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The Hyperlink: A Microtransaction of Trust

Oddly enough, the internet is actually quite old school when it comes to relationships. Trust is given on first impressions. It’s essentially all a handshake deal.

How Google Works

A PageRank results from a mathematical algorithm based on the webgraph, created by all World Wide Web pages as nodes and hyperlinks as edges, taking into consideration authority hubs such as or The rank value indicates an importance of a particular page. A hyperlink to a page counts as a vote of support. The PageRank of a page is defined recursively and depends on the number and PageRank metric of all pages that link to it (“incoming links”). A page that is linked to by many pages with high PageRank receives a high rank itself. If there are no links to a web page, then there is no support for that page. – From Wikipedia

Google issued PageRank on a 1-10 scale. A 1 being your average law firm website and 10 being Google or Microsoft. 8 to 9 is usually reserved for major media outlets, corporations, governments, etc. 7 is the best you can possibly expect for purely online media (For example: is a 7). The most a blogger could hope for was a 5 or a 6. Most blogs languished somewhere in 1 to 3.

Why does this all matter? If a blog has a PageRank of a 5 or a 6, their posts will likely appear on the first page of Google Search results. Which is as deep as most people go on search.

What Does This Mean for Bloggers?

When a blog is “highly trusted” by Google (a red or blue smiley face) the links have value. They have authority and weight behind them. To the point that marketeers and scammers were willing to pay for hyperlinks on site with a high enough PageRank. It still happens. I get emails on a regular basis from scammers wanting to buy links on Associate’s Mind.

All because Associate’s Mind had a Pagerank between 5 and 6 – depending on the month, how the winds blow, and whatever tweaks & adjustments Google made to the “Almighty Algorithm.” How did Associate’s Mind receive such a rank? What was the alchemical formula that propels one up the charts? As far as I can tell:

  1. Develop trust
  2. Be transparent
  3. Create high quality, original content
  4. Have a semi-presentable webpage

What does that mean? Largely, it means that SEO is often overrated.

Case Example: Consultant’s Mind

As an example, I’m going to use my brother-in-law’s blog, Consultant’s Mind (yes, he stole my masthead. But he’s family, what are you going to do?). He started Consultant’s Mind in 2012. He had no history, no connections, no presence online. Consultant’s Mind was a miniscule Green smiley face. He had nothing to help promote his site or propel it to the attention of others. The thought to ask for me to link to his site never even  came up. He’s not that kind of guy.

So my brother-in-law fixes up a basic WordPress page, gets it respectable looking, and starts cranking out blog posts – toiling in obscurity. No social media, no SEO. Just churning out post after post. Like every blogger, it started off rough. But he kept grinding. It got better and more in-depth and interesting. Well, interesting for an economist’s blog. 😉

All the while, he was interacting with Red and Blue faces. Linking to them from his blog. Commenting on their site with legitimate, valuable insights. Giving, putting forward his thoughts and opinions on their work. Slowly, over time, his traffic increased. Bit by bit, interested parties would come over and see what his blog was about. And some of them subscribed, or commented on a post. He kept on.

Then nine months after he started his blog, the Über-popular economist blog Freakonomics linked to Consultant’s Mind, regarding some comments he made regarding Management Consulting. Freakonomics has a PageRank of 7 – they are a big Red smiley face. When they link to someone they are putting a stamp, a seal-of-approval on whatever website they link to.

But how do they choose who to link to? How do they decide that a blog is legitimate and not?

The Special Sauce

If a blog is established, or a relationship already exists between two bloggers, it’s easy to link to them without pause or consideration (like my link to above).

But when a blogger links to a new, unknown website they must quickly make this decision:

  • Is the website/blog legitimate or is it a scam?

They’re not going to spend hours agonizing over the decision. They’re going to fall back on “thin-slicing” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink:

Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.

The unconscious works by sifting through the situation in front of you, parsing out irrelevant data and homing in on what really matters.

This is the type of thought process people rely on when they decide to link to a new, unknown blog.

Back to the example of Consultant’s Mind and Freakonomics, Dubner (the author at Freakonomics) likely went through the following thought process when deciding to highlight and link to Consultant’s Mind:

  1. Make podcast
  2. Review comments on podcast
  3. Find insightful response to podcast
  4. See that comment is from a blogger with an unknown website (Consultant’s Mind)
  5. Go to website
  6. Review posts and information there briefly
  7. Make gut-call that blogger is legitimate
  8. Make a post about it on Freakonomics and link to Consultant’s Mind

Steps 1 & 2 above likely took a considerable amount of time. I’d wager that steps 3-8 perhaps took five minutes. In that five minutes, Dubner (or any blogger), had to decide whether or not he could trust Consultant’s Mind.

It is not a high degree of trust – it’s not  a million dollar handshake deal or giving offering your daughter’s hand in marriage. But every hyperlink from an established website or blog to a new one is a microtransaction of trust.

Big Blog: Little website, you’ve done something for me. Made a good comment on my blog. Provided insightful analysis. Highlighted some unknown data. Created information. In return, I will connect you to my audience.

