Wednesday, August 6, 2008


The Beat calls itself "The News Blog of Comic Culture," which is fine. It covers print comics, web comics, even the business of comics. It has a huge blogroll, and I was curious what webcomics blogs were listed.

Answer: zero.

I clicked for a while, looking for something of interest, and tallied twenty-one links to dead sites. There were also five duplications and several more that are scrambled, at least at the moment.

I currently know of twelve functioning or thriving webcomics blogs, including this one.

A written inquiry about the lack of links to webcomic blogs received no response.

I realize that this post suggests indignation and resentment. Being human, I confess, I do feel these sensations at times regarding how my efforts are treated by others on the web. Being an experienced human, I've come to understand what makes others behave that way, and it has done much to lessen my feelings of shabby treatment. Let's see what happens if we remove thew emotion we've all felt and examine what is happening.

In the case of The Beat, the site is willing to link, and carries far more links than most sites. But even the links that work are a curious mix of links from 2005 and almost random choices -- possibly people who were discovered as part of a news story.

Dead links that are left to dangle suggest a gratuitous link. It means the person doesn't really use the link, it is there for status. When presented as resources or as purposeful, such links are not gratuitous, of course, but obviously bear checking up on, lest they transform into something nasty, like the link on The Beat currently leading to porn.

In a medium where content often doesn't have value until we can hang ads on it or use it to peddle t-shirts, links would seem to stand out because they do have value. (I'm surprised we haven't seen a Project Wonderful-style link auction service develop, and suspect only the probability of rapid outflanking by Google stops it.) I can gain real value if you link to me, and trading links builds the status of both our sites. Links like those on The Beat's blogroll could be doses of good will measured out to the influential. The problem with this is that the recipients swallow their morsel and seldom reciprocate. The Beat's blogroll could be a lesson learned: we tried being nice to everyone, they didn't link to us, so we're not going to put our energy there any more. Overall, decisions to link should be rational, since they involve the same rules of a supply-and-demand system (demand being limited by the fact that too many links on your site makes you look like a mark).

If the system is rational, it would seem that most webcomics would link to one or more webcomic news sources. But they don't. They squander the goodwill and increased likelihood of favorable coverage that often results. In fact, in my interviews with webcomics creators, it is turning out to be common that the creators not only don't read comics blogs, they barely read any blogs. Time crunch is a common reason -- making comics demands lots of time -- but a lot of them just don't seem interested. Or perhaps they feel there are other uses of their time that they feel helps them advance more directly, like advertising. There is a bias toward the sensationalistic, with several saying they read the defunct Your Webcomic is Bad blog, known for obscenity-laced personal attacks on comic creators and vitriol of manic proportions.

Many people may be ignorant about how links enhance the prominence of their sites, and ultimately, their credibility. The main evidence for this is that all the hype about SEO hasn't affected Google's reliance on links that develop naturally as a measurement tool. This implies that natural links far outnumber contrived links, and/or that Google can screen out the latter to a satisfying degree.

Gaming the system is one thing, however, and taking advantage of perfectly legal ways to enhance your site are another. I bet most people know that links help, so they have some. Beyond that, I doubt that most people know what types of links help, what links help most, why many links are not considered by Google until a probationary period expires or much else about linkology. If you do a comic called Nevada Pete and his Giant Hat, typing in the name of your comic is going to bring it up near the top of page one. For many people, this is sufficient proof that they have done their job well, and they stop worrying about it.

This complacency is harmful, because we are at the dawn of the age of dynamic link measurement. In the future, links will be measured for how much traffic they carry, and will be used to express via diagrams the relationships between sites. Surprise: the future is now. Google already measures link traffic and tools like ToughGraph express fascinating, albeit imperfect, diagrammatic relationships among clusters of sites. ToughGraph, it must be noted, used Google search results to generate its diagrams, so once again we are back to asking whether we are languishing or dressed for the Google Ball.

Is it rational for a peer group with a dozen members, such as blogs focused on webcomics, to link to one another? After all, we're talking about boosting the competition. A closer look, however, reveals that within the group, there is a high degree of specialization. One blog is focused on webcomic how-to. Some only do reviews, or reviews and interviews. Some only do news. One offers a sort of news and gossip mix. Another is focused on Zuda. A third of them update infrequently. The competition is negligible, it seems, and the benefits significant. We can share readers and knowledge and build ourselves up as the Fleet Street of Comicdom, which may not be the best metaphor for those attempting serious journalism, but I lack anything better. Establishing ourselves as "the press" of webcomics will help market expansion for webcomics and news about them. It's a win for everybody.

There will always be some who do not link at all, and find value in that position. They might perceive that they are saving themselves a nuisance, or they might feel they are implying to their viewers that they are too important to be bothered. Others will link to their audience, but not their peers, perhaps feeling it lowers their status to do so.

The only way to know for sure is to measure the performance of those who link with those who don't. This is a statistical study I cannot undertake at this time. I do know from years spent running companies that identifying the top marketing strategies and executing them well is the difference between a giant and a dwarf after ten years.

Pay attention to the link strategies of sites you visit fairly often. Note those who manage their link strategy well, and those that do nothing. See which ones you are still visiting at the end of a year. The first site that comes along with more credibility but similar content to a site that is managing links poorly will steal the readers, unless the site has a charismatic individual at the helm.

And what is a charismatic individual? Someone people want to link to.