Sunday, January 8, 2012

To Link or Not to Link - and When

Everyone wants links to their website.  You get more people happening upon your site, and you get better SERPs (search engine results placement).  More links means more eyeballs.  But there is a time when links are more trouble than they're worth.

Back in the day, everybody just linked to each other.  Remember "web rings" and link pages?  That was the beginning of SEO.  But like the rest of the Internet the perception of who links to whom has evolved.

Links to other websites have been used since 1995 to reference related content.  It made it easier for webmasters to connect content without having to duplicate it and take up space on their own server, or to reference copyrighted content that could not be legally duplicated.

When you put a link on your website to another website, you are implying an endorsement.  It's a big sign post that says, "Hey, look at this!  It's good stuff!"  If it wasn't related to your content, or beneficial to your site, you wouldn't bother.

Linking to other sites can have a downside.  It can take attention away from what you're promoting or selling.  If the linked site changes its content, it can reflect negatively on your presentation.

What if there is a conflict between the sites' purposes, regardless of the content?  For example, if the Playboy Foundation wanted to link to Dunwoody Baptist Church, would DBC benefit?  I doubt they would think so because the organizations' philosophies are so different.  Or what if a local city government wanted to link to one of their houses of worship - but only one, out of many in town.  You just ran head-first into the First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of religion.

Dunwoody City Council is discussing adding links to community groups on its website.  (First agenda item for Monday's meeting.)  Having worked with government entities and organizations with government connections, I am very familiar with this type of situation.

The Background:  The DHA approached City Hall and requested that a link to the DHA be placed on the main page at, alongside the Chamber of Commerce and CVB.

Problem:  the entire reason for the links to the Chamber and CVB was because of an agreement between those two organizations and city government to create a "unified branding" to reinforce each other.  The DHA was not involved in this agreement.

If the City added a link to the DHA (and ONLY the DHA) in addition to the Chamber and CVB, everyone is between a rock and a hard place.  The Chamber and CVB are bound to a strict style guide in their marketing because of the branding agreement.  There are all kinds of restrictions on how they may or may not use images, logos, colors, etc in all of their materials, including the websites.  It can be a real hassle for each group to distinguish itself from City Hall.  (Ask me how I know....)

So on one side, if the DHA were to be displayed as the Chamber and CVB, they would have to be bound by the same marketing restrictions.  Since becoming more familiar with the DHA, I don't see that happening in this time-space continuum.

On the other side, if the DHA didn't have to follow the same branding style restrictions, the CVB and the Chamber would be on the phone screaming bloody murder at City Hall 2 minutes after the link appeared.

Beyond the implications of the branding project, you have the implied endorsement.  A prominent link by the City to the DHA alone implies endorsement of that organization, to the exclusion of all others.  Every other HOA in town would bristle.  How is it fair for a city government to endorse one HOA but not others?  The arguments over that scenario would make the Chicken Debacle look like a toddlers' playdate at Brook Run.

Hutmacher, in his memo associated with the recommendations (linked above) takes the right approach for any organization faced with the question of building links.  It's a good rule of thumb for any business looking to reference or endorse information outside their own website:

1)  If your business or organization is part of a larger national or international group, consult their guidelines first before adding any more that may conflict.  The memo points out that ".gov" domains have inflexible regulations on advertising private entities.  I learned about that working on websites for both M. D. Anderson (a state-funded hospital) and the DAR (a private organization that was incorporated by an Act of Congress which brings with it responsibilities for their content and the potential for intervention by the Feds.)

2)  Decide what information or content would enhance your site without competing with it. Think about what would make good reference material, or what would make your business or organization appear to be an authority on your subject.

3)  Use a legal disclaimer.  Disclaimers are the final protection between your intentions on your website and a court of law.  But it won't change the visitor's impression:  that your site is endorsing another.  Hutmacher's memo indicates a disclaimer that would absolve the City of any legal ramifications of a link to other content.  In addition, the memo outlines classes of content to be added as community organizations as a whole.  If a single link to a single HOA were added to the exclusion of all others, that would be an endorsement no matter what kind of disclaimer was posted.  But when you add all HOA's, plus houses of worship, and schools etc for good measure, that perceived endorsement is diluted.  The proposed content becomes an authoritative reference on Dunwoody life.

4)  Create a clear website policy going forward regarding the evaluation of links to outside content.  It will make your life much easier when this question comes again.  There will always be something new on the Internet (social media, anyone?) that may or may not be worth referencing.  With a clear focus on your site's goals, you can make decisions about outside links that will strengthen and reinforce your company's web presence equally and fairly even as the Internet evolves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the chamber is not a government agency so I don't think it should be on the city home page.