Today Louis Gray wrote a very interesting and critical story about Engadget’s backlinking practices — backlinking is what we (and some others) call linking back to previous editorial. Louis seems like a smart guy and makes some very good points, but I think he might have been under some false impression when he wrote his post, which led him to make a lot of generalizations about the differences between internal and external links that aren’t necessarily true. But it’s an interesting topic given my stance on keyword popovers and the like, and it’s definitely worth addressing.

To start, the thing that stuck out to me most is this:

“Engadget, an unquestioned leader in gadget and tech news, should feel confident enough to send readers off site and expect them to come back. … I believe the practice of hotlinking keywords instead to internal stories is sneaky and doesn’t serve readers who are looking for the true sources of information.”

I got the impression after reading those bits that he wasn’t paying too close attention to how our stories are actually structured. On every single post (that we find from another news source, forums, or elsewhere that’s linkable) you’ll find that the story image and read link both direct readers to that source story (we also have a via link if we found that source story somewhere else). This isn’t new — we’ve done this since day one, and it’s like this on every single post. Our outbound links are never buried in the midst other links like on many other sites, because our ultimate goal is to provide a consistent (and consistently good) experience.

Engadget bottom links
Even if you didn’t want to read Engadget’s editorial at all, you could just click read link after read link (or image after image) and find where we sourced our material from. The sad fact is most sites still make it hard to find their source link. So to say we are making some concerted “effort to keep the reader locked into the site as long as possible” couldn’t get much more inaccurate.

Of course, some may argue that the practice of backlinking is annoying. That’s debatable, but the thing that’s important to remember here is that at Engadget, our MO is to offer a compressed, editorialized edition of technology news. Sometimes we can go as long (or longer) as any big-name newspaper on an important story, but because we do (and must!) have greater respect for our readers’ intelligence and attention, generally speaking we expect them to understand the gist of what we’re talking about when we start to geek out.

In your average AP / Reuters article, for example, you’ll often spend a good chunk of your reading combing through the backgrounder paragraphs, which are there to help prepare you before the article gets to the heart of the matter. The primary goal of backlinking at Engadget is make use of previous news content as the backgrounder, letting people delve deeper into the subject without demanding everyone parse all that backgrounder text to get to what they want. This has worked really well so far, in my opinion, because I think we make great content.

It’s pretty easy to guess that no one — myself included — would want to click the backlinks if their payoff might not be that relevant. So I’m not going to say we’re at all perfect with our backlinking. In fact, I’m sure we could use additional fine tuning in what and how often we backlink, which I’ll be evaluating closer starting today. But the bottom line is we don’t consider backlinking some form of advertising or reader lock-in; our goal there is to provide additional context, plain and simple.

But I do disagree with Louis’s statement that he would “expect links to take him to those [topics'] respective sites” (paraphrased); we wouldn’t link the term Xbox 360 to because everyone already knows how to find that site — and if you don’t, it’s an easy Google. We believe there’s more value for the average Engadget reader to be found in an easily parsed list of recent news involving that company or product — that is, after all, why one comes to Engadget, isn’t it? As a reader, I’d prefer instant access to that site’s news on the topic, not a link to a page that represents some company’s PR agenda.

So to sum it up: do we backlink our content? Yes, and we have since day one, way back in 2004. Do we think it adds value? Absolutely. Do we think it’s a substitute for external links? Obviously not, that’s why the majority of links in our content point outward, not inward.