Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Fine Line Between Aggregation and Splogging: Part Three

Blog Aggregating Websites

Pretty much since the dawn of blogging, there have been attempts made, by bloggers themselves and by readers of blogs, to organize and network the blogging community in ways that make it easier for bloggers to find other like-minded bloggers, and easier for blog readers to find blogs about subjects that suit their interests.

The blogroll is, of course, one of the earliest adopted and most commonly used tools for that purpose. Bloggers make a list (or sometimes multiple lists, organized by region or topic) of links to other bloggers that they themselves like to read. Blog readers often use these lists to find other bloggers whose work they might enjoy.

Blogrolls have the added advantage of boosting backlink ratings for the blogs they list. Backlinks are links to a site from another location, and search sites like Google use backlinks as one indicator of a site's popularity. A high number of backlinks may positively influence a website's search ranking, especially if those links themselves are coming from a highly influential site.

In addition to the blogroll, another organizational/networking tool that has arisen organically within the blogging community is the blog network. Originally, blog networks were started voluntarily by groups of bloggers, usually bloggers who had similar interests or wrote about similar topics, who decided to band together and create a site together, a site dedicated to a particular region, topic, or cause.

BlogHer is one example of such a network, which focuses on women bloggers. Started by bloggers, for bloggers, as a place to promote discussion about women's issues among bloggers, BlogHer has grown to include an ad network and a successful national blogging conference series. Participation in the BlogHer network is entirely voluntary. Members can choose whether or not to contribute original content to BlogHer's blogs and message boards, and they can choose whether or not to link to their own original blogs in their BlogHer profiles.

Crazy Hip Blog Mamas
is another blog network started by bloggers for bloggers. As the name suggests, it focuses on Mommyblogs, and again, participation is entirely voluntary. CHBM hosts blog carnivals, where all members are invited (but not required) to write posts on their own blogs covering the same topic, and members are encouraged to vote in weekly contests that nominate a "Member of the Week."

Sites like BlogHer and CHBM provide members with opportunities to discover and network with like-minded fellow bloggers, and help blog readers find collections of similarly themed blogs. Such community-based sites often also make a profit for their founders, from ad revenue; the large, sophisticated audiences they draw are a prime target for many major advertisers. However, since participation in networks like BlogHer and CHBM is entirely voluntary, and since members of community-based sites like these are usually given a good deal of say in any major marketing decisions, this is not generally seen by members as a conflict of interest. In fact, ad revenue often allows community-based blog networks to offer even more services to their members, generally benefiting the community.

Alongside the community-based blog network, two other popular methods of organizing blogs have emerged: the blog search engine, and the blog aggregator website.

Blog search engines are just what they sound like: search engines that specifically search only blogs. Google now has its own blog search engine. Icerocket is another blog search engine. Both find search results by searching through blog web feeds. If your blog doesn't broadcast a web feed, it won't get picked up by these engines.

Blog aggregator websites are a little more difficult to describe, in part because there are so many different varieties of websites that aggregate blog content. Some blog aggregators are basically blog directories that offer links to blogs organized by topic or category, and also provide some of the features of a software-based feed reader by notifying users when a listed blog updates.

For example, there's Technorati, which combines its own blog search engine and a well-organized link directory with a front page showing a constantly-updated display of brief excerpts of blog feeds from some of the internet's most popular blogs, right alongside excerpts from news articles. Technorati also allows site users to create personalized user accounts, where blog readers can set up their own customized pages to track their favorite blogs using web feeds, just as one can using a software-based feed reader, and blog owners can declare ownership of their own blog profile if they find it listed in the Technorati directory.

Technorati also rates blogs for what it calls "authority." This rating, similar in ways to Google's PageRank, is based on backlinks from other websites.

And then there's the recently launched Alltop aggregator of blogs and news stories, a Guy Kawasaki effort that is described on own Alltop's own About page thusly:
You can think of an Alltop site as a “dashboard,” “table of contents,” or even a “digital magazine rack” of the Internet. To be clear, Alltop sites are starting points — they are not destinations per se. The bottom line is that we are trying to enhance your online reading by both displaying stories from the sites that you’re already visiting and helping you discover sites that you didn’t know existed.
Alltop does not use an objective popularity-based rating system to decide which blogs to list. Rather, as far as I can tell, it seems to pretty much just list those blogs that Alltop's founders like, plus any popular blogs that are either highly recommended by Alltop users, or specifically request to be included.

Like Technorati, Alltop also uses web feeds to provide up-to-the-minute updates for the blogs it lists in its directory. Alltop shows post titles for the last five posts from each blog; when a user mouses over one of the titles, a brief excerpt from the post is shown. However, Alltop is a much simpler site than Technorati; it does not allow for custom web-based feedreading pages like Technorati does. Nor does it have a search engine function.

The Fine Line Between Aggregation and Splogging

Okay, let's pause for a moment here. Reading that section just above about blog aggregating websites, did you notice something?

Blog aggregating websites like Technorati and Alltop scrape bloggers' web feeds for content, and post that original content to their own sites, just like many sploggers do.

But, before David Sifry and Guy Kawasaki start sending me hate mail for trashing their sites on my blog, let me just say this right now: I believe that most blog aggregation sites should NOT be lumped in indiscriminately with the sploggers.

Most blog aggregation sites have an entirely different intent, serve an entirely different purpose, and treat scraped content differently than sites run by sploggers.

Many blog aggregator sites, like Alltop and Technorati, provide valuable services to both blog readers and bloggers. Blog aggregating websites can help blog readers find new blogs that may interest them by organizing blogs by region or topic. They can help bloggers by exposing bloggers' work to a wider audience, and also by providing valuable backlinks to the blogs featured on the site. The benefits of blog aggregating websites are, in many ways similar to the benefits of feed readers and community-based networks, in that they bring more readers to blogs by making it easier for blog readers to find, read, and manage blog content.

And sites like Technorati and Alltop treat the content they scrape very differently than the way sploggers do. Unlike many splog sites, they post excerpts only, and not full posts. Unlike many splog sites, which show content without attribution, or even in some cases deliberately, falsely attribute stolen work to a different author, all excerpted content on Technorati and Alltop is credited, and prominent links are provided to lead users directly back to the original site.

Both Alltop and Technorati are organized in such a way as to make it absolutely clear to users that the sites are intended to be used as portals to the original content they feature. They are explicitly designed to help readers find new content, and help bloggers find new readers. The sites LOOK like directories. And they WORK like directories. They are not pretending to be anything other than what they are.

And, importantly, both Alltop and Technorati allow bloggers to opt out of being featured on their sites, and post clear instructions on how to do so. (See links in previous sentence if you're interested.)

It is nevertheless undeniably true that blog aggregators' business is built on the original work of bloggers. Any and all sites that aggregate blog content without the original authors' express permission must walk a fine line, in my view, between helping bloggers, and exploiting them.

And some do sites cross that line.

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