Links & ranks – the map is not the territory

I’ve become confused about the value of links to rank the influence of bloggers.

Bloggers want traffic

In general, bloggers want ‘traffic’ i.e. visitors to their site. If you invest time in communicating, it’s nice to have an audience. Bigger audience = more feedback = more learning & more connections = more value.

Links indicate traffic

One of the best ways to get traffic is via links from other blogs which point to your posts. The theory then goes, that the more links you have to your site, the more ‘authority’ you have i.e. more people have voted positively for your content by connecting to it. There are then ranks based on the number of links you have whereby more links = higher rank. The higher the rank, the more traffic is assumed and therefore more influence/authority.

But not all links are equal

But here’s where I get confused. Not all links are equal. Sometimes people link to you and you maybe get 5-10 visitors swim down that path. Other links you get 50-100 or more. It’s not always the highest-ranked blogs which pass on the most traffic – sometimes they link so profusely that the tributaries of visitors are spread across a wide plain. Some ‘lower-ranking’ blogs pass on more traffic since they only link occasionally and their readers trust the author’s view and check out the destination site. So all links are equal but some are more equal than others. Links do not indicate traffic.

And traffic does not equal influence

But my confusion doesn’t end there, since not all traffic is equal either. Sometimes you can get 200 people visit a post and not have a single comment. Perhaps the post is self-evident and requires no commentary, but often it’s just that the visitors simply don’t comment. I’d suggest that indicates they’re the wrong type of visitors, sent in error or not specifically interested in the subject matter. The wrong audience for the content and therefore not influenced by it.

Comments indicate influence

‘Good’ traffic (from the author’s perspective) consists of visitors who are engaged with the subject matter and decide to comment. This is how the blogger learns and how the conversation moves forward. Not that every reader must comment on every post they consume of course, but there are certainly those who engage, while others watch from the sidelines. I’d suggest the blog’s influence is much greater on those who comment and engage, than on those who simply read and move on. So comments indicate influence, though influence isn’t restricted to those who comment.

And ranks miss links

Then there’s the ranks themselves, which are tracking the links based on an assumption of traffic based on assumption of influence. Well often the ranks forget to count the links which equal authority which indicate traffic volumes which suggest influence.

So where we end up is a nest of assumptions and an economy of links which may or may not have value in the Bank of Influence.

Assessing influence

Perhaps a more sure way to gauge influence is to count the comments themselves, and the number of participants in those comments and the frequency of times those commenters engage. A lively discussion involving a range of different people, would suggest strong influence on that audience. They are engaged in the content, as evidenced by their being spurred to action to share their opinion.

And a more reliable way to assess traffic would be explicitly via a central hit counter, rather than implicitly via a link counter. Technically, that would require bloggers to add a small piece of code to their blogs in an opt-in system. Traffic indicates reach, if not influence, so it would have some value.

The map is not the territory

Don’t get me wrong, I like that people opt to link to my posts and that their readers value the author’s opinion enough to visit my site. Better still when those visitors kindly comment and share their views.

From this side of the the screen, I can see exactly who comes from where. But when I’m looking at other blogs, and advising people about influence, am I using metrics which have real meaning? Are links really built upon a gold standard safely stored in the influence bank? I’m not so sure. It’s the only currency we have at the moment, but are we just counting shells and beads?

To put it another way, using links and ranks, we do have an influence map, but the map does not seem to be the territory.

  • I’ve long been a sceptic of link ranks determining influence. Two reasons:
    1. Folk like the A-listers will get a lot of link baiting. I.e. Bloggers hoping for a return link.
    2. Not all links are positive. So do negative inbound links mean influence? For example, if I were to make a post saying I was adamant that the world is flat and a hundred people linked to me saying how ridiculous I am, does this mean I’m influential?
    Personally, I prefer a comment over a link, but I’m happy with either. Beggars, choosers and all that. 🙂

  • Excellent points Stephen. So the question then remains, why are we using a map which shows the wrong details, even if it’s correct? (Which often it’s not).
    If blogs are about conversations, why are we not indexing and ranking conversation levels?
    I think if there are lots of conversations, between a variety of people (not just an echo chamber), that shows a certain level of influence.
    And for bloggers, why the whole currency of links if in fact it’s ‘comment-love’ one should be seeking?

