Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Seeing through the web elite

by Suw on June 10, 2003

Something I’ve been thinking for a while is that the majority of blogs all link to the same sources. I had no real hard evidence for this – it’s just an observation I made that seemed to be true.

Well, it is true, according to The Guardian. It seems that the internet follows power laws instead of normal distribution and that there is a small set of sources which provides a large proportion of all links.

A relatively small number of blogs attract the lion's share of the links. According to one study, the top two sites accounted for 5 per cent of all in-bound links and the top 12 per cent accounted for more than half of all links.

I find it hard to believe that there are only a small number of really interesting web sites out there. That’s not the problem.

The problem is, I think, two fold. Firstly if you’re a small site without much in the way of resources, like this one, you’re pretty much going to stay lost in the quagmire of the internet unless one of the big sites stumbles across you one day and links to you. In which case you suddenly get elevated to their ranks as more and more people visit and link. Thus your popularity snowballs.

Well, I assume that how it goes – it hasn’t happened to me so I can’t speak from experience.

The other part of the problem is something that I’ve seen David Weinberger mention on Joho the Blog, that people tend to read the blogs only of those people that they agree with. If that’s the case, which I think it is, then it’s inevitable that you’re going to end up with a small pool of sites that get linked to time and again.

How easy it is to find a site depends on how many people link to it, both in terms of your chances of coming across a link by chance and it’s ratings in the search engines. Now, theoretically that means that the cream rises to the top – if lots of people are linking to something then it must be good. I’m not so sure that that logic really holds true. There are plenty of sites out there which are not getting the links and not getting the search engine rankings, but which do have good content.

What you end up with is a self-reinforcing elite – the sites that have lots of links get found more easily and get more links, thus making it even easier to find them. This is why so many blogs link to the BBC, The Guardian, Wired, Salam Pax, The Register, etc. Yes, ok, they’re good sites, with lots of content worth commenting on, and I’m as guilty as the next person of linking to them, but they get a disproportionately large chunk of the exposure.

On a personal level, I at least try not to just repeat the links I see elsewhere, but attempt to come up with something original. That’s why it takes me hours sometimes to write my blog, and why you often get these long rants. I don’t want to just have some pointless link farm that adds no value to anything (i.e. either the net or my life). That’s of no use to me, and I can’t see that it’s of any use to anyone else. I enjoy spouting my mouth off, and I can only assume you enjoy reading it, otherwise you wouldn’t bother.

This whole tendency to reproduce links means you see these ripples propagating through the blog world. For example, Thursday the New Scientist mention the Library Hotel. I blogged about it on Friday. Neil Gaiman blogs about it today (a fact which is likely unrelated to my blog, admittedly, but I want to make the point that I got there first 😉 ). I’m sure there are a whole load of people who check Neil’s blog who are now pushing the wave front further through the system.

Which is all good for the Library Hotel, of course. But it does make for repetitive reading.

Thing is, I can’t see a way out of this quandary of a self-reinforcing web elite. Sites like mine can’t compete with the big boys – I have not the resources or time to do enough promotion even on my business sites. I’m too busy running them. Yes, I know that’s ludicrous, and it’s something I have to address, but that’s the deal as it stands.

As for this blog, well, I have even less time to promote this. I’d rather spend my time writing it than filling in endless forms on various web sites in the vague hope I might get a few links out of it.

There is a huge amount of dross on the web now. I really don’t know how you sort it out. I Google by default, mainly because they have a Welsh language option, which makes me feel like I’m somehow supporting the language by showing Google that people really do like content to be localised into their own language (even if Welsh technically isn’t my own language).

I don’t believe that Google necessarily provides me with the best search results, but I’ve become so used to sorting through the rubbish that I barely notice. When I’m searching for something specific and I’m on the tenth page of results, I’m concentrating on what I need to find, not on the thigh-high shite that I’m wading through.

Like spam, I can’t see this getting any better any time soon. Not unless someone somewhere puts together an algorithm that can check the quality of the content. By that, I don’t mean how many links a site has or how many times the keywords appear, because both of those factors mean nothing. Maybe instead they should start looking for the quality of writing instead.

How the hell you do that, I have no idea. I recently had to run some of my previous professional writing work through a test to find the Flesch Reading Ease rating and it slated some perfectly good writing because, I suspect, the criteria by which it judges writing is based on some really idiotic assumptions. Short sentences and short words do not necessarily make for good writing. Equally, using long words and complex sentences does not make me a bad writer.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that we need a whole new set of tools to search the internet. Google isn’t enough. Blogs themselves aren’t anywhere near enough, even though there are journalists out there who think that they are. Finding good quality information, which is likely out there but hidden away, is a major challenge that is only going to get harder as the percentage of rubbish online increases.

I just hope someone comes up with an answer soon before we drown in shite.

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