Excerpting Best Practices Hinge on Intent

A piece in the New York Times reignites the fair use debate by asking: How much excerpting does fair use cover?

It’s a reasonable question, particularly since Google News, the Huffington Post and countless other sites rely on excerpt aggregation to drive traffic and sell ads. But the rules of excerpting are also — to steal a line from Steve Jobs — “a bag of hurt.”

Fair use is a doctrine, and as much as editors, bloggers and others with an excerpting bent wish for structure (word count, percentage used, image size, etc.), it’s not going to happen. Fair use is contextual and case-by-case. That’s why Henry Blodget, co-founder of Silicon Alley Insider, has the right perspective:

“To excerpt others the way we want to be excerpted ourselves.”

Intent is the key to proper excerpting. If your intent is to single out someone else’s work, and drive attention and its associated benefits and detriments to the creator of that work, then excerpts will be short and filled with outbound links. But if your intent is to fool Google, boost your traffic, and use someone else’s material to further your own efforts, then excerpts will be long and link-free — or they’ll contain links to your material.

Excerpting is an extension of white-hat vs. black-hat search engine optimization. The white hats understand that search engines are the essential utility on the Web. Gaming them for personal gain erodes value and reduces opportunities for everyone. Black hats care only about short-term efforts, so they do anything they can to turn attention into quick advertising revenue. What black hats don’t realize — or care about — is the impact their actions have on the structure of the Internet. They’re jackhammering the foundation they’re standing on.

Sites that push the boundaries of excerpting are engaged in the same self-destructive behavior. They may see short-term traffic and revenue spikes, but the source sites will eventually cry foul and enact their own Draconian countermeasures. Long-term, this doesn’t benefit anyone. Sites that rely on excerpted information will lose access, and originating sources will lose attention. To be effective, excerpting needs to be a mutually beneficial relationship that provides value to everyone involved. The only “rule” is intent.

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