Obscuring Links Sucks - Maybe The Ping Attribute Isn’t So Bad?

Obscuring links is generally a Bad Thing. Most people hardly notice it, but a lot of major web sites redirect links through their own sites in order to track who is clicking. It’s a simple technique using an HTTP response code 301 or 303, depending on the service. Sometimes, though, it can be quite annoying.

I was reminded of this just now when, for the hundredth time already this week, I typed a few keywords into my Google Toolbar, snagged the first link with “Copy Link Location” and pasted it into a chat program. Only the link was all ugly and obfuscated, because Google intercepts your clicks for its own nefarious data gathering purposes before it redirects them to the appropriate site.

Of the three big search engines - namely Google, Yahoo, and MSN - all three obfuscate their links by redirecting to their own site for tracking purposes. (In the link above, Matt reports that MSN returns clean results for him - it doesn’t for me.) All of this redirection increases the time it takes for links to resolve, but to me the greater problem is the removal of direct arcs from hyperlinking nodes. Google’s own renowned success with their PageRank algorithm is based on this very core feature of the web, and the irony of their eschewal is not missed.

Of course, other smart people are noticing this exact same problem. There has been some work on the development versions of Firefox to implement a so-called ping attribute on the href. There has been a lot of negative feedback about it, much of it legitimate. By far, the biggest barrier to acceptance is the potential for less accurate click tracking than is already possible using the current method. However, it has potential to help restore the simple navigability that should be inherent in HTML documents, and that is a Good Thing.