Trust is a difficult subject. How do we trust someone? It’s pretty difficult in real life. We tend to trust people we know well or people that are trusted by people that we know well. We gain trust by interacting with people, by seeing consequent behavior. Reputation is an important factor too. Without realizing we use body language and all kinds of senses to build trust.
Online this is even harder. We miss most senses and can only rely on electronic interactions and referrals. The interesting thing is that unlike in real life trust has been made quantifiable on the web. It’s called Google Juice. With their PageRank algoritm Google has defined a defacto standard for trust. The underlying assumption is that if a lot of people refer (link) to a site it probably contains important stuff and can therefore be trusted.
While PageRank has brought us a lot of great things and helped us to find things we need quickly, it also comes with downsides (as with any algorithm). It can be tricked, optimized, tailored to fit your needs. That is probably why there are so many ranking systems on the web. We have Google, Technorati, TechMeme, all kinds of leaderboards, there is a ranking for anything we can think of. The main motivation for having these ranking systems is measure trust. If you’re high ranked you can be trusted.
Linking has become the main currency on the web. By linking to external sites you provide them with a trust referral. It’s an important process as it immediately affects PageRank. It is also a system that breaks down easily, especially if you in some way or another monetize your site. That is why all of the big blogs seldomly link to external sites. TechChrunch, CNET, they all love to link to themselves. The motive is pure financial, and has nothing to do with content, trust, or any other factor.
I think Mathew Ingram nails it when he says:
When I come across a site — whether it’s Ars Technica, or CNET, or the New York Times — and most of the links are internal, I instinctively don’t trust what I’m reading. Maybe that’s just me, but I think excessive internal linking is almost worse than no links at all. At least having no links at all could be a result of plain old ignorance; linking only to yourself means you know full well that links are valuable, and you know how to do it, but you either can’t be bothered to look for other material or you want the Google juice all for yourself. It’s fundamentally anti-Web. We already have lots of places that don’t link — they’re called the mainstream media.
The big blogs have become exactly that what they loath about traditional media. They may have started as open and trustworthy initiatives, but with the monetization that is taking place now it has become crucial to their survival to act as old fashioned media corporations.
It’s a bit ironic that Mathew, who also happens to be a journalist, needs to point this out to us. Mathew is someone that always links to others, which is why I trust and respect him. Tim O’Reilly started this discussion a while back when he wrote:
When this trend spreads (and I say “when”, not “if”), this will be a tax on the utility of the web that must be counterbalanced by the utility of the intervening pages. If they are really good, with lots of useful, curated data that you wouldn’t easily find elsewhere, this may be an acceptable tax. In fact, they may even be beneficial, and a real way to increase the value of the site to its readers. If they are purely designed to capture additional clicks, they will be a degradation of the web’s fundamental currency, much like the black hat search engine pages that construct link farms out of search engine results.
I have a lot of respect for Tim too, but it’s a bit ironic that the O’Reilly blog tends to link internally too. They use a tagging system below every post that leads to O’Reilly articles only. It’s just a variation of the same theme. It seems that as soon as a blog becomes monetized or written by more than one author linking to the outside world is under pressure.
And with all the aggregators popping up the social media community is searching for trust again. We think of new algorithms (trust filters), people ranking systems, we rank content, people, anything to get a grip on trust.
Personally I think it’s best to use common sense. If you interact or follow people you will soon enough develop a feeling about their skills and value for you. It will help you to build trust. This is important in a world where anyone can act like an expert and publish anything boldy without the restraints traditional media have (they have a news redaction, editors, policies). As I said in a discussion on this very topic at Friendfeed:
On FF or anywhere else on-line it is hard to decide to trust the ‘expertise’ of someone making bold statements. I for one would warn you not to assume everything I write is correct. It is, and remains to be, my personal view of the world 😉
Maybe the linking economy went bust when we started treating it as an economy.