Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Responsible Aggregation Is Not Only NOT Evil, But A GOOD Thing

There’s a lot of hue and cry against online aggregation circulating around the interwebs these days, and I really don’t get it.

Aggregator sites reprint excerpts from other sites’ articles and blog posts, along with a ‘keep reading’ or ‘read the rest’ link to the source article/blog post. The more responsible aggregators also include the name of the author, and the most considerate ones also include links to the author’s website or blog and a link to the home page of the site where the article or post originally appeared.

If an aggregator site prints an entire article or blog post, or 50% or greater of the article/post without the author’s permission, well that’s just theft. If the ‘read the rest’ link opens the source web page in a window controlled by the aggregator, that’s tantamount to theft since it appears to the viewer as if he or she hasn’t left the aggregator site; worse yet, most such windowing systems don’t make it easy for the viewer to escape from the aggregator’s window. They may click links on the source site, but the linked pages still open up in the aggregator’s window. As a web consumer, I find those aggregator windows incredibly annoying and have come to avoid following links provided by such aggregators.

If an aggregator fails to credit the author when printing an excerpt and ‘read the rest’ link, it’s depriving the author of his or her due and that’s wrong, too. If an aggregator surrounds aggregated material with lots of paid advertising, particularly advertising with which the authors of aggregated material might take issue, that’s also an abuse of the authors’ material. But if the excerpt is brief, the author is credited, a ‘read the rest’ link is provided back to the source article without wrapping it in the aggregator’s window, links are provided to the author’s website (where available) and the home page of the site where the aggregated material originally appeared, and advertising surrounding aggregated material is minimal and non-offensive, with very few exceptions (e.g., aggregation of material the author is offering for sale) I really don’t understand why authors or anyone else should have a problem with it.

Publetariat, a site I founded and for which I’m Editor in Chief, has a mix of both original and aggregated material. The site focuses on content for indie authors and small imprints, and operates on a ‘we scour the web for relevant articles so you don’t have to’ sort of paradigm while also providing a discussion board area and member profiles with blogging capability. Every weekday at about 11am PST, I tweet a link to the site with the titles of articles posted to the site for that day. My tweet is often retweeted by my Twitter followers, but I’ve noticed another phenomenon going on: some people retweet, but only after changing the link to point directly to the source article. They seem to be making a pointed, if somewhat passive, statement against Publetariat’s aggregation, but I don’t know why they feel the need to do so since Publetariat is providing a service to both the author and readers.

Publetariat is a heavily-trafficked and well-respected site in the publishing world, and it gets several thousand unique visitors every week. It also gets thousands of RSS feed hits every month. The site has a traffic rank in the top 2% of all sites worldwide, and a Technorati blog rank in the top .2%. In other words, getting your material on the front page of the Publetariat site gets you a LOT of exposure to a highly targeted audience of authors and publishers. Let’s look at a specific example.

My blog post entitled “Self-Publishing: Future Prerequisite” was published on my blog on 9/22/09 and cross-posted to the Publetariat site the same day. To date, the post on my blog has received 221 hits. Not too shabby. But the same post on Publetariat has received 709 hits: over three times as many reads. In the current climate, in which authors are supposed to be doing everything they can to attract readership and attention, why wouldn’t they want three times as many readers for their content? And if you’re an author services provider, such as an editor, book doctor or promotional consultant, why wouldn’t you want three times as many authors to know about you and your site?

To date, there have only been two authors/webmasters who’ve asked to have their aggregated material removed from the Publetariat site, and both times, Publetariat has complied with the request. But I will never understand why those authors/webmasters are turning down an opportunity for such highly-targeted, free exposure from a responsible aggregator.

When Publetariat aggregates, we credit the author, provide a ‘read the rest’ link that isn’t wrapped in a Publetariat window, provide a link to the author’s own website where available, provide a link to the home page of the site on which the aggregated material originally appeared, and sometimes even provide links to buy the author’s books or other merchandise---and these are not affiliate links, Publetariat isn’t making any money on those click-throughs. We do everything we can to ensure both the author and the site where the article originally appeared will benefit from being aggregated on Publetariat.

What about advertising? Isn’t Publetariat profiting from aggregation through its site advertising, and not sharing that profit with the bloggers and authors who’ve made it possible? While Publetariat does carry paid advertising, from the day the site launched to today, despite our impressive traffic stats we’ve received a grand total of about US$65 in ad revenue. All the rest of the advertising on the site consists of public service announcements and traded links. Advertising revenue isn’t even enough to cover our hosting expense.

So, it’s clear that Publetariat is a responsible aggregator. You can also see what Publetariat has to offer an author of aggregated material, and that Publetariat isn’t profiting financially from aggregation. But there’s one more facet to explore here: why it’s better for a reader to discover a given blog post or article aggregated on Publetariat instead of on the source site or blog.

When a reader visits my blog, they’re getting my content only. That’s great for me, but somewhat limiting for them. If they come across my blog posts on Publetariat, they’re also getting exposure to lots of articles and blog posts from my fellow authors, author service providers, publishers and more. Sometimes, they’re seeing material relevant to writers that originated from a site they weren’t at all likely to discover on their own because it’s not a site geared specifically to writers. It’s like going to a great party that’s filled with fascinating people and discussions, any of which you’d love to know more about, and having introductions to those people and discussions made on your behalf by the host of the party.

People who retweet links to Publetariat’s aggregated material only after editing the link to point directly to the source site are leading their Twitter followers away from the party, and depriving them of everything else Publetariat has to offer.

A last objection that’s sometimes raised is the matter of click-throughs. Some will argue that the click-through rate on ‘read the rest’ links is low, that many visitors to the aggregator site will only read the posted excerpt. This is true, but every reader who does click through is a reader you didn’t have before your piece was aggregated.

So if Publetariat or any other site wants to aggregate your material, so long as the aggregator site is higher-profile than your own site/blog and they intend to aggregate responsibly (with proper credit and links, no wrapper window, no offensive advertising), it’s not evil. It’s the easiest free promotion you can get.

And if you’d like your site or blog to be on Publetariat’s list of available sources for aggregated or reprinted material, post your name and a link in the comments section, below, along with your preference for having your material merely excerpted with a ‘read the rest’ link, or reprinted in full on the site.


Jill said...

Very interesting - especially re: 221 hits vs. 709!

I am new to blogging and have not yet "tweeted" but the whole concept of sharing information vs. stealing it is of interest to me, as is online publishing (in whatever forms that may be).

I find it astonishing how much "theft" there seems to be! How hard is it to simply say "written by so and so" or "see www. something... for more info".

Amazing and sad how frequently this all occurs.

Cheers, Jill

PV Lundqvist said...

I've been following Publetariat since it launched, yet I didn't quite understand how the aggregation worked. Maybe your tweeter followers don't as well?

I know when I retweet, I acknowledge the originator and a link. I try to include everything, but sometimes the 140 character limit forces choices.

Perhaps some people, in ignorance of the value of your service, are pruning your tweet to only include the source link? Not as a passive statement of disapproval but misunderstanding?

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks Jill. =')

And PV -
What they're doing is actually changing the link, creating a new one that goes directly to the source article instead of just copying the link I've already tweeted---which would be the easiest thing to do, just copy my tweet and stick "RT" (for retweet) at the front of it. So these folks are going out of their way to bypass Publetariat when sharing the article.