Last week, Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, coined the term Digggate in response to concerns of a potential scandal surrounding Digg, Google and the Diggbar. According to Sullivan, Digg is deliberately skirting issues surrounding the new Diggbar and consequently confusing and potentially misleading citizens of the Web.
Andy Sorcini, long time Digg user and social media enthusiast disagrees. “I honestly don’t believe that the Diggbar was conceived with any maliciousness toward stealing content producers link juice. I think the idea was to drive traffic to Digg, while at the same time facilitate access to Digg services from content producers sites.”
So, is the new Diggbar evil or will it be remembered as one of Digg’s finest moments?
As most of you know, Digg launched Diggbar last week. We covered its debut on ReadWriteWeb, and in a nutshell, it does two things: it frames pages that Digg links to, allowing you to interact with content on Digg without the need to visit the actual site; it also offers its own URL shortening service.
Since then, there has been much discussion in the blogosphere about the wickedness of the new Diggbar.
And this is where our story begins. There are several issues here, but in the main, they involve the framing of content and the URL shortener which in turn bring up two main issues; potential copyright problems and potential SEO ramifications. But first, to better understand the issues surrounding framing, we need to take a step back in time.
A Brief History in Framing
Using frames on the Web is a technique that has been around for years and basically allows developers to split a single Web page into multiple windows, each of which capable of opening a different document.
You may remember this from a lot of sites in the nineties, where the navigation links of a site were separated from the main content. There was a major kerfuffle over framing at the time that peaked in February 1997, when ‘The Gang of 6‘ headed by the Washington Post sued TotalNEWS and alleged that TotalNEWS was appropriating their content, using it within frames, and surrounding it with its own advertising.
Unfortunately, as a precedent, the suit was determined inconclusive, and according to Professor Stern at the George Washington University, mainly because “TotalNEWS felt unable to fund an expensive lawsuit to vindicate a principle about what legal regime ought to govern copyright and the Internet.”
The Evil iFrame
Sullivan, in addition to a multitude of other SEO folk, has dismissed the Diggbar as good for nothing except misappropriating content from other sites and stealing link juice via the main culprit, the iframe.
“They [Digg] don’t own this content; they haven’t asked if they can put this content on the Digg Web site.” Sullivan explained. “It would be the same thing if Digg went to your Web site, made a copy of your page, and pasted it into a page on their Website.”
Let’s examine this logic. Digg does not submit content to itself; content producers and the larger Digg community submit content to Digg. So Digg is not ‘taking’ your pages, it is only highlighting them; giving them more exposure than they would normally receive.
Additionally, and quite ironically, the majority of people complaining about this ‘misappropriation’ of content will often include a ‘Digg this‘ or a ‘Share this‘ button at the end of their posts in an attempt to reach a larger audience. Interestingly, Search Engine Land, Sullivan’s own site, does this for every post. Would it not make more sense then, if a site did not want to share its content, to simply remove these buttons?
And therein lies the rub. Sites do want their content to be noticed by the Digg community; they want it submitted, voted up and content producers everywhere are constantly working on ways to hit the elusive front page. Landing on Digg’s front page can bring anything from 2,000-250,000+ visitors to your site – and who wouldn’t want that?
It seems like a typical ‘I want my cake and I want to eat it too’ scenario; content producers want the benefits of Digg, but they want them on their own terms.
The Evil URL Shortener
But it’s more than the potential copyright issue that has Sullivan and quite a few other SEOs worked up.
“What Digg does is, when you make a short URL of somebody’s page off of Digg, it sends out a code 200 that basically says, ‘yeah I’ve got that code, it’s right here,'” Sullivan said. “What we really want them to do is send out a 301 code which says, that page you’re looking for, we don’t actually own it, it’s over here and that’s where you can find it permanently.”
So, what is the big deal about which code is sent?
