Open Question: Does a link = endorsement?

The tricky business of hyperlink intent.

Open QuestionThere’s an interesting case going on in Canada in which one man is suing another for linking to allegedly defamatory articles. Not writing those articles. Linking to them. Ars Technica has a great overview of the case.

The story got me thinking about the intent of hyperlinks. Specifically:

Is a hyperlink assumed to be an endorsement of the ideas, conclusions or statements contained within the linked-to material?

My own hyperlinking behavior is largely endorsement driven. If I like something, I link to it. But is that a rule? Of course not. I may link to material because I disagree with it, or I have an alternate perspective, or I’ve written a counter-point of some sort. In these cases, I consider the links to be “references.” Combined, these reference links represent a minority of my total hyperlinking output. My endorsement-to-reference ratio is in the ballpark of 10:1. I often endorse, but not always.

But here’s where my hypocrisy flares up. When the scenario is flipped and I run across someone else’s links, my default assumption — unless contextual cues are abundantly clear — is that the link creator is recommending the material. That’s unfair, but it’s what I do.

What I’d like to know is if I’m alone in this. Is there an “intent” discrepancy between the links you create and the links you read? Do you assume that link = endorsement? Please weigh in through the comments section.

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  • Great question. I don’t believe that links can construe endorsement. As you state, they can be used equally as well as references. The information surrounding the link is much more indicative of whether it is an “endorsement” or not.

  • I’m much the same way. It takes awhile to get to know others before you know whether their links are endorsements or references. I appreciate people who link to things counter to their way of thinking.

    “Interesting” is how I’d describe most of my links. Whether I agree or disagree with, love or hate what I’m linking to, they must always be interesting.

    Possibly related is the NOFOLLOW attribute. I don’t use it outside of work because if I don’t want a link to count then I don’t link. Even if that thing I am linking to goes against everything I hold dear I feel that it still holds weight if I am linking to it. Except for XFactor links ;)

  • mugabo

    I use Google Reader, and daily get at least 5-6 “recommended items” RSS items for torrents of ©-violating material (movies and TV shows). I’m tired of reporting to Google that they are implicitly encouraging me break the law by recommending that crap to me. A “recommendation” is an implied endorsement, right? Maybe they’ll get the hint and fix that shit now that I’ve escalated the issue to a public forum (all previous attempts to point out this issue have been ignored).

  • I got into this debate with another Twitter user because I retweeted a statement from Wikileaks. The other user took it as I endorsed the statement, which isn’t true. I retweet, share/like (Google Reader), or link to content that I enjoyed reading or I found interesting. Most of the time it is stuff I agree with, but not always.

  • I don’t assume that, Mac, and my behavior and experience follows yours in a number of ways. I’ve linked to arguments I may not agree with, LOLcats, failures, mistakes, or examples of worst practices on the Web. I try very hard not to link to spammer, porn or phishing sites, as a matter of Web hygiene.

    Looks like I gibe with Ben, Paul and John here.

    One caveat: I do make an effort not to use relevant keywords in links to sites whose content is not the best of the Web, so to speak, given the effect that a link has on SEO. Context matters a great deal.

    Interestingly, this very argument played out at the recent Public Media Camp, where some attendees felt that a link equals an endorsement. I pushed back on that contention then as well, extending it to retweets on Twitter or Likes on Facebook. While the latter is more similar to a link, I dislike the implicit semantic endorsement it confers. I may with to “like” a government agency or politician, for instance, to track their updates but do not in fact endorse them.

    Tweets are even trickier, particularly with respect to how mutable they are as they travel, but I often use the RT as a means of sharing something that’s interesting, newsworthy or implicitly worth knowing about – even though I do not necessarily endorse the content itself. Unfortunately, I don’t see that understanding being generally accepted online just yet.

  • My answer is “No!” Is a road to a beach an endorsement of that beach? You could say yes—why else would they have bothered to make the road, if the beach were an undesirable place to go? But perhaps there’s a road there for other reasons: because the beach is on the way to somewhere more desirable. Or because there’s toxic sludge on the beach that trucks need to reach to clean up. Or because scientists are still researching the beach’s merits.

    I’m torturing this particular metaphor, but you get the point, I think. The Internet is built on links. To the extent that building roads is an action without a positive or negative valence, so is linking. Are politics often involved in both actions? Sure, often—but not always.

