External Links and Beware of the ‘Link Trolls’

As a web manager, you have a lot of responsibility. You have to keep your content “fresh” and accurate. It is a lot of work when you have 50+ webpages to manage along with various other job responsibilities. Making CMS updates typically falls under “and other duties assigned”—making things particularly difficult.

The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of External Linking

We link to a lot of external websites—ones that Michigan Tech does not own or control. We link to resources about the local community and lodging, responsible research practices, and the products that our university uses. We link to information about disabilities. To our corporate partners’ websites. To sponsors, writing tips, and career advice.

These links are not “bad.” Oftentimes, an external resource is more of an expert than we are. It may also be more cost-effective to link out than it is to maintain our own content.

We have to be careful, though. Every time we link to an external resource, two things happen:

  1. We tell the user that we “endorse” the third party and their content
  2. We transfer valuable search engine “link juice” away from our website and toward the third party’s website

What It Means

When we link to a third-party website, we are endorsing both the content and the publisher—whether we like it or not. It is important to keep this in mind and especially important to only link to trustworthy content. There’s nothing wrong with linking to another website—we just need to make sure we’re linking to reputable ones. Particularly ones that are:

  • well established
  • will be around for the long run
  • are authoritative on the subject matter that they are writing about

The SEO Component

Search engine optimization is a big deal. Over 60% of our web traffic originates from a Google or Bing search. We need to rank well in search engines to capture traffic.

To simplify the discussion, search engines determine rankings by passing mythical “link juice” from site to site. Each website starts with an equal amount of link juice.

When website A links to website B, link juice gets passed from A to B. Over time, the more a website is linked to, the more juice it gets and the better it will rank. Similarly, if a website links out a lot, but doesn’t get any links in return, its link juice will dry up. This is a great way for search engines to measure the “trustworthiness” of a website. If your site is trustworthy, you should receive more links that you send out. Sounds simple, right?

It is a little more complicated than that. University websites get some “bonus link juice” from the start because search engines trust “.edu” websites more. This gives us an advantage. It also makes us a target for link trolls.

An Innocent Link Ask

It is common for third parties to email university folks asking for a link to their website. Sounds innocent, right? They will find the email address for the department chair, administrative assistant, webmaster listed in the footer, etc. They will then craft a convincing email, similar to this:

Hello webmaster,
You have done a great job of putting together resources for *blah*. You've linked to a number of my favorite resources. One link that is missing, though, is http://www.blah.com. It would be great if you could add this link so that your students will have access to all the best resources. Thank you for your time.

Another popular tactic is:

I was looking at your website and found some broken links. Who do I contact to get them fixed?

Once you reply to them with contact information, they will say:

It looks like the links are fixed now. However, here are some additional links that you should add to the listing.

Does this sound familiar?

The Bottom Line

A web professional will know what is going on right away and will be able to act appropriately. For those who’s web responsibilities fall under “and other duties as assigned,” ask yourself these questions:

  • do I feel comfortable with endorsing this website/company?
  • does the link actually provide value to my target audience
  • is the link really necessary? Do we have enough resources already? (Don’t forget about Hick’s Law and content overload.)

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then linking to the new resource isn’t necessarily bad. I’m not trying to talk you out of linking to third parties. Michigan Tech websites have plenty of link juice, so we do not need to limit our external linking. There are many reputable content sources out there that our users would benefit from.

What I want to do is raise awareness of why you may be receiving link requests. These requests may appear to be in good faith but are often fueled by a company’s desire to boost their search engine rankings and nothing more. Some may provide value to our web users. More often than not, though, these additional links will only add to the noise of an already bloated webpage.

If you receive a suspicious request and want my team to review it, you can reach us at webmaster@mtu.edu and we’ll happily help you out. I also recommend reviewing your site’s external link resources and doing some clean-up if they have gotten unruly over the years.

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager