Hyperlinks are Dumb and Bleeding Money; How to Ensure Yours Aren’t

The article below originally appeared on TechCrunch as a guest post by Oliver Roup, VigLink Founder & CEO. 

When an email hits our inbox, we know not only who it’s from but their entire web imprint. LinkedIn canpoint out the profile of the woman you interviewed for a sales role last week and the gentleman you spoke with earlier in the year at a conference.

And rest assured that the dining room set you checked out over the weekend at CrateAndBarrel.com will haunt your online experience for the forseeable future.

Data — its collection and manipulation at scale — has revolutionized how we interact online. Homepages, banner advertisements and what we see in our Facebook timeline are all tailored-to-fit the reader, and we don’t give it a second thought.

But the hyperlink, the key feature that distinguishes hypertext from text has remained largely unchanged since Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web.

Websites generally, and search and online advertising specifically, would be barely recognizable today by their younger selves. But hyperlinks — their structure, how they’re authored and how we use and track them — have barely changed in 20 years. Consider:

  • Inserting links by hand is a labor intensive process and has few tools. How about a recommendation engine to augment our own efforts? (Note: companies like Zemanta are a first step in this direction.)
  • If a link is never clicked (i.e. 0% of the world finds it useful), why does it remain in content, distracting from meaningful / useful links indefinitely?
  • Keywords in referrer logs have been mined to great effect by companies like BlueKai. (Although Google is slowly but surely taking that information away.) Isn’t where a user clicked out to just as informative? Why are we almost always ignoring it?
  • Why do website visitors in Asia see links to online merchants in North America they are unable to purchase from, let alone access?

Hyperlinks, in many ways, are dumb. And as a result, harming your user experience and potentially bleeding money from your company — when they could be a tool for better engagement, increased revenue, and deeper analytics.

Now, there are a cluster of companies innovating by recognizing the power of the link — OmnitureVibrant Media and Yieldbot, to name a few. But, this isn’t a problem companies can hold off on thinking about until the perfect tech pops up to solve it. There was a time when SEO was considered a “pro-tip” — a way for startups to get ahead of the game. Today, it’s standard best practice — and companies that don’t think strategically about the way search engines view their sites are at a strong disadvantage.

Hyperlink optimization is similar. While link optimization might be a “pro-tip” now, it won’t be for much longer. Companies that aren’t thinking strategically about link placement, closely tracking results, and taking subsequent action, will find the companies that ARE doing these things at an advantage.

The most critical areas to spend time on are tracking outbound hyperlinks, building a linking strategy, and refining it based on results. Let’s briefly dive into each.

Track your Outbound Hyperlinks

The first step to optimizing a site’s outbound traffic is to understand what that traffic looks like. Where do visitors go when they leave your site? What do they do on those other sites?

While there is still a lot of room for growth within the outbound analytics space, Omniture (paid) and Google Analytics (free — but requires a modification to the standard Analytics code you add to your site) both offer tools to help you understand what happens when a reader leaves your site. VigLink (disclosure: I am the CEO there) also offers an outbound analytics suite as part of its content monetization solution.

Build a Hyperlinking Strategy

What do you want your outbound hyperlinks to do for you?

Do you want them to earn you revenue? Do you want them to serve an SEO purpose? Be purely informational? Should they be scarce (keeping readers on your site)? Or abundant (allowing readers to exit as it is helpful)?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have a plan for when your team includes a hyperlink, and when it does not — opening up opportunities for a better reader experience, and deeper engagement.

Refine, Refine, Refine

Combine a plan with data to track that plan’s performance and you’ve got a gold mine on your hands.  Notice a link that is never clicked and your plan requires that links must be useful to readers? Take it out. Or, a heavy percentage of links pointing to non-eCommerce properties, and your goal is monetization? Incorporate fewer links to those non-commercial sites. Refining your hyperlinks will improve reader engagement and overall site performance.

Do It, and Make the Web Better

Hyperlinks should make the web better — more connected, easier to navigate, and intelligent. Hyperlinks should make your site better — more actionable, insightful and profitable.

Today, hyperlinks are falling short. They’re static and largely untracked. Sometimes useful — but often not. As the web becomes ever more crowded, and an organization’s site optimization toolkit begins to produce diminishing returns, the hyperlink is obvious low hanging fruit.

What that means to site owners:

  • It’s time to plug the outbound data leak. Implement a tool today that will track your outbound traffic.
  • Choose a hyperlinking strategy and share it with your team. This is at least as much a human problem as a technology one – deciding what you want is always the first step.
  • Be on the lookout for technology that addresses these issues. There are already solutions to track your outbound clicks and the value they deliver but 2012 is going to be the year the hyperlink gets smart.

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