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.