It’s in these exchanges that smaller websites and blogs begin to grow and garner attention. This trust is why no legitimate blogger will ever accept paid post or links. It also highlights the meritocracy of the web. Wherein a single individual can, with time, capture the attention of tens of thousands of readers without the backing of media corporations.

It all starts with trust. 

As a matter of complete disclosure, the phrase “a microtransaction of trust” was coined by my brother-in-law during a conversation we had a couple night ago. I just stole it from him and used it first (with his blessing).


  1. You forced me to look and see what my google pagerank is. Then I checked yours. Heh. No wonder I am so beloved in Bangalore.

  2. I hereby coin the term “Microblog” which describes what I do: try to write mostly quality posts in obscurity without near-term regard for page rank. Hopefully, like a microbrewer of beer or microroaster of coffee beans, I might one day “cross a diamond with a pearl” and turn out something someone enjoys reading. I never was the competitive type. (Now gimme my red smiley face!)

    • Well, Twitter Inc might have an arguement over woth you regarding the term “microblog,” altough your definition is more apt.

      As to your other point, generally speaking, I find that blogs that care little for PageRank and trudge alomg for their own sakes are often some of the best ones.

    • Not to cast any aspersion on Alex, but his comment, simultaneously humble while promoting the integrity of his blog, kinda smacks of pandering for attention. If there is a point to be made here, it’s that you don’t ask for attention but receive it organically. By making a comment like this, I’m less inclined to read Alex’s blog.

      Sorry, but I have an aversion to self-promotion, and Alex’s comment has the stink of self-promotion all over it. If that wasn’t his intention, then he should be aware of how it comes off, at least to me.

  3. I fail to see how links from reputable sources to new sources count as a form of trust. The reputable source doesn’t need to trust anybody because it can verify the content. The service the reputable blog actually delivers to its readers is one of identifying quality sources and sharing them. If anything its the reader that trusts a reputable blog to deliver quality, non-malicious links. All the reputable blog needs to count on it that the content it is linking to will not change in the short window of time when most of the reputable blog’s readership will click the link. You know the term Trust but Verify, all reputable blogs do is the verify.

    • It depends on what side of it you’re looking at. Blogs with high PageRanks that allow comments get 100s of spam comments everyday. I woke up this morning to 134 comments sitting in the spam queue since I emptied it last night. Services like Akismet filter out most of the spam but some occasional spam/linkbait comments do get through.

      And even some commentators that superficially appear to be legitimate on the surface – can actually turn out to be carefully tuned spammers. Their sites will have a general appearance of quality, but dig a bit deeper and there will be paid links to Viagra or whatever.

      You also have to take into account, as I mentioned in the post, that people are just too busy to go around verifying every single thing they look at it. It happens quite regularly if you have a busy blog with lots of posts, comments, etc. At some point you just have to give people a once over and trust that they’re not actually trying to scam some attention/readers/links from you in order to serve up some ads & gain page impressions.

  4. Trust can be signaled by actions that are difficult to fake–so the effort that your brother in law put forth in creating his website and commenting with sincerity is something that is difficult (or a “waste of time”) for scammers to do, so it carries weight as a signal of trust.

    I stumbled upon your blog through the Freak-est Links…(Freakonomics has a high reputation (in your words–red smileys) so I trust pages they recommend). I am actually writing my dissertation about this topic right now, and as far as I can tell with my research, your “alchemical formula” for putting a website off the charts is in line with what the trust literature says:

    -Develop trust (from what I have seen, trust can be developed by providing the reader consistently reliable information, which includes your 2-4 points):

    -Be transparent (provides the reader with information that they can use to decide if you are trustworthy or not)

    -Create high quality, original content (signal that is difficult to fake because it is time and effort intensive–so scammers wouldn’t normally do this without some kind of short-term payoff)

    -Have a semi-presentable webpage (again, signal that is difficult to fake–takes money/time investment that scammers wouldn’t normally give up without short term gain)

    In the end, if you are willing to invest in creating good quality content, spend money/time on the design on your page, and be consistently transparent to your readers–you are able to signal that you are trustworthy and worth linking to.

    On a side note, if there are inconsistencies in the information that you provide (i.e. you are transparent and offer good information but you have excessive ads, or you make comments on blogs that take the form of shameless self-promotion) then you are signalling that you are not worthy of trust–which could mean that linking back to you is not worth the risk in the damage it could cause to a webpage’s well cultivated signals of trustworthiness.

    Thanks for posting this very interesting read–so great to see some economic theory of trust in action!

    • Alicia, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I think the economic theory as applied to trust is an interesting and underserved topic. There are lots of “microtransactions” of trust in our every day lives; the hyperlink just being a very visible and tangible one on the Net.

      Just curious, is your dissertation about trust relations purely online, or a more general approach to trust?

      • Hi there,  My dissertation is actually about investing in information as a condition of trust.  So, the web plays a big role in this because it acts as a platform for providing information (that is why it is so important to make sure that when someone googles you, the info that comes up is something that is in line with who you really are).  Information can be provided in lots of way though–particularly ways that are difficult to fake.  Facial expressions are another example (they are more difficult to fake than one would assume).

  5. Hi Guys, I’ve found this interesting! Check it out!

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