Linking within Important Media

Hi all,

Figured rather than an email, I’d just send you a link and ask for comments in the field below–make this kind of a conversation about our policy for incentivizing writers to link within the IM network. You can read the full post there, but here’s the basics:

1. I ask a volunteer in the IM community to pick 4 random numbers at random.

2. I find the four articles that correspond to these numbers once IM’s sites are laid out alphabetically and posts laid out chronologically. So if the number 1 was chosen, the first article published that month on Blue Living Ideas (our first site, alphabetically) would be the article that number corresponds to.

3. I give bonuses to the authors of those four random articles. If they link to another, related article in that site, $10. If they link to a related article elsewhere in IM, $40. Total possible bonus $50.

The last two months, out of $200 total bonus possible, we’ve averaged $35 total payout of $200 possible. Last month, we paid out $60. This month, $10. Here are the articles chosen at random this month–good ones, for sure, but not linked and therefore missing cash bonuses.

If you look through them, you might see that Liz’s post on Feel Good Style has a link to another FGS article (that’s the $10 earned this month), and that Harry’s article on The Inspired Economist has a link within IE, and a link to a CleanTechnica article…which should qualify him for the $50, but the caveat here is that, as the editor of TIE, I actually placed those two links into Harry’s post after it was written.

I think there’s little better that we can do to take advantage of our diversity as a network than to link to each other’s great work, and that’s why this policy was designed and implemented. It’s not a small amount of time I commit to this and the Pul-IM-zer prize, and I don’t mind doing it, if it’s going to be useful/helpful/fun. Believe me, after reading the ~1,000 articles we publish every month for the past 5 months, I see that many of you do, in fact, link very well. Jeff, Becky, Andrea, and Zach are really great at this, in particular. But I also see that most of our writers link to our sites rarely if at all. I realize it’s not practical for everyone, especially those of you with a real niche site that aren’t as easy to link to other IM sites (Gas2, FGS, CAGW), and I totally get that.

So I’m opening this to your thoughts–should we continue this policy into 2013? Do you usually link? If not, what stops you? Is there a better way to incentivize this? Thoughts for improvement?

Thanks all!



About Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride.

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  1. Joshua S Hill says:

    Hi Scott, et al,

    I normally stay out of the way on issues such as this, but I figured I’d throw my two-senses. I actually have a worrying amount of experience working online, and yes, linking within the network is a vital part of an blog network. Given that I write so many articles a week, however, you’d be right in asking why I don’t link around more.

    Primarily the reason is because it’s not how my brain is programmed. There is nothing on the creation-page to remind me; there is no plugin helping us out, for example.

    Furthermore I haven’t read every article on the sites I write for, let alone the whole network. As a result, when I’m writing my articles there is no trigger going off suggesting that I should link to ‘this article I read once’ or ‘that article I saw once’. When I do link, it is because I’m covering a topic I have previously written about, and in most cases I end up simply linking to stuff I’ve written in the past. It’s not favouritism, it’s just the only way it happens.

    On to your ACTUAL questions.

    Do we keep this incentive thing going? Yeah, definitely. But I think that we need to work on creating a means to search for articles within the page creation page, or a plugin that has a checklist that we – the authors – can tick off as we write but prior to submitting/publishing (or maybe find a plugin that crawls the network and automatically links around).

    Those are my thoughts, and maybe they’ll be of some help somewhere along the line.

    • Good thoughts, Josh…brings up the point that we all live in our own little boxes. I think generally we have a tremendous opportunity for cross pollination, and I’d like to encourage that any way I can. I like the *idea* of a checklist for writers, but I wonder if it might feel like a burden or an obstacle to publishing.

      Would people be interested in a LinkedIn group that is invite-only and that all writers could submit their content to? That way, we could get to know each other, see each other’s expertises, etc. I only have the benefit of knowing people’s interests because I’ve been running the Pul-IM-zer and reading everyone’s posts. If I didn’t, I would never guess that Tanya does a lot of animal rights stuff, or that Tina is such a bloody genius in terms of military sustainability, or that Nathan knows science like nobody’s business…how do we encourage people to get to know each other, and then in the back of their heads maybe think to link to those folks because they know each others’ expertises….. ?

