Links vs. Cookies: A Tale of Two Web Economies
I credit Jonathan Strauss of link analytics company awe.sm with coining the phrase “the link as the cookie.” I’ve been borrowing that expression for the past year because it not only describes his service and the meta concept of linked data, but it also encapsulated what intelligent landing page optimizers had been doing for some time – taking parameters from URLs and using them as rules to dynamically deliver relevant and persuasive content.
Strangely though, the data revolution, at least as it relates to advertising, seems to have passed the link by. The cookie is where much of the excitement and focus around new data sources for targeting and optimization rests. “BlueKaing” data (a term I heard for the first time a couple of weeks ago) has now become a verb to describe the re-emergent cookie economy. This unbridled buzz caused Andy Monfried of Lotame to caution the display community last week to look beyond the cookie for targeting.
“The holy grail is not just cookie targeting, but to see the linkage between the top of the funnel and the bottom.”
Yet the cookie is being used by every color of advertiser including (or especially) Google to target campaigns to “audiences” or to “in-market” rather than to specific sites. Some of the excitement around cookie data is justified but it is also fraught with a host of challenges to publishers and advertisers, almost none of which protect the best interests of either.
In contrast, the link economy is immune to the issues swarming around the cookie economy, even furthering my consternation about why the link economy is so grossly undervalued and under-hyped. The reality is using the link as a set of rules for content/ad delivery has implications much more far reaching than landing pages and URL shorteners. As anyone who has made money on the web through transactions can attest, since the inception of the commercial web, the link is its most valuable currency.
The first thing to realize about the size and value of the link economy is that the engines of it are the three of the largest web properties in the world - Google, Facebook and Twitter. The second important point about the link economy is that it is natively cross platform - search, email, mobile, social - links can get distributed and can work anywhere. The third important point about the link economy is that it provides an immediate trigger for any media object - video, audio or text. The last and maybe most important value of the link economy is that it is both realtime and lasting. One link can get you a million visitors in a day – it can also get you million visitors over three years.
Contrast the link’s value to cookies that are driven by a small percentage of online media spend, are not cross platform, have no native trigger mechanism to launch media and whose value decreases quickly until it is zero. This is why it blows my mind that BlueKai can raise $20M when in the scale of these two web economies a company like bit.ly commandingly leveraging the link economy should be seen as creating incredibly more long-term value. Somewhere there is a huge disconnect happening. Maybe it's just happening in my mind, though I doubt it.
I doubt it because we have already witnessed the link build three of the largest and most effective media channels on the web; PPC, email & affiliate. Links also serve as the core logic function for facilitating every major transactional site from Amazon, to eBay, to Craigslist. I have no doubt that the value and economic impact of the link will continue to increase exponentially over the coming years far outpacing any media value cookies are creating. In fact, as many of you may already be thinking, it is really not a fair comparison. But as a marketer who has built a career off the link, I often find myself wondering where is the buzz, where is the appreciation, where is the strategy, where is the technology* for the most simple, native and valuable web attribute of all, the link?