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.