What’s my problem with lists of best websites?

Last week I received a link submission for The Map Room: a list of 50 best blogs for geography geeks. The Map Room was ranked 15th. There wasn’t anything wrong with the list so far as I could tell — I’m modest enough about what I do that I don’t care what my own rank is — but it didn’t quite smell right, simply because a site named Online Engineering Degree was an odd source for such a list. It wasn’t the first time I saw that kind of disconnect; usually I saw it as a way to gain incoming traffic to boost a site’s ranking — in other words, search engine optimization, which for me is a dirty, dirty term. So I ignored it. I can’t post everything, and I’ve let far better links get past me.

The list was then reprinted in full and verbatim on Mapperz, a map blog I rather like. It’s important to say that I like it, because Mapperz is a little annoyed with me right now, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. It’s also important to say that it was well within Mapperz’s rights to post it. There are more than 100 blogs in my map blog directory, and it would be stupid if we all agreed on what was and wasn’t post-worthy. The Mapperz link made the rounds, on Twitter and elsewhere, and ended up on MetaFilter (where links make the big time).

At that point I opened my yap, expressing my reservations about the list:

The problem I have with such lists is that they seem to be done largely to get the people on such lists to link back to their site. You will notice that the originators of the list (not Mapperz) have very little to do with cartography or geography. To me, this looks like an exercise in SEO — which is why I didn’t reprint it or link to it when they e-mailed me about it, the same day it went up on Mapperz.

I confess that I was a little annoyed that what I thought was an example of SEO was spreading so well. But it got me thinking in general terms as well. It was occurring to me that all lists, not just this one, were problematic in that they were primarily exercises in getting people to link to the list (unless, of course, they were published on a website whose traffic already dwarfed that of the sites they were linking to, like Time’s or Yahoo’s).

The way in which this 50-best list was propagating was an example of that, but I’m surprised it hadn’t occurred to me before. People writing in requesting link exchanges were always the ones with lower-traffic sites; website award badges were mostly about the website award sites; the made-up little awards on Flickr photos were mostly about using your photo to promote their group. Et cetera.

On Friday, I tweeted my 140-characters-or-less thesis statement:

Am I wrong in thinking that best-blogs lists are nothing more than a way to get the blogs to link back to them and boost their PageRank?

Mapperz, figuring out what I was on about, was one of only two responses:

@mcwetboy correct, but also works… more subscribes this week, Posts per week:3.3 Subscribers:5,011 up 502

Mapperz went on to add, yesterday:

50 Best Blogs for Geography Geeks now ranked 10.0! and generated 50,000 page views thanks to all the #geobods http://tinyurl.com/geogeeks

Neither tweet did much to disprove the part of my thesis that said that best-of/top lists were good for the lister. And you know, there’s nothing actually wrong with that — especially if the list encourages people to check out the sites on the list.

I decided to see how true that premise was. I fired up Google Analytics to see how many visits were sent my way from Mapperz during the week following the posting of the top 50 list. The answer, as of this morning (to take in yesterday’s data): 83. Less than 0.7 percent of all visits to The Map Room. The most in a given day was 25, on Friday (when it hit MetaFilter).

I was kind of underwhelmed, particularly in comparison with the numbers Mapperz was quoting: 50,000 page views generated 83 visits for the 15th-ranked blog on the list (a click-through rate of 0.17 percent). Presumably the top three or five blogs did better than those further down the list (50 blogs is a lot to click through to: not everyone is going to click on them all). Maybe other blogs looked more appealing based on their descriptions. And quite possibly people didn’t need to click on my link because they already knew about The Map Room.

In any event, if I had posted a link to this list on The Map Room, I would have sent a lot more than 83 visitors its way.

Since Mapperz was quoting metrics, I mentioned it via Twitter yesterday (using the numbers I had at that point, a seven-day total shifted a day earlier):

@mapperz Top 10/20/50 lists work for the lister, not necessarily the listee. Total visits from your site to my site in the past week: 73.

Mapperz’s response was more defensive than I’d expected:

@mcwetboy was not my list as stated+ well its 72 more than normal.. just argue the fact its created geo-noise good/bad PR is always good PR.

Evidently I came across as more accusatory than I’d intended, though to be fair I thought Mapperz was boasting a bit. Today came the follow-up:

@mcwetboy not sure why your so negitive in promoting #geography related content. Most of us geobloggers do it for fun not kudos…

Let me elaborate on my response (140 characters can only do so much).

First, to say that I’m negative about promoting geography-related content is a misrepresentation: I’ve been promoting and crediting map and geography blogs for more than seven years. I maintain a directory of map blogs and have posted nearly 150 entries introducing new map blogs to my readers. In all that time, this is the first time I’ve gotten into a spat with another map blogger.

Second, if you’re doing it for fun, why does it matter that your subscriber count went up? Why does your PageRank matter? Why does the number of page views matter? Why announce these metrics? And why get so defensive when someone featured on the list you publish points out that he’s not getting the same traffic?

And third, promoting geography-related content is not the only thing going on here. It’s certainly what Mapperz is doing, but from the authors’ perspective, I suspect it’s not even the most important thing. Even if they got hardly any clickthroughs from the Mapperz post, they got a link on a page that now has a PageRank of 10: win.

Now, I apologize for getting Mapperz’s back up. It wasn’t my intent to single out for criticism a blog that — to reiterate — I rather like. I’ve written this lengthy post (and put it here, on my personal blog, because it’s not strictly map-related) to explain my thinking on this matter, which has developed over the past week. It started as discomfort over something I saw as content-for-SEO, and ended with me asking who really benefits when a best-of list is published. These thoughts were inspired by the 50-best list in question, but I was thinking in general terms — about lists in general. Even so, it was naïve of me to think that my ruminations wouldn’t put anyone on the defensive, particularly in the context of a tweet. Hopefully 1,500 words will succeed where 140 characters were insufficient.

The bottom line, though, is that my thesis has not yet been disproven. Unless the list is published on a major website, if you’re on such a list and link back to it, you may well send them more traffic than they will ever send you.