According to Sullivan, the URL shortener Digg has implemented doesn’t pass along the link juice because they’re using the canonical tag. “If someone is reading your article and they decide to bookmark the page they’re reading, they’re actually bookmarking the page over at Digg.”
“Suddenly,” he added, “you’ve got thousands of links on the Web pointing to that page on Digg; not pointing to the original page, and those links don’t somehow magically pass along [link juice] to the original page.”
“They’re [Digg] suggesting that because they’re using this canonical tag that they’re somehow redirecting to the search engines and all that link credit should be passing on – but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Sullivan said.
A quick lesson about the canonical tag/element by Matt Cutts
However, in this video (embedded below), Matt Cutts explains that creating a 301 is not always an option and if you can’t resolve your specific issues by using it, there are other alternatives.
“There’s a very simple element, link element, where you can say: my canonical that means, my preferred or my primary or the clean, or the pretty version of the URL I want to use, is not this ugly URL with a tracking code or a session ID, it’s this pretty URL right over here.”
But Cutts is quick to add that this element is a suggestion, not a directive.
“We don’t promise that we will abide by this 100 percent.” Cutts explains, “But at least at Google, we see this as a very strong suggestion. Unless we see something where you’re hurting your own site, we probably would expect to respect this tag. I think in most cases it will work quite well but we do have to reserve the final bottom line ability to say no, we don’t think this is best.”
What this does, is tell Google where the canonical version can be found. “It’s a very simple open standard,” Cutts explains.
But What Does DIgg say About all of This?
When we asked Digg’s head of engineering John Quinn why they decided to use the 200 instead of a 301, Quinn explained that the answer is simple: Digg’s shortener doesn’t redirect.
Although Digg had investigated all options (including the 301) to ensure the search engines focus on the original content, it decided against using the 301 as it is typically used by services that will redirect you to another page e.g. TinyURL or bit.ly. “Services that provide a frame, like Digg, Facebook or StumbleUpon don’t redirect and hence return the 200 code for a successful response,” Quinn explained.
However, Sullivan does concede that Digg has been fair by using the NOINDEX meta tag which tells the search engines not to spider these pages at Digg. “There’s a plus to that. It means potentially these pages aren’t going to compete with the original page. You shouldn’t be doing a Google search and find out that these shortened URL pages are doing better than your own page. They’re not allowed to be in the index whatsoever.”
Still, Sullivan isn’t sure that the information Digg is posting about its new Diggbar is completely truthful.
“I don’t know any SEO expert, with any credibility that would have told them to do it this way. Most SEO experts first of all would have been appalled that they’d gone out there and done this framing to begin with.”
Unfortunately, many SEO folk have to sign non disclosure agreements so it is likely we won’t be seeing any respectable SEO putting up his/her hand saying “Hey, we advised Digg.” They take client contracts and NDA agreements seriously as I’ve witnessed myself through my own professional relationship with Silicon Valley SEO/SEM firm WebMama.
As for Digg executives not disclosing their dealings with SEO experts; that’s their call. Kevin Rose himself has made it clear that he’s happy to take on more advice.
And while Sullivan is not entirely happy that Digg is boasting about getting a 20 percent increase in traffic since it launched its Diggbar, perhaps that is the bottom line. As Muhammad Saleem pointed out in his post over at Mashable, “This is probably one of the best strategic business decisions Digg has made in the past four years.”
It is clear that Digg is moving into a new chapter of its young life. It’s attempting to reach the mainstream audience, implement more useful products into its service, find ways to serve better targeted ads to its users, and perhaps in the process become a stand-alone business that is able to sustain itself.
And the Diggbar, just as the recommendation engine Digg introduced last year, and the new search Digg rolled out last week, make up just a few of the pieces of the overall pie.
Of course, for that to happen, it’s a given that Digg will lose some friends along the way; you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
What do you think?
Disclosure: The author of this post hosts The Drill Down with Andy Sorcini, and works with WebMama on Web strategy.