There was an accusation yesterday that the BBC was adding links on its site in exchange for cash in order to influence Google’s results. I think the bigger issue is that the BBC needs to do more to put its external linking policy into effect.
Linking out in practice
This is the BBC’s policy for its related internet links box:
Make more of related internet links
- No longer just homepages
- Deep link to directly relevant webpages
- Think further reading and adding value: Analysis, comment, academia, reports, blogs – stuff you see and use when writing story.
But here are some typical examples from yesterday.
AOL buys Huffington post. Related internet links section? To the AOL and Huffington Post homepage. How do these fit the criteria above?
Or Axe public sector union rights says IoD. Related internet links: IoD and TUC homepages.
A story about eliminating car crashes, extensively quoting experts in the field: No related links.
Or what about this story from last month – Most speed cameras “not working” based on a Which? story. Is there a link from the BBC to the primary source of that story on the Which? site? No. Does it even link to the Which? website? No. Instead it links to Brake, Safe Speed and the RAC foundation in the Related Internet Links section. These organisations aren’t even mentioned in the news story.
Or this blog post about The Daily with no links in it?
There’s also clearly some sort of roster of links in some cases. The complained-about supposedly-paid links (to sites about watching sport online) in my previous post appear on a lot of pages as this Google search shows. They’re clearly the default list to add. Yet those links aren’t ideal. Why doesn’t the BBC link to genuinely useful pages on, say, ITV or Sky which do show sport online? It’s a public service broadcaster – I’m not interested in its unwillingness to promote competitors. Linking instead to affiliate-income-earning low quality, 3rd-party aggregation sites is not the BBC living up to its own high standards.
What it should be doing
The BBC has promised to do more to link out – doing so is now part of the BBC’s online strategy:
[The BBC has] pledged to “turn the site into a window on the web” by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites: “making the best of what is available elsewhere online an integral part of the BBC’s offer to audiences”.
Yet there is confusion, I would say, both within and externally to the BBC.
At ProSEO this year (scroll down to the mention) Russell Smith from the BBC, mentioned the BBC’s commitment to “doubling outbound links” (actually it’s outbound clickthroughs but whatever).
The SEOs present nearly fell over themselves with excitement – although I tweeted a warning that “whatever he says, BBC favours big brands when it comes to linking out from news stories. Don’t hold your breaths …”
The BBC’s original policy for its external links section is still live, here. This is the automated Moreover system it uses to automatically add relevant links – note that there are only 4,000 sites in that feed.
In October 2010, the BBC’s new guidelines for external linking were published, which is where the “make more of related internet links” guidelines above are from.
I do think the BBC deserves a lot of credit for these guidelines.
Most people fail to appreciate how CMSes, workflows, organisational culture and internal targets make it extremely difficult to link out (some useful posts about the Guardian’s approach here and here, for instance).
Yet when looked at in practice, I’m less impressed with the BBC’s approach.
So what’s going on? Maybe on the ground, journalists are taking the easy way out. They know they’ve got to fill in that “related internet links” section as a box ticking exercise. So they stick the links in to the same old home pages, regardless of whether they are specifically relevant, just so they can say they’ve done it.
They can get it right when they try. On this story on the Bing Google spat, the related internet links are to specific blog posts on Google, Bing and Search Engine Land.
The BBC should be applauded for its approach. But it’s not yet living up to its stated aim of linking out more to directly relevant sites in a fair way. As a public service broadcaster, it should set, and be held up to, the highest standards. On this issue of fairly linking to external sites (not that it’s alone), it’s not yet succeeding.
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