Working towards a new metric

Back in August, Mary Hodder riffed on the shortcomings of Google’s PageRank and Technorati’s incoming links algorithms for ranking blogs.

Counting links is very much like counting subscriptions to magazines in order to sell ads, as far as comparing it to a number not reflective of what is actually going on with the media it’s meant to reflect. Link counts alone are an analog media model, but online media is dynamic, and what is digital often has the possibility of getting much closer to finding smaller, more granular, and more interesting ways of perceiving things, that are much more interesting, and orthogonal to legacy media models counting eyeballs.

Mary goes on and puts forth several new vectors of influence that could be harnessed to feed into a new type of ranking. At the core of the criticism though is that any kind of “ranking” is going to be imposed from above (either from an algorithm or an editor) where as blogging as an activity and medium is from and for the masses. This point is brought up by Terry Heaton in the comments.

While the time and age of links are an important factor to determining the freshness of a blog’s authority (someone should not get too much credit because of a racy picture, funny meme, or scoop that they posted 3 years ago), the relevance and ranking of the blog and blog post to the community at large is important. The only way this can be measured is by measuring how the blog post is used with the community. I can think of a few items of interest:

  • text of the link to the post compared to tags & categories of the referring post
  • number of links to the post divided by number of links to the blog from the referring site
  • number of links to the post divided by number of total links to other posts & blogs within the referring post
  • text of tags associated with post on social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us and My Web 2.0

An important point made by Danah Boyd is that a lot of the brute force ranking engines out there today are not taking into consideration the blogrolls on systems such as Microsoft Spaces or TypePad which are random links to recently updated blogs on the network and not votes of quality or relevance. Another important point to keep in mind is that any list that is automatically generated from algorithms is going to be prone to gaming – that’s just human nature (for a hilarious account of how one guy hacked MySpace and gained 1 million friends in 24 hours, see Samy is my Hero). I think both of Danah’s observations stress the importance of editorial oversight in any new engine used to crawl and rank the blogosphere.

As the recent valuation of Weblogs Inc pointed out, the industry is grasping for a transparent way to rank and evaluate a blog’s influence. The term de jour seems to be that we need to measure a user’s “engagement” with a site and that follows from a blog’s “influence.” Who ever can come up with this golden metric will be the Neilsen of the blogging age and to a great extent will control access to funding and influence. The race is on.

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