  2. hey scott..sometimes it takes awhile to turn the ship around. keep at it. your suggestions wll benefit everyone in the long haul.

    maybe to improve and get better compliance you could shift the insensitive to the editor rather then.writer….. the odds are better and which would encourage better participation.

    Also.. if an IM search was possible from within the separate blogs, it would encourage compliance.

    • Interesting suggestion, Brett. Incentivizing the editors…what do others think about that? With this month’s contest, there were actually two site directors whose articles were chosen, and neither of them linked outside their blog either, so I don’t know if it would make a ton of difference. But perhaps changing the incentive structure some…. thanks for the ide-ation. :)

  3. Becky Striepe says:

    I definitely think encouraging cross links is a worthy cause and am honestly surprised that the bonus structure hasn’t had more of an impact. I think it’s all about habits, and building habits can be so tricky. When I’ve changed policies at my sites, sometimes reaching out individually to writers who need a little nudge can help. It’s more legwork, but harder to miss a personal email. Mass emails sometimes get lost in the shuffle, I think. That said, I am only following a handful of writers in that much detail, not the dozens across the network. Not sure how scalable my approach would be!

  4. Priti Ambani says:

    Hi there,
    I have to get better at this and my problem is when I write a post, I am very engrossed in the topic at hand and most often forget (as stupid as it sounds). It is purely a habit and I will make a better effort at it going forward.
    Also Brett and Josh, there is an easy way to find other articles on the network that have covered a similar topic – the custom IM search tool.
    I am embarrassed that I have all the resources and haven’t done a good job on linking:(
    Thanks for the reminder Scott.

  5. The bonus system doesn’t affect me much, just because I never, ever win contests (insert sad-faced emoticon), but I do put all those links into each of my posts, because I consider it part of my job. Linking to another article within IM is a little dicey sometimes, since it can be tricky to find another article related to whatever craft tutorial that I’m writing that’s NOT on CAGW, but I’ve always found something-ish. I could see a re-jiggered IM-wide search engine making that job a LOT easier, however–by choosing or eliminating particular IM blogs from the search field, perhaps (so that I can skip straight past all the CAGW results), or by enabling advanced Boolean searches so that I could do an OR search using several keywords, etc.

    • Totally–as I say in the blog post, sites with a real niche can be difficult to find related content in the network….CAGW would be the nichiest of our sites, I’d guess, but Gas2, FGS, and others are harder to link outside to related stuff than, say, Sustainablog or Inspired Economist, which can more readily draw from other IM sites.

      I’d say just do a quick search…maybe there’s a piece about some fabric in your CAGW post that was written about on FGS, who knows…and if not, well, you tried. :) This policy is a bonus extra, not a requirement, because I get that it’s not always feasible.

      Nice use of the word boolean, by the way. :)

  6. Hi. My main challenge is linking to sites other than the one I’m posting on. For me, its really an issue of search. I may be missing it, but I haven’t been able to find an effective way to search for posts other than going into the various individual sites. Might it be possible to set up a search on that searches all the sites? I would cross-link far more (virtually always, I’m guessing) if that capability existed. Just my two-cents. Thanks, Jennifer

    • This would be my failing, not yours. Seems that several people were unaware that there is a custom search box on each site that only searches the IM network. It’s in the bottom right of the sidebar in most sites. So on each site, there are two search boxes–one for the site and one for the network. I’ve written (email and blog posts) about this, but I think I’m getting the point that that message hasn’t gotten across as much as it can. No worries at all…thanks for the feedback and I think what I’m seeing is that I just need to keep letting people know about it, remind them, etc.

