Sections: Context, How to investigate, What to do, Other examples, Conclusion, Epilogue
If you see a blog post titled “10 Iconic Journalists Every J-Student Should Study” and want to share it, please consider what you’re attaching your name to on the interwebs.
At the time of posting, more than 70 people have tweeted the link. That’s fine. Some, most or maybe all of them think it’s worth sharing. No problem there.
But I’ve wondered since last night, when I first saw the link, if people realized what it was: linkbaiting.
Thus, I’m consciously not linking to the post. Here’s the URL if you’d like to see it — just add and change [dot] to a period:
This type of linkbaiting is slimy and is meant to inflate the site’s PageRank.
Of course we all want links to our sites. There’s nothing wrong with that. But do you want to be a party to this sort of practice? It’s gaming the web and devalues higher-quality content that receives links organically (somewhat related).
I received an email notification that I had a new message sent through my blog’s contact form at 12:37 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2010. Here are the details:
We posted an article, " 10 Iconic Journalists Every JStudent Should Study” (http://www.onlinecolleges.net/2010/01/04/10-iconic-journalists-every-jstudent-should-study/), and I thought that you or your readers might find it appealing.
Wishing you Happy & Prosperous New Year
I’ve received a few messages like this in the past and planned to disregard this one too. Judging by the approach and complete lack of personalization (that’s right, don’t even use my name in the note, which is probably submitted by some kind of script), I guessed that other journalism bloggers had received also it.
Sure enough, I saw a few links to it on Twitter within minutes. Did they think it was linkbait?
How to investigate
1. What is the URL?
The domain is the first possible indicator. For the “10 Iconic Journalists” post, this should set off the first set of warning bells:
Come on, it looks fishy from onset. You probably wouldn’t open an email from Online Colleges, nor would you likely click such a textlink ad in your email program, so why would you want be a relay point for that promotion?
2. What’s on the site?
College-related content and search.
3. Does this content on this site seem out of place?
Does a site called Online Colleges really care what journalism students study? No, they want you to use their service. Look at the other recent blog content. And the email sender was “savvy with their target group — journalists on Twitter — who will tweet and RT the hell out of the link,” as Daniel Petty said in a reply. It’s very smart of them to have authorititave people with strong reputations to generate buzz.
4. Who owns the site?
Whenever this isn’t immediately clear on the about page or in the footer, you should be suspicious. Why don’t they list it?
5. Who owns the URL?
OnlineColleges.net is registered to Stephanie Marchetti of Glen Ellyn, IL. Based on a search of her name and search of her email address, it looks as though she’s registered other similarly named domains, such as graduatedegree[dot]org, mbainfo[dot]com and eduers[dot]com. She owns a total of 51 domains, according to DomainTools.com.
The registrant’s address is a home listed on Zillow (buy now!) and looks to be a nice 6-bed, 4.5-bath house on a 20,000-square-foot piece of property.
After more searching, it looks like she’s married to Michael J. Marchetti, who Forbes and Business Week list as executive VP and COO of Dallas-based Tuesday Morning Corporation.
What does all this mean? I don’t know. I wish I still had access to LexisNexis and Accurint. But now you have some more context.
Note: I couldn’t find anything connecting her to the email address that sent the message to my blog.
6. Who has previously linked to the site?
Search link:URL on Google (substitute the address for URL and make sure there’s no space between it and the link: search operator).
7. Who sent the link?
8. Is it a real person?
The name sounded like a fake when I first saw the message, so I searched Amber Johnson, Amber Johnson + advertising, Amber Johnson + pr, Amber Johnson + Online Colleges, etc, etc. with no luck.
I also searched that name with the registrants name — without success.
9. If it’s not a real person, who is it?
I searched the email address from my contact form and didn’t find anything helpful until I put quotes around it. After the search, sometime during the 1 a.m. hour, I got one result, which included this:
- 18.104.22.168 of INDIA claims to be email@example.com reported for SPAM
The IP address links to a page with more details, which indicates the email bounced off a telecom company server in India. Not very helpful, but an important step in this investigation.
As I did all this, I was chatting with Daniel Bachhuber on IM (Daniel aptly noted that someone might just be using that particular server to send the message; it might not be the actual computer from where it was sent) and posting a few key details to Twitter (read some of the discussion).
I also searched “amber.johnson1983,” which gave me four results last night, including the one from the above search. Two results showed the same message I received and the other showed a similarly spammy request.
What to do
It’s important to always open links before you retweet or share them online. It doesn’t hurt to check the short URL or text of a tweet or DM beforehand if it’s suspect.
It’s also good to read, watch, listen to or in some other way consume the content on that page before you share (I’ll admit that I too could do a better job of fully consuming the content).
You could also follow steps similar what I did with the “10 Iconic Journalists” post.
Take away the source and context and the big question is, “Does this provide value?” Or, “Does this meaninfully add to the conversation?” Regardless of everything else, I knew from seeing the content that I found this post to have no real value. (OK, maybe just a tad in stirring comments of who should be on the list).
Similar linkbait-for-journalists examples
Journalistics — I’ll admit that their blog is not without some value. But it doesn’t seem like people realize (nor note when linking to them) that they’re blog is meant to advance their product, which is similar to HARO.
- 91 Journalism Blogs and Web site you will love (cached version) [disclosure: they link to me]
The piece that most reeks of linkbait? Best Schools for Journalism post. The post at least adds context that the results are based on the informal poll of 205 people and, without saying so, let’s you know how useless it is.
