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Linking Legalities: What You Need to Know

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Powerful interests are threatening anyone creating "deep links" to their web sites. Should you be worried? Eric Ward, a leading authority on web links, tells you what you need to know.

Over the past month there have been several high profile cases where owners of one web site have sued 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, you write a two line script that checks the referring URL, and then redirects anybody coming in from any page that is not on your site already. It's so easy it's silly. End of problem. 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.

In my opinion, there are only two specific instances where linking to someone else's content could be seen as illegal. 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 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.

Pretty simple, isn't it. No need for reams and reams of legal briefs.

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 a new interior section of their site about pediatric cancer research. I found about 50 sites that offered links to pediatric cancer resources. These 50 sites would naturally be happy to deep link to NLM's new pediatric cancer section. These 100 sites have no desire to link to the NLM homepage, because that's ten clicks away from the pediatric cancer section. 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?

Eric Ward founded the Web's first service for announcing and linking Web sites back in 1994, and he still offers those services today. He's the editor of LinkAlert! and founder, NetPOST, URLwire, and LinkPlan, and also writes columns for ClickZ and Ad Age magazine.

http://www.ericward.com/linkalert/

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