  7. I think it’s a good idea, and I think I’ve gotten pretty consistent with over the last little bit, since implementation of the incentive program — incentives are nice, but mainly they just got me to pay attention to it… I think I’ve got it built into my habits, so if you come across a post of mine without at least 1 EDB link and at least 1 to another in-network site, please call it to my attention! ‘Cause I do think it’s a good idea, and well worth doing. :)

  8. Chris Milton says:

    Reckon the incentive scheme is good and worth keeping. It is just a question of developing the habit, nothing more, and if you keep plugging away at authors I’m sure it will happen.

    However making it easier to search the network would really help .. I think the ones I write for have got a Search IM box on them but it can be a bit of a pain to find. And as Josh said, having a prompt in front of you when writing helps no end.

    So (and pretending to have absolutely no technical knowledge whatsoever) is it possible to put the search IM box either as a widget on the New Post page (unlikely) or at the top of every page?

    Just a thought, but defo keep the incentives going .. it’s just a question of how to change habits.

  9. Scott,
    The effort to “incentivize” linking on the site is admirable but the random mechanism of picking winners should leverage itself to a site-wide improvement only if such a random selection was valid and the sample were selected well.

    Conflict of Goals:
    You have two goals: to give out $200 a month and to improve linking on the sites. The wording on this letter emphasizes the monetary aspect but it is clearly linked to “linking” on the site. If your primary goal were a “give away,” keeping the lottery and scrapping the linking would make success easily within reach. If the primary goal is linking then perhaps the incentive of $200 spread thinly through many articles is just so much cheese in a mousetrap of additional work. The mouse in all of us wants to get the cheese without springing the trap.

    Winning the Lottery:
    Lotteries encourage many participants, but each has nothing more to do than pick a number. You are using a lottery to select winners but then are requiring that something else must have been done, linking. The dis-incentive is that there is only a small likelihood of winning the lottery and a further dis-incentive is that linking takes time and effort which is only randomly rewarded by this lottery. Most will receive no benefit for their additional effort. Those who do make the effort have only a small chance of reward.

    Type of Writing:
    Some sites may encourage or depend upon linking more than others. If I were writing an opinion piece, I would be far less inclined to provide links than if I were writing a technical article. In the first, the writing is likely a summation of all that has been read while in the second the validity of the article may depend upon what has been read. In the former, links may detract from the flow or substance of the article, but the latter has its roots in the research that is evidenced by links. It may be as much a mistake to judge the two by the same standard as it would be to fail to realize the need and basis of a technical article and instead write an inappropriate opinion piece.

    It takes discipline and research to write a good technical article but time to be widely read enough to write an opinion piece. The financial incentive for most web writing moves toward short, lightly researched articles that are essentially re-writings from somewhere else. For more on this see the New York Times Documentary:

    You highlight an interesting point in your description of the process of providing the rewards for the last month. As an editor you added links. You did so because you had an incentive to do so. You had a proprietary view of the article and what linking could do for you that the writer didn’t intuitively share. This is probably the most fertile area of consideration that also goes beyond the scope of this response.

    Very Best
    Breath on the Wind

  10. The network-wide search is a great tool – I’ve found it really easy to find related posts (just to plug that again).
    I think making the links an editorial responsibility might be the way to go: since editors/site directors are responsible for the overall performance of their sites, this will likely become a habit for them much more quickly. Now, different editors may want to handle that differently – it’s easy for me since I don’t have a large team; Zach (for instance) might want to play with ways to involve his writers more. The sites could even be used as “laboratories” for different approaches.

  11. Some great comments here. Throwing in my 5 cents:

    1. I think the big thing is habits (and not having a block/trigger in the backend to break those habits). I spend almost all day every day on these sites, and when I go to actually write an article, I often forget to link to an external site unless a topic I’ve written on previously comes to mind. In other words, what Josh said. However, after focusing on this and adding links to a handful of articles, it’s now more engrained and I don’t forget.

    2. On my end, I’ve started two new site policies that I think are going to help address this lack of links conundrum. 1st of all, I’ve increased the requirements for posts on CT. Aside from simply covering a specific story, I’m requiring writers to add a paragraph or more aimed at putting the main news story into context… I think this will make writers step back a bit and will make adding links to other articles/sites more natural as they are looking for other stories from which to add context. But we’ll see. (Note: the focus of this change is actually just on improving the quality/added value of our articles.)

