Strong opinions, weakly held

Ethics on a Web where links are currency

My previous post on the Boing Boing controversy generated some pushback from readers who argue that deleting posts is changing history, and that bloggers just shouldn’t do it. (As I mentioned in the comments, I have never gone back and deleted old posts and don’t foresee doing so.)

I agree completely with the idea that deleting old content breaks the web and can be seen as an attempt to change history. It’s Orwellian to go back and alter or delete content when your opinion changes. If a newspaper went back and removed all of the stories in favor of the war in Iraq, it would lose any standing it might have as a respectable media outlet. And I feel the same way about blogs. Deleting old content is in all likelihood an act of dishonesty.

However, the way search engines work these days makes things a bit more complicated. Google’s great innovation in indexing Web sites was to use inbound links to sites as a metric for the significance of a Web site. The more sites link to your site, the higher your rank in search engine results, and being linked to by more popular sites is more helpful.

Google’s algorithm doesn’t care whether I link to a racist Web site to denounce it or ridicule it. It treats that link as it would any other link to that Web site — a vote for its significance. This strikes me as a fundamental problem without a really good solution. If I linked to one of my favorite blogs many times, and and later its domain expired and was purchased by a site that promotes bigotry, what should I do? Leaving the links in place lends the credibility of my site to that site in the eyes of the search engines, even though the content has changed completely. A human reader following a link would clearly understand from context that something had changed about the link destination, but the indexers probably would not.

In this day and age an outbound link to another site has a real cash value, and given that, I’m not sure what the correct behavior is for a Web site that links to others. I wouldn’t give $5 a month to a cause I fundamentally disagree with, should I provide that value or more to a Web site I don’t agree with by leaving links in place that don’t lead to the same content that they once did? It strikes me as a real ethical conundrum.

Perhaps the right answer is to excise the links from the old posts and to add a note explaining why the links were removed. Then the content is not fundamentally altered, and the behavior of the blogger is fully explained. That seems like a better compromise than just deleting entire posts.


  1. Google’s algorithm doesn’t care whether I link to a racist Web site to denounce it or ridicule it. It treats that link as it would any other link to that Web site — a vote for its significance.

    rafe, isn’t that what rel=nofollow was made to address? you could go back in and add rel=nofollow to the link so as not to give it googlejuice, without having to delete the link altogether. adding a short note on why you did it but letting the link exist keeps things transparent while still letting your readers make up their own minds about things.

  2. Why not just go back and add rel=”nofollow” to the links that you no longer wish to provide PageRank to?

    As an aside, I see no problem at all in editing old posts to update the links to point to content that has moved, provided it’s still available somewhere. Adding a little “404” icon next to links that are known to be broken seems reasonable as well.

  3. yeah the rel=”nofollow” fixes all the problems you describe with page rank. There is even a microformat to vote the link down though no search engine uses it yet.

    It’s fine for BoingBoing to get pisses at its friends…. but they should not pretend they never existed.

  4. rel=”nofollow”

    I thought the implementations of nofollow weren’t consistent between Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Ask, and others. For instance doesn’t Yahoo! continue to crawl nofollow links?

  5. Ginger Stampley

    July 3, 2008 at 7:39 am

    Count me as another person bothered mostly by the conflict between the behavior on display and the Boing Boing brand, particularly the Doctorow brand.

  6. It may sound silly, but I’m just not convinced of the reliability of nofollow.

  7. You could also just de-link them and add a note in square brackets [ed – formally a link to example.com].

    I think the problem is less with removing the links and more with removing everything around them. I don’t even care about the fact that it was Boing Boing, I just think that any blogger should be transparent about the changes they make to their archives.

  8. I’ve always thought that square brackets/ETA addressed this problem perfectly.

    [ETA: as of 07/02/2008, I no longer endorse this website. Justification here.]

  9. The web is a dynamic medium. The expectation that blog entries will remain online in perpetuity so that a historical record is maintained is far-fetched, given the many different ways in which content can disappear.

    If content management tools are in place to support revisioning, so that changes can be tracked like Wikipedia updates, that’s the ideal.

    But for the vast majority of people whose blogs are personal, non-commercial forms of expression that lack such tools, I don’t think it’s fair to expect us to keep entries online forever.

    I’ve deleted a few blog entries that were expressions of support for a former business partner who threatened to sue me. It felt a little weird sending that stuff to the memory hole, but most web users aren’t going to treat old blog entries as stuff that might no longer be true. The easiest way to avoid continuing to endorse the clown was to delete the entries.

    If I had been as vocal an advocate of transparency as the Boing Boing crew, I would’ve been more reluctant to do it.

  10. nofollow relies on the behaviour of an external agent, I’m not sure that’s a good way to ‘delink’.

    The easiest way to avoid continuing to endorse the clown was to delete the entries.

    Or add an update, with links to a subsequent post reflecting your ideas and feelings about the old posts? At least in that event you’re adding to a narrative, linking further.

  11. It’s my intent to go back in and set up a system that’ll take links to domains and redirect them through a page that either gives a rel="nofollow" version of the link, with a description of why I’m not linking directly, or a plain text version of the link, with an explanation that, for perpetuity’s sake, I didn’t want to destroy the information, but the actual content no longer exists.

    Maybe if I’m smart about this I can also do something to tie archive.org in there.

    I’ve long thought that part of being a good net citizen is not breaking links. I may have done so a few times inadvertently, but the last time I knowingly broke a link was 1999, when the domain that hosted my original web pages decided to re-organize and I no longer had control over those pages. I recreated them in the same structure on my own server, and emailed all the people I could find who linked to them.

    BoingBoing’s current behavior is uncivil, and, more even than old domains that link rot into spammer juice, this is motivating me to deal with ten years worth of links in blog archives.

  12. Or add an update, with links to a subsequent post reflecting your ideas and feelings about the old posts?

    I wanted the person in my rearview mirror as fast as possible. Bringing up the deletion of the posts, in a new post to justify the action, would have provoked further confrontation.

    I don’t know what provoked Boing Boing to unwonderful Violet Blue. But I can understand why they were attracted to the idea of deleting her from the site without comment to avoid the kind of drama we’re seeing now.

  13. Yeah, I think there’s a lot to be said for avoiding a spat. Making a public declaration of a break up is a sure recipe for often unwanted drama. Dealing with those situations should probably be a whole new post, preferably written by someone else.

  14. I think the distinction that some sites should not be held to the same standards that we hold “institutions of record” is an important one. The idea that if I change something I wrote I’m changing history smacks of an over-inflated sense of self importance. At least that’s how I would answer the question internally. Nothing I’ve written on the internet needs to be carved in stone for all eternity.

  15. It’s Orwellian to go back and alter or delete content when your opinion changes. If a newspaper… [etc.] And I feel the same way about blogs.

    Sure, but we expect transparency and particular ethical standards from institutions such as the press and the state because we recognize the power that they wield; it’s not clear how all blogs can reasonably fall into this context. Some blogs are influential, certainly, but this should hardly lead to categorical judgments about what’s proper for all bloggers. If blogging is the diverse and democratic medium that we say it is, then let’s acknowledge that people blog for reasons that are too various to be governed under any single standard.

    (Let’s also acknowledge that not everybody who revises, edits, or reworks their writing needs to adorn their changes with UPDATE notices or INS tags.)

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