Linking Legalities...What You Need to Know

Over the past month there have been several high profile cases where owners of one web site have sued or threatened to sue owners of another web site for linking to them. I know on first glance this sounds crazy, and to be honest, it *IS* crazy. After all, if links are illegal then every search engine, every directory, and every link list is illegal, and would have to be shut down. After all, what is Google but a database of deep links? Take away Yahoo's links to other sites, to news headlines and stock quotes, and you have nothing.

The foolishness over linking has even caused some web sites to stop linking to any other web sites at all, or if they do link to them, they link only to the homepage, instead of "deep" linking to interior content sections. Sadly, this is a knee jerk reaction and unnecessary. I've also seen some sites go so overboard as to start requiring other sites to sign a written "linking" approval document before they will link to them.

I don't want to rehash the history of linking lawsuits, but I do want to point out that the problem of not wanting another site to deep link to your interior content or to specific page of your site can be solved easily by non-legal means.

Deep linking is not a problem that needs a legal solution. If you don't want someone deep linking to your site's interior pages, you can write a script that checks the referring URL, and then redirects anybody coming in from any page that is not on your domain already. End of problem. This is a bit harsh, though, so let's look at better solutions.

Some sites don't like deep links because they feel the user is missing out on banner ads (ads we all ignore anyway) they'd see if they came through the front door. There's a solution for this as well, and it's not a lawsuit. If you want to make sure someone entering your site via a deep link sees your banner ads or some other content fom your homepage, you can modify your server to detect any offsite user entering directly via a deep link. The content for that page can then be served in a frame that displays the banner. Or, better yet, you launch a second pop-up window with the homepage in it. There are several even better work arounds that won't alienate your users, some more technical than I want to get for this column, but just as effective.

I've been doing linking related consulting for 8 years, and I would be thrilled to speak in court to the legal establishment as to why lawsuits are 100% unnecessary for ALL linking related issues. Every linking related problem has a fairly easy solution that costs less than funding a lawsuit.

In my opinion, there are only a couple specific instances where linking to someone else's content might be seen as illegal (caveat: I'm not a lawyer). First, if a link on your site when clicked loads someone else's content into a frame on your site, so that the user has no idea where that content came from, then you're on thin ice morally if not legally. Don't do it.

Second, if the site you are linking to has stated on their site that linking is strictly prohibited, or requires permission first, then don't link to them unless you have it. Some lawyers tell me linking policies are unenforceable anyway. But rather than spending money to find out, why not just solve the problem via your own web server software.

For the overwhelming majority of web sites, links are gold. We all want links. If you don't want your content linked, why did you put it online in the first place?

Lastly, for those who think all links should be to a site's homepage only, remember that some sites are so big, with so many thousands of pages, that if others can't deep link to the exact page they want, there is no point in linking at all. Let me leave you with an example to illustrate the point. I once helped the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to bring attention to several interior (deep) sections of their MEDLINEplus web site. I sought links to these interior content areas on hundreds of other topical health related sites. These sites were happy to deep link to NLM's new interior content sections. These sites would never have linked just to the NLM homepage, because that's ten clicks away from the interior content area and wouldn't help their readers find the MEDLINEplus content. Nobody would find it.

In closing let me ask you to check your bookmarks. How many of your bookmarks go to interior pages of sites rather than to homepages? Of my own 478 bookmarks, 440 were deep links. If deep links are illegal, anyone with bookmarks is breaking the law.

How silly is that?

Until next time, I remain,

Eric Ward, Link Mensch

Eric Ward

July 29, 2002