Who Benefits from the "Link Economy"?

Last Updated Aug 13, 2009 2:53 PM EDT

The web has undermined the business models of content creators because there is now an abundance of information online and in most cases, it's there for free, supported by someone willing to work for ad dollars or simply the added recognition of having a prominent web platform.

Furthermore, aggregators like Gawker, the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report have become some of the most popular news sites, even though they depend mostly on headlines and links which were created by others. While content creators like the AP and the Wall Street Journal have starting swinging back at "parasites" like Google News, other news organizations like Reuters have embraced the "link economy" and the traffic sent along by bloggers and other aggregators.

The argument seems to have swayed in the aggregators' favor. In general, the consensus is that producers of original content that want to put their work behind a paywall or demand payment from linkers, just don't get the fluidity of web. According to media professor and consultant Jeff Jarvis, we are moving from a "content economy" to a "link economy:"

Let's say that the real value in this equation is not content and information -- both of which are now quickly commodified -- but links, which are the new currency of media. Links can be exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money. Content is becoming a cost burden, what you have to have to get the links, but in and of itself, content can't draw value without an audience, without links.
However, content producers may have good reasons to question the value of the "link economy." Here is the other side of the argument, based on an analysis by the Mitchell Madison Group, a consultancy:
We did a study of traffic on several sites that aggregate purely a menu of news stories. In all cases, there was at least twice as much traffic on the home page as there were clicks going to the stories that were on it. In other words, a very large share of the people who were visiting the site were merely browsing to read headlines rather than using the aggregation page to decide what they wanted to read in detail...users are being trained to increase their usage of (and thus value to) the linker rather than the creator.
The real issue at stake is whether the content producers can monetize the traffic sent to them by linkers. Unless the online publishers can convert most users that click through from the aggregators into regular site visitors, than the traffic from all those links is ultimately not that valuable.
  • Stefan Deeran

    Stefan Deeran helps environmental nonprofits and green businesses develop and execute their new media campaigns. He also publishes The Exception magazine, a nonpartisan news platform serving his home state of Maine. You can follow him on Twitter @RStefanDeeran or via Facebook.