Links are as much a part of content as punctuation. If you submit an article and the publisher or site removes them, they’re removing substantive content, violating publishing ethics, and behaving arrogantly. Writers should avoid any site that behaves this way.
Here’s why I’m talking about this today — it’s what happened when my friend Robert Rose, the well-respected author and expert on content marketing, agreed to submit an article to a prominent website focused on marketing strategy. (I’ve acceded to Robert’s request that we don’t name the site.)
The unwritten rules of contributed content
What Robert did is a common arrangement between author and publisher. Typically, an expert agrees to contribute an article to a site for publication with little or no compensation. Everyone understands, or ought to understand, the exchange of value in such an arrangement. The site gets free content, while the author gets visibility and, often, the ability to subtly promote something they’re working on.
I’ve contributed articles like this dozens of times and worked with many other authors and experts who do the same. The unwritten rules, which everyone in publishing and PR knows, are these:
- The publication and the author should agree upon a general topic. It’s also helpful to discuss word count and anything else the publication requires up front.
- When the article is submitted, the publisher can do one of three things: Publish it as submitted, reject it outright, or request changes.
- If the publisher requests changes, the author attempts to address the concerns raised by the publisher. Sometimes this requires extensive rewriting — when I contributed essays to the Harvard Business Review and the Boston Globe, for example, the editorial process was lengthy and required multiple drafts. But one principle remains: the publication does not publish the article until the author and the publisher agree on content, including all edits. The publication does not make edits without getting approval from the author.
Links are content
Robert was astounded when the site published his article without the links — and without even checking with him. Here’s some of the email back and forth between him and the publisher after that happened.
Publisher: Please find attached your piece. Thank you so much for writing it!
Robert: Really disappointing that all the links were stripped out of the article…. And that the ones inserted are all internal links [to other articles on the same site]… and that there are no links at all to me (other than . . . the Author link).
Publisher: Thank you for your email! We’re really sorry to hear that you’re disappointed. We don’t tend to link other publications on [our site], as we aim to maximise the spotlight on thought leaders on our platform.
Robert: Yeah… I really really don’t understand that. By removing the links you remove much of the context for the content of the post. Almost all of the links that I submitted with the posts are either to support a research claim, or to link a deeper example/case study. By removing the links, you end up with sentences such as this one:
As he said in this interview, [redacted content]
It just looks like I either forgot to link to the interview – or that there’s something missing… And my list of examples just looks like I’m throwing out a list with nothing to back it up… So – yes I understand that you want to keep people on your platform – and getting pageviews and thus ad views…. I’m in the same business as you. I understand your business model.
But just some feedback for your invite to future writers to your platform. You may want to inform them in your invitation that you will NOT be linking back to their sites, and that you’ll be stripping out ALL external links and replacing them with internal links to your own content.
If I’d known that before I would have made a different decision about contributing. I really do hope you understand. But I guess thanks.
Publisher: Our intention was certainly not to cause you any distress. I can definitely have a look and make any necessary changes where I deem appropriate.
Robert is completely in the right here. Links allow you to refer to other people’s content, show examples, and back things up without cluttering the text with reference information. Mastering the use of links is essential for any modern writer.
What this publication did wrong
The publication has two problems: its policy is arrogant, and its interactions with the writer are exploitive.
The policy of failing to include links basically says, “Our publication is the only one that matters.” This is absurd and insular. The Web is made of sites that connect to other sites. Every publication links to content outside its own site. The Washington Post links to the New York Times. The New York Times links to the Wall Street Journal. If the story first appeared in Axios, they link to Axios, too. If the most influential publications in the nation can acknowledge that there are other sources of truth, certainly some marketing site must recognize the same thing.
Second, any unilateral edit by the publication is exploitive and unethical. It’s within the publication’s purview to remove specific links if they feel, for example, that those links are too promotional. But that is a negotiation. Just as with any other edit, if the publication removes the links, it must get the author to accept those edits before publishing the piece.
Finally, let’s acknowledge the reality here. The author is getting no compensation. Linking back to the author’s content is part of the value the author gets. So stripping those links out in particular is unfair to an author contributing free content.
In the case of this article, Robert included a whole bunch of links to content on the Web, a few links to his own content, and one link to a book he wrote. The article as a whole is well written and the content reads as helpful, not promotional. (He is, after all, an expert on content marketing, and his article is an excellent example of how to do it well.)
Sites that behave this way are outside of normal media. Shun them.
Stripping the links from an article like this does a disservice to both author and reader. Failing to verify those edits with the author is unethical.
If you’re a publisher, don’t do this. And if you’re an author, don’t work with sites that do this — because they’re operating in bad faith.