Linking as Activism The surprising political power of linking, when it’s done right

Linking could be doing more to make the world a better place than voting in elections. Blogging and linking may be a civic duty with much more oomph than it’s generally given credit for — simply because of the way Google and the Internet work.

Linking is a surprisingly political act because it drives the accessibility of information in the Internet era. When you link, you are “voting” for the information you like and care about. And you may care about it a lot — you may be voting for The Truth as you know it about something Extremely Important (like this excellent summary of #shirtstorm by Phil Plait, for example).

Specifically, linking tells Google what you want people to find when they search. Which is still almost the only way anyone finds anything on the Internet. For at least many years yet, Google is still the great information gatekeeper. And so linking changes the world by changing what information people find. What they can find.

And yet not everyone can link! Not everyone can vote in the information democracy, and voters are not equal.

The voting class

Links from websites — not Facebook or Twitter shares — are still the most important signal that Google heeds.1

Not only that, the most important signals are from important websites, the ones that rank well in search already. Like a primitive democracy, only the wealthy-in-rank (“land owners”) can effectively vote. And the wealthiest have crazily disproportionate power, while those without ranking domains are almost completely disenfranchised from the information democracy that is the Internet.

On the bright side: it’s nearly effortless to start a basic blog these days, especially with services like Tumblr.com. A link from a new blog isn’t worth much — almost nothing, at first, or possibly ever. Search rank is no easier to get than any other kind of rank. But you have to start somewhere.

Why not social media?

The impact of social media shares on Google’s reckoning is a moving target; no one really knows anything except that the impact is still modest at best. Google now allegedly considers “social signals,” but clearly nowhere near in proportion to the usage of social media. A page can go viral on social media, generating millions of views, and yet remain obscure in Google’s search results — until people start publishing links to the same thing.

In other words, Facebook and Twitter are extremely relevant and influential to actual users — the users care what they share with each other — but Google search results are only barely reflecting that reality. For now, the main value of shares is the referrals themselves.

Vote wisely

There’s another kind of disenfranchisement: from ignorance of how to vote. Even people who actually have good rank do not necessarily know how to pass it on. In fact, probably most don’t.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone thinks carefully about linking. Even the savviest bloggers tend to be haphazard and whimsical about it. They fail to vote as effectively as they could for information they genuinely care about. Or — much worse — or they carelessly vote for sources they are criticizing! Website they hate!

Don’t vote for scumbags

You can nullify the voting power of a link by adding a “nofollow” attribute, like this:

<a href='http://Shabby-Lies.com' rel='nofollow'>

But this is technical detail beyond the ken of 98% of bloggers, even though it has truly serious implications for most activist publishers. For instance, as the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, one of my most regular chores is adding nofollows to links that need them. SBM contributors regularly link to the websites of genuine quacks and scammers in the course of debunking them — voting for them with all the power of SBM’s substantial rank. Oops.

Vote effectively for the good guys

Most links naturally go to content we care about and approve of, but they are rarely optimized for maximum impact. (Like doing as little as possible to help out a friend — helping them move, say, but dropping a box labelled “fragile” and then leaving after half an hour.)

So what makes a good link? First and most obviously, check to make sure it actually works.2 Don’t just link to the home page: link to specific and relevant pages (not just the domain), use relevant keywords in the clickable text, and actually recommend the content.

I get into much more detail about the how of good linking in another article. Which I will now link to and recommend: How & why to link: a super simple guide to good internet linking.

Rock the vote

Blogging and linking, however casually or sloppily, is at least as important as voting in elections, or voting with dollars for the consumer goods you care about, or showing up at a rally, or volunteering. If you have any kind of ability to write whatsoever, and your not exercising it on a little blog… get out there and start!


  1. They routinely protest that they pay attention to many other signals, and they do, but the original Page Rank algorithm that treated links as “votes” is still critical. 

  2. A little too obvious to mention? You would hope so, but I have seen countless examples over the years of people who generously tried to link to me, but got it wrong: just URL typos, usually. Like passwords, every character in a URL counts.