Links, once taboo, seen as assets

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To link or not to link, that is the question. In a recent survey by Cahners Publishing, 18% of the Web masters surveyed said they would not provide links from their business Web sites.

"That's dumb," says Vernon Keenan, a director at Zona Research, Mountain View, Calif.

Hot topic

Among the people who run business Web sites, the idea of exchanging or reciprocating links on request from other sites has become a hot topic. But while linking used to be taboo, business sites see links as a way to enhance their customer service efforts.

Chuck Taylor, general manager of Cat Computers, Alpine, Calif., ships computers worldwide from his site. In addition to providing links to suppliers, he also provides a link from his home page to Cybercop, which investigates online fraud complaints.

"Our criteria for a link is that it lead our client to an area that may be of assistance to them," Mr. Taylor says.

The idea is to think of links as business assets, says Ross Rubin, a group director in the technology group at Jupiter Communications, New York. "Links could be the basis of joint marketing agreements," Mr. Rubin says. "They could be a community-building effort."

But that doesn't mean business sites should link to anyone from anywhere. For instance, Mr. Keenan says having a page of just favorite Web sites is "also dumb."

Instead, he says, have a partner pavilion featuring links to entities that your company has a "synergistic relationship." These could include major suppliers, resellers and customers, he says.

Plus, he adds, don't link to the partners' home pages but to a specific page on the other site that relates to your relationship.

Cliff Kurtzman, president-CEO, Tenagra Corp., which runs the Online Advertising mailing list, argues that it's an uneven trade for large sites. "Traffic is going to flow primarily in one direction because the new site has no traffic and no audience," he argues.

A solution to concerns

If that's a concern, however, there is a solution, according to Nicki Kuhns of Cyberseeds, which sells tropical and other exotic seeds online. The command "target=new," she says, "causes a new window to open when the link is activated . . . you no longer lose your visitor."

Frames can also be used to provide protection against surfers losing contact with your site, she adds.

Many Web masters have undergone a change of heart about links since they first went online. They have learned to appreciate, if not love, links to related sites.

Little negative impact

Barbara Spears runs three commercial sites, including the Yankee Lady Corvette Swap Meet, a site where people trade used Corvettes. "All three sites started with a no-links policy, but found that including select reciprocal links increased target market traffic and had little or no negative impact," Ms. Spears says.

Still, she adds, for Yankee Lady, for instance, "Linked sites must be Corvette-related or have content of interest to Corvette enthusiasts."

Can you get in trouble with links?

Yes, says Mr. Keenan of Zona Research, if you link indiscriminately, if you load all your links on a page no one will see, or if you forget that links are both a service to your users and a business asset.

Ask permission

It's also polite to ask permission before linking, adds Mr. Rubin of Jupiter Communications. So far, however, the only suits filed over links have mainly been over business relationships that had already soured.

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