  • Back in 2003, I proposed adding ‘vote links’ to URLs so that we could indicate which links were endorsements and which weren’t.
    When at Technorati, I implemented this as part of the search engine there, and wrote up a microformat spec. Later, Matt and Jason at Google proposed rel-nofollow, and I drafted a spec for that too.

    The reason Google wanted an “ignore this” marker rather than a “vote against” one was that the PageRank algorithm doesn’t converge when it has negative votes.

    The orignal intent of rel-nofollow was for sites to use it on 3rd party links (like the ones I put in this comment), to prevent the host site being seen to endorse the links of the commenters; sadly over time it has become used for second-party links, for example the external links in the profiles of users of, thereby hoarding the PageRank generated by the users for the host site instead.

  • I very much act the same as you (my links out are not always intended to be an endorsement — though they often are…and I default to assuming others links are endorsements for some reason).

    I would also say that, even if links aren’t always intended to be an endorsement, that is basically the assumption that Google started with…and that seems to have worked out pretty good for them so far…

  • Many of the blogs I read link to examples of poor graphs or visualizations. The blog authors then present an alternative presentation of the data. Therefore, the endorsement to reference ratio is quite low.

  • On Tumblr if I like a post that post will then link to me ‘Liking’ a post is an endorsement, but that endorsement leads to a link back to my blog…

  • I concur with many of the opinions already articulated here regarding “interestingness” vs. “goodness”, and the crucial role of context, e.g., Tweeting a link vs. including an embedded link in a blog post (or comment).

    I typically only tweet links to things I agree with (= endorse), but will sometimes include links to things I disagree in blog posts (or comments), since I have > 140 characters with which to contextualize the link.

    Finally, I’m reminded of a great quote I heard by Guy Kawasaki during the Worst Speech Ever (the label he asked bloggers to use in writing about his talk … in part to prove his point):

    There’s no such thing as bad PR as long as they get the link right.

  • There is a question behind the question, and that has to do with liability: If somebody writes something illegal and you link to that – are you supporting the others’ statements?

    The question is not just relevant in Canada, but also in Germany where a couple of urban legends on the topic are hard to extinguish.

    My point of view is very simple: the link itself does not imply endorsement, at least not in the legal sense. Following a hyperlink is a conscious decision by the reader and marks a pretty clear step from one document to another. The catch is: Nobody might ever have found that “other” document, except for that hyperlinke.
    At any rate, the context (e.g. a headline “Recommendations”) may, and in practice usually does turn a simple hyperlink into some kind of endorsement. Of course everybody needs to take some basic responsibility for what he writes, and usually all of this goes well.

    However, even the Ars Technica piece doesn’t provide the details of what Newton wrote, so it’s a bit hard to judge.

    The article starts with a quote from Newton: “If I lose there won’t BE an Internet in Canada”, and he’s right. We can’t afford to amplify legal risks in hyperlinking, because

    the hyperlink is at the center of the Web as we know it.

  • As an electronic magazine publisher, US based but internationally subscribed, we utilize links for as much of our material as feasible. However, because our market is infinitesimal even compared to most niche markets, we usually know all of the end results of those links.
    In fact, we only accept advertising from companies/individuals meeting certain requirements. These are: the product(s) is relevant to our readership, the company has a proven product (no companies looking for investors prior to having a working prototype) and we keep our advertising to 15% of layout.
    Additionally, all other listings are generally known to us in some form. But not always and we have listed a couple of companies with which I’m not pleased.
    Having said this, we would never say that any of our links are recommendations.
    The bottom line is that this business is to inform our markets or communities. As publishers we need to exercise our content professionalism and knowledge to the extent that we do not knowingly provide links/contacts, etc, to known persons or companies of dubious ethics, etc.
    However, we are not in the business of advocacy and as such cannot be held to the standards by which an NGO or Church should be held in terms of those we associate with in print.

  • I always agree with a linkee, and usually include it for source of reference, but I also always nofollow – something I need to work on… by typing less :-)

  • To ASSUME that a link is an endorsement makes for an icy chill on free speech. Whatever happened to common sense and intelligence? Just linking to a site (or refer to an author or politician) should not imply a blanket endorsement, any more than pointing to a billboard implies an endorsement of what’s there. Links are pointers; that’s all. The context determines intent.