    3. The 2nd thing I’m going to start doing is making a screencast as i edit each post… pointing out what I’m changing along the way. I’ll shoot these screencasts to writers and, as I think Becky does really well, remind authors of important things (like adding links) enough that I think they will more easily change habits. Even without the screencast, I think that simply giving feedback to writers whenever they miss a step (as Becky does) is super useful.

    4. While some sites/articles do have more of a challenge, i think finding a relevant link on another site is not too hard. If you’re mentioning a company, country, or city, you can generally find a story on another site covering that. The same goes for specific technologies, materials, or politics. And since Gas2 and CAGW were brought up: CT has hundreds or thousands of articles on EVs and biofuels that Gas2 could easily find and link to; and I imagine there are many good articles on cotton, hemp, plastic, consumer electronics, clothes, and DIY projects that CAGW writers could link to.

    5. We’ve seen diff reasons here as to why writers aren’t putting links in. I wonder what other reasons might be floating around. I’m going to go ahead and bounce the question off my writers real succinctly. I think this is a great policy/incentive — hopefully we can use it to get more and more writers to follow suit.

  12. Michael R. says:

    I concur with Zach first paragraph (above). Apart from that, the biggest habit to develop here is to familiarize oneself with the content of the blog you write for (most). Whenever I take a break from writing (usually 2 – 3 days), or if I am just checking the traffic on my most recent post (thus, logging in), I usually review the first two or three pages of the site (PS in this case)…this habit keeps me attuned to our content, as does checking the top ten posts, etc. Hell, most of the time, I find an article or two of interest and end up reading .

    Linking outside one’s blog is more challenging for the reasons already stated. Obviously, network linking can not be the motive for writing an article as this would end up dictating what we can write about. However, since I write at lea least one energy-related piece in a 45 day period, it’s fairly easy to find a link on CT, for example, or, since I write a pollution/ecology/environmental policy piece at least once every 45 days, I can easily search EL for a link (something I have to do more often, as this is a good, but under-appreciated blog).

    That said, I have been linking to other articles (mine and others) for at least the last two years…60 – 75% of my articles have links to other PS articles (mine and others), and about 10% – 20% have multiple links in them and/or an outside link (sometimes this is to a story on the IM network, sometimes to another blog altogether)….this (former percentage) is the result of routinely reviewing the first 2 or 3 pages of the PS site.

  13. Again, what Josh said. I will say, I have tried to link to other sites in the past but seems like my posts do not, generally, have a natural flow to anything that came up. And then I kind of gave up on it, I will admit. Sometimes there will be posts where it just won’t work, but maybe we could do a sentenece or two at the bottom linking to another post in the network that would seem reasonable…”Check out the latest at Eat Drink Better to find out how eating more grains can improve your health.” Or something like that. Or is that too blatantly link-y? Also, we don’t have any link lists of any sort on the blogs, right? We could add those as a page with a short description of each?

    And, for the record, Becky did encourage me to add the external links:) My bad!

  14. Liz Thompson says:

    I just had another idea. If we write a post and feel it would go well with one of the other sites, we could suggest that to the site director there. Like: an article on foods for beautiful skin at FGS could be suggested to EDB…

  15. I currently post most of my cartoons on PSave and other sites around the web. Since the Pul-IM-zer started I’ve been linking IM (mostly PSave) article uder my cartoons, to the dismay of the other editors i cartoon for. To them i say I like IM better. To you I say, if one of my cartoons is chosen at random I should be eligible for the bonus bucks for linking an IM artticle on the IM cartoon as well as linking an IM article on my other venues. To find the other venues of the specific cartoon, simply google the title of the toon.
    Make cents?

    • I’d noticed that, Joe! Thanks so much for doing that, and incorporating some IM love into your posts. You’ll absolutely be eligible to win based on those links. :)

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