  • How about both? Links and comments associated with the same post equalling influence?
    For example, you write a blog post to which I pop over and comment on; then I decide to make a post on my own blog about what you’ve written – my linking to you sends traffic to your blog where others comment on both our blogs.
    These other bloggers go back to their own blogs and write a post linking to you (possibly cutting me out of the equation or giving me a hat tip at the bottom of the post) which causes the same effect…except now they’re discussing the topic of your blog post in their own comment sections of their blogs. And so on and so on.
    Maybe this would mean influence? And if it does, how would you measure it?
    I suppose a good way of testing would be using a blog that receives a lot of comments – TechCrunch or Engadget for example.
    Perhaps tracking commenters on an Engadget post to see if they make a post on the same topic on their own blog and see if it causes a chain effect of further comments and links to the initial post.

  • Ah ok – well, there’s another good point. Trackbacks are certainly a good indicator of influence of one blogger on another, probably more so than links since they indicate a continuation of the debate, rather than a pointer to it.
    Except that trackbacks aren’t universally used (I rarely use them since I often forget to delete the ping if I republish a post to correct errors, formatting or update info).
    James – over here – – suggests that some blog types eg political blogs get lots of vitriolic comments, which don’t in fact reflect influence. And also trolls ramp comment numbers but too do not reflect influence.

  • Morgan … you left out another major problem. The services that count links are often woefully out of date, swamped by the sheer number of blogs.
    I love comments on my blog, love the conversation that goes on there. But I also realize that I have lots of folks who just like reading and don’t want to jump in. So just counting comments isn’t the answer either.
    I don’t know that there is a good way to track all this. So we just muddle on!

  • John – you’re right, either late or not at all. I think that may get solved with investment in servers/faster tracking algorithms.
    And I think it’s A way of assessing influence, but might not be THE way, in which case is it a valid pursuit? There are bloggers who really want links and scour the ranks, but I wonder what it is actually telling them, or us? Perhaps I am missing something they know, hence my confusion.
    I too have spoken to people who will say directly to me that they read my blog, and raise points within it with me in person, but have never offered a written comment. And that’s fine – I agree.
    I am aware of at least one company which has technology which could be used to monitor traffic more accurately and to create influence maps of not just blogs, but media sites too. This one is just going towards beta and I’m yet to test it personally, but I expect there are others who are taking the BlogPulse-type analysis to a much deeper level, combining it with trend analysis and some of the metrics used in advertising to evaluate audience impact.
    That looks promising to me. No doubt we’ll see much more evolution in evaluation over the rest of this year.

  • Measuring blog influence

    Morgan McLintic discusses various metrics for assessing blog influence – and gains plenty of useful comments on the issue. At its heart is the question ‘does size matter?’. We’ve always known in public relations that talking to the right people

  • Stowe Boyd’s Conversation Index – comparing the number of posts on a blog to the number of comments at and trackbacks to it – is another useful metric.
    It’s probably impossible to determine a blog’s importance and relative “authority” based solely on quantitative measures. Two blogs might have the exact same numbers of incoming links, comments, trackbacks, posts, words per post, etc., but one might seem more important to more people based on, say, its author’s credentials, its layout, or even its title and tagline.
    Still, there are certainly many excellent ways of comparing blogs to each other to determine their relative influence and importance. I suppose the number of incoming links is simply the meatiest (and one of the most easily tracked) of the various ranking alternatives.
    Thanks, all, for these thoughts and especially to Morgan for getting the ball rolling.

  • Easton – excellent comment and thanks for the feedback. I guess the issue with the Conversation Index, like traffic etc is that you really need the opt-in of the author to make it work well. Though I guess you cld track all those elements externally from a given start date.
    I agree that the form impacts the influence of the content. I think that might be reflected in the number of comments if the content is poorly presented.
    The author’s credentials are clearly a big factor and much harder to assess. Don’t fancy putting together a ‘rank’ for credentials.

  • Hi Morgan, it’s been a couple of weeks but I returned here and your comment reminded me of something. At Know More Media, we’re trying to make it easier for people to comment on our posts. The standard “name/email/URL” comment box is fine, but I think a lot of people jus don’t know how to use it and so they shy away from it. Just imagine though, how much richer we’d all be (at least in terms of knowledge) if everyone who read a post left a thoughtful comment!

  • Agreed – I think that since it asks for a URL some readers may think you need to have a blog or website in order to comment. But of course it’s not a prerequisite, and for that matter nor is an email address, though this latter does add credibility that you are who you say.