Learn-gasm — This example is comparable to OnlineColleges.net. Basically, they’re linking to 100 sites in the hope of getting links back to them in order to inflate their PageRank. I recall that they, like OnlineColleges, also asked me to link to them:
- 100 Best Blogs for Journalism Students (cached version)
Don’t take the linkbait. Whether it’s an unknown site that looks spammy or a big site trying to keep their traffic up throughout the day by posting new content with little value, you don’t want to be known as someone who falls for this and, by making the bait-layer successful, strengthening the practice.
What’s the best etiquette? I think it’s ok to send someone a message such as, “Hey, I thought you’d be interested in this” or “I’d love your thoughts on this” and let the person do what they want. They’ll link it on their own if they like it. I’m more likely to not share a link if you ask just because I don’t want to open the door to more solicitations.
For the newsy crowd, journalists shouldn’t include a source or a source’s information in a story without verifying who they are and what they’re motivation is, so why not do the same on Twitter?
Sure, you don’t have to. But with all the noise and what I’ll call chaff-disguised-as-wheat online, why not — as a journalist — do your due diligence when sharing a link? And, sure, you may say a link or RT is not an endorsement, but it might still be perceived as such.
It’s not simply about denying linkbaiters their pageviews and buzz marketing, it’s about your credibility and reputation as a trusted source of information.
Moreover, verifying information or links you pass along is something everyone, not just journalists should do, no matter the medium. And, if you can’t verify it, provide the necessary context (more good reading on that topic).
Link journalism makes context easy in stories online. But the link in itself is not necessarily journalism — it’s what you do to verify its source and accuracy that makes it journalism and, thus, more valuable.
“Because it’s on the web” is no excuse for not verifying. That just leads to low-quality content, of which there’s plenty online. Instead, you should strive for the best quality because there’s so much garbage out there.
Far too often people tweet or retweet something as a knee-jerk, whether they read it or not. It seems that some people have become accustomed to over-sharing links. They might be well intentioned, but I would just like those frequent linkers to think:
- Is this really providing value?
- Is this unique? Specifically, has it been tweeted a million and two times already?
True, we all have different audiences and even having many overlapping followers doesn’t mean you should leave out the others who might not have seen it. We all need to be more discerning about what we share — and we need to know where it comes from.
There’s plenty of linking, but I’d like to see more thinking along with it.
Because we’re talking about links to lists, I’ll also say that all these of specific skills journalists need to have are all well and good, but the fundamentals are more important. Specifically, thinking critically and being skeptical.
UPDATE (3:17 p.m.): A hilarious parody graphic of the iconic journos list from my buddy S.P. Sulllivan.
UPDATE/BONUS LINK (4:50 p.m.): Craig Kanalley on how to verify a Tweet (h/t Ryan Sholin).
Disclosure: I work for Publish2, a company that helps power link journalism. If you think this post is ironic considering the topic, I’d reply “nay.” The purpose of this post is to add value and it is clear who I am, what I’m doing and where I’m coming from. I appreciate links, but I don’t solicit them.
9 thoughts on “Linkbaiting, thinking while linking and why link journalism requires more than just a URL”
I’m one of those who tweeted the iconic journalists list. Do I feel bad about that? Not a bit.
I did the visit the site before re-tweeting it: I always do. And once you had tweeted that you considered it linkbait, I tweeted that, too.
So the source was suspect, and they got a hit from me and, maybe, from some of the people who follow me. Their page rank (maybe) went up, but page ranks go down, too, when web sites don’t deliver long-term value. You can only game the system for so long.
In the meantime, the post got me thinking about who would be on my list of iconic figures from journalism, something I wouldn’t otherwise of been considering. And that reminds me that there are icons I need to keep pointing my students to.
Was visiting the site and RTing an act of responsible journalism? Of course not. Was it sharing information that I found to be of some interest, at least as a starting point to more thought and, perhaps, more conversation? Yes.
So, unlike your experience with the site, I did find value in it, linkbait or not.
(I find value in your post here, too, and will be pointing my students to it as well, as both a cautionary tale and a skillset for web sleuthing. And, no, that is not to suggest in any way that the two posts are of equal value.)
Thanks, Mark. Your point about long-term value is spot-on: that site may get some hits today, but it’s ephemeral popularity.
Very good post, Greg. I’m actually going to share this in my online journalism classes. I also got that e-mail, but my problem was a simpler one: I thought the list was too short and too 20th century. And it didn’t even mention IF Stone or Hunter S. Thompson or Molly Ivins or …
And Anderson Cooper? Really?
I’ve started using this criteria for judging blog comments. It’s helpful, but sometimes I worry I am going to far.
Nearly every comment I get on my blog seems like spam. It’s making me crazy – lots of vague things like “found your blog on delicious” or “love this post” by people I don’t know. Some are obvious, when they have products in their name. Others not so, when it’s someone’s blog.
Do you have advice? Should I be ruling heavy handed or lightly?
@Eileen: Haha, I know the feeling.
Some context on my blog comments:
– I require people to include a name and email to comment.
– The Akismet WordPress plugin catches almost all the spam comments I receive.
– I have comments set up to auto-approve if the person has had a comment previously approved (I only did this recently after an onslaught of spam comments).
For those held for moderation, I’m usually am able to judge the commenter in one or two steps.
First, what data have they left about themselves? Specifically, does their email address or website seem suspicious?
Second, what’s in the content in their comment? Sometimes it’s something very benign that seems like a typical comment, but others like to try to hide a spammy URL in there.
If there’s no website, the email looks normal and the comment is somewhat substantive, I’ll allow it. Judging solely by the content you mentioned — “found your blog on delicious” or “love this post” — I’d presume guilt until found innocent.
I don’t put too much time into vetting the typical comment, but I usually err on the side of being safe. For my blog, I know almost all the legit commenters or can look them up easily.
I hope that’s helpful!