guideline is external links that are not citations to sources supporting article content.” As I’m sure you know, Wikipedia articles are chock full of external links for source citations. Sadly, the same cannot be said for mainstream news reporting.

    – “Sources and access are the only competitive advantage that journalists possess.” I can think of several others, including subject expertise and the ability to get something published in a prominent place. In any case, I do expect journalists to show me their full sources. I as a reader may be able to listen to the conversation that the Times reporter had with Marissa Mayer, but she won’t answer the phone for just anyone.

    Also consider that anyone could do what e.g. Politifact does, but very few people do. Doing something consistently and well has value even if you’re not the only one who could do it.

    Thanks for responding,

    – Jonathan

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