If you see a blog post titled “10 Iconic Journalists Every J-Student Should Study” and want to share it with your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or old-fashioned e-mail contacts, please consider what you’re endorsing when you link to it.
More than 70 people have tweeted the link so far.
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 as SEO, with the hopes of increasing traffic to an irrelevant site, boosting its rank in search results for the keywords in its URL.
Of course we all want links to our sites. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the folks who tweet and retweet the link become a party to this practice of gaming the Web and devaluing higher-quality content that generates traffic organically.
I received an email notification that I had a new message sent through my personal 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?
Here’s how a journalist should verify content before linking to it
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 OnlineColleges 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.
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:
- 188.8.131.52 of INDIA claims to be firstname.lastname@example.org 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).
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, 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 context. (More good reading on that topic here.)
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 is so much garbage out there.
Far too often people tweet or retweet something as a knee-jerk reaction, 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.
Bonus link: Craig Kanalley on how to verify a Tweet.
A version of this post can also be found at The Linchpen.