We can say this: traffic flows along links that we click. For a few years—before google—we could even say this: a link is not a link until we click it.
But now that is wrong because google made links really something else—meaningful signals, not just infrastructure. Links have a deeply important role in pagerank, the backbone of google’s mighty search engine.
Thus the giver of a link tells google that the recipient of a link is notable or significant or worth your time and attention and consideration or engagement. This is authority—on average, at the very least.
Links are signals for authority. That authority is distributed throughout the network, and given Igon values, google built a magnificent business detecting, computing, and centralizing that authority.
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We are not entitled to our own understanding of facts, which take root in the universe. Thus we call facts objective. But we are entitled to our own appreciations of authority. Indeed, appreciation for authority can only take root in ourselves as individuals and groups of individuals. Thus we call authority subjective.
There are very many facts that I will never need to learn or remember. I will rely on google to detect those answers. Like just-in-time inventory, I will have answers only when I need them, when I borrow them, avoiding the mental costs of carrying them in my jammed-up memory.
Likewise, there are very many authorities that I will never need to appreciate. I will rely on google to detect those signals. But unlike facts as stored in someone else’s inventory, something changes about authority when I don’t carry it with me. Something’s lost when I borrow authority—just in time.
Google delivers facts. And facts are facts. But google doesn’t really deliver authorities. It co-opts them.
Maybe this is why Clay Shirky calls it “algorithmic authority.”
So if I were settling a bar bet, I might well say, “Yes, you can trust me. I found that claim by clicking on the top google search return.” The page on which I found the claim doesn’t enter my justification. “Dude, I googled it” might not work for very many justifications today, but Shirky’s quite right that there’s “spectrum” and that “current forces seem set to push [algorithmic authority] further up the spectrum to an increasing number and variety of groups that regard these kinds of sources as authoritative.”
The authority belongs to the algorithm that found the source, not the source itself. Traffic flows along links out to the edges of the network, but authority pulls inward to the center.
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And this is why it seems unfair for folks like Jeff Jarvis to make claims like, “The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring.”
News sites should certainly be trying to establish engagement and trust and authority with users who come from google. But insisting that this task is an imperative of the link economy seems to under-appreciate that algorithmic authority centralizes authority. Google pushes the traffic but keeps the trust—or much of it, anyhow.
Maybe the best answer to “What Would Google Do?” goes something like this: build an algorithm that detects and hordes an elusive and highly diffuse resource distributed across a network.
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So Danny Sullivan can jump up and down and yell about WSJ and google and bing: “Do something. Anything. Please. Survive. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t do. Blame others for sending you visitors and not figuring out how to make money off of them.”
Sullivan can exhort newspapers to see google referrals as an opportunity. And they are. Moreover, I have little doubt that many newspapers should be optimizing their pages depending on the referrer, whether that’s google or facebook or twitter or stumbleupon or whatever. But let’s also remember that google changed links. A different kind of traffic now flows along them. And that traffic is fickler—and, yes, less valuable—than we might first imagine.