Yesterday, to my surprise, I got quite a bit of traffic from the Wall Street Journal. When I checked out the referring URL, I discovered that the WSJ was linking to Publishing 2.0 through the automated Sphere widget related links, which is radical because you could construe my page views as having been stolen from WSJ:
Of course, it really isn’t “stealing,” although the fact remains that Publishing 2.0 received a page view that might have otherwise gone to Wall Street Journal. And some of those visitors may have stayed on Publishing 2.0 rather than gone back to WSJ.
So is aggregation still a net positive for WSJ, looking at it through the microcosm of this example? WSJ did create more value for its users by pointing to other valuable content (assuming visitors found my post valuable). But is this going to make people go back to the WSJ more often? The WSJ is in a distinct position because it has paid subscribers, but paid sites need to increase traffic as much as any other.
The real question is — will WSJ subscribers be more likely to seek out the WSJ coverage of a news event or topic because they know at the end of the article they will be referred to additional related content, including third-party content?
Page view trends and clickthrough data on the related links would certainly inform this question — the big issue for creators of original content is how they maximize the value of linking to other people’s original content.
Blogs have pioneered this with inline links, which I definitely believe enhances the value of the blog’s own content. Traditional media companies have been slow to adopt third-party inline links (and are still anathema to some), so these automated third-party related links are a step in that direction — and probably more about becoming part of the link-based web ecosystem than about aggregation in the larger sense. That said, there’s a difference between me as a human editor linking to third-party content and the WSJ using Sphere’s automated system.
In fact, if you got the WSJ article now, you’ll see that Sphere has already replaced Publishing 2.0 with other related blog links (of course, you have to be a WSJ subscriber to see this). The links I create here to third-pary content are forever a part of the Web (and search).
As traditional media companies start to tear down the walls that separate them from the network, they will have to embrace a very non-traditional and counterintuitive understanding of how to leverage the dynamics of the Web, i.e. the more you give, the more you get.