Brothers and Sisters, Can You Spare a Link?

In just the three years I’ve been working for websites, I’ve seen the economy swing wildly.  In early 2006, when I took on a job at an established dot com, things were great.  We could count on a single free registration to be worth as much as $5 to our bottom line, and the free registrations flowed in by the thousands every day.  Advertisers were clamoring and outbidding each other to get a chance to put their wares in front of our members.  We could afford to be picky and choose only the best deals for our users, and links were available everywhere for the taking.

Looking at the state of the markets today, I’m still shocked at how quickly things can change.  Advertisers in a similar niche are now paying just .50 to $1 for those same free signups, and sources of links have all but dried up.  Its like the link economy online has turned into its own dustbowl.

Its not just economic trends to blame, we’re also looking at a predicted demographic shift that is pushing our financial systems and web businesses into crisis.  As baby boomers age, they’ve been reluctant to give up their power, their influence, and their jobs.  In many cases, they’ve got no choice:  the retirement funds they thought they had have evaporated as quickly as a small puddle under the Florida sun.  Generation X is heading in to midlife, and they’re trying to protect the little they have.

Castles in the Sky

And nowhere has the protective nature of Gen X been as obvious as online, in the link economy.  Ten, even fifteen years ago, these pioneers were online while most of Gen Y was busy watching GI Joe and Transformers cartoons.  Many Xers established an online presence and a digital identity – and they learned how to leverage it into income.  Back then, or even just three years ago, idealism was an important force in the link economy:  “You contribute, you get a link.”  There was a mad rush to add your opinions to other blogs, to link your domains and articles from social sites, and to forge informal networks of reciprocal link juice. Web 2.0 promised to bring everyone into the conversation, in real time, and reward them for it too.

But something happened:  The economy went south quickly at the exact same time a large generations of digital natives starting poking around at online income.  The double-whammy was too much for established Xers:  their digital castles suddenly seemed under seige by an ever-growing mob of newbies and cut-throat kids. Luckily, Google had provided a wall in “nofollow.”  There was a sense that these walls could keep the pagerank in and the horde of potential competitors out.  In just a few years, the internet went from an open book to a locked-down fort.

But the walls were mostly imaginary:  It turns out nofollow wasn’t keeping the pagerank in, it was consuming it.  Everyone sat behind their walls, imagining security, while the ranks that had been flowing in suddenly dried up and threatened drought.  People built more walls, now blocking off parts of their own domain in hopes of saving the rest.  Desperate for links, they sent links out to social sites – hoping to someday get a popular link pointing back at them.  Instead, the social sites put up their own walls and ensured the blogs feeding them would be left out of the link flow.

The bloggers were hooked on quick traffic:  Quick traffic that doesn’t convert.

The Death of Blogging, Long Live Blogging

Am I too young to romanticize “the way things used to be?”  Is it naive to dream of a future that resembles the past in the good ways and not the bad?

Blogging isn’t what it used to be.  The tight-knit communities have hired guards for the gate, and the commercial writer simply shouts into the dark and then proceeds to hunt down some links in any way possible.  The biggest sites continue to collect links, because when give & take wasn’t enough, they took their gains and swore to a “take only” policy.  Giving was frowned upon, a sign that you were weak and reliant on others’ goodwill.

How quickly the idealism of the blogosphere turned.

And what was there to be idealistic about?  The only active travelers were the ones who seemed oblivious to the walls.  The conversation didn’t improve, and the automated spam bots continued to value volume above quality.  Many respectable blogs started shrinking or becoming over-run by weeds.  10 clicks on stumble or a few comments at Digg was enough to remind us we had something else to do.  Newbies and their idealistic attempts to break into the realm made us even more cynical, reminding us it wasn’t like it used to be.

Brothers, Sisters…

Can you please spare a link?  Can you tear down these walls?  Can you help your fellow webmasters out?

There is no shortage in the link economy but the one we’ve brought on ourselves.  If revenues are down and people are frustrated at mismatched search results, its because we’ve given up our collective power to optimize these results.

The web didn’t become great because a few domains had massive traffic share, it became great because so many people had decided to specialize in that obscure topic you wanted to study in more depth.  We’ve tried to take the optimization out of the game, but who has really gained?

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