Fancier linking at the New York Times
by Bob DuCharme
Tim Bray recently pointed out Roger Sperberg's mention of links from a Maureen Dowd op-ed piece in the New York Times. While I've seen the Times turn URLs mentioned in articles into links before, these were links using inline text phrases as link anchors. For example, in a piece titled Hey, What's That Sound?, she includes the phrase "Newt Gingrich told Adam Nagourney and David D. Kirkpatrick for a Times article on G.O.P. jitters about the shadow of Iraq" and another saying "The man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for making a botched exit and humiliating defeat look like a brilliant act of diplomacy wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Post drawing the analogy the White House dreads..." Each links to the referenced article. (Two notes about access to nytimes.com: free registry is required, but even then free access to specific pieces seems to only last a week, which is why I've reproduced such long quotes here. If you're reading this before September 3rd, see this more recent Dowd column for more linking examples.) It's interesting that Dowd created both a link to an article in her own newspaper and another link to an article in a different newspaper. The link to the Washington Post had a target="_0" attribute in it, and that was the only extra metadata in either link.
I have many questions, and would have written about this earlier except for my unsuccessful efforts to find someone at the Times to answer them: How long have they been doing this? How does Maureen Dowd indicate where she wants her links and where they should link to? Is she using a tool that creates (X)HTML, or did she describe the links she wanted in a cover letter to her editor? When did they decide on the style of linking to Times articles in the same window and outside articles in a separate window? What other styles do they have in place? (The Times is very big on defining and enforcing consistent styles.)
A Times article speculating on Google's plans has two more kinds of links. Mentions of some companies link to a script that redirects you to a Times-branded version of a Dow Jones Marketwatch page about that company. (I'd provide you with a link to a sample one, but when I strip my ID information from the URL, the link no longer works.) The names Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Apple all get such links, but the company names T-Mobile and General Magic don't—I assume because they don't have MarketWatch pages.
T-Mobile's product Sidekick and the term Wi-Fi, when used in the article, are yet another kind of link. The Wi-Fi link triggers queries of two New York Times databases and displays a web page constructed from the results, with articles from the technology section listed first and relevant product reviews "in partnership with CNET" listed second. The reviews, of course, each include a "where to buy" link. (I didn't have to modify the URLs to add them to this paragraph, because there's no reason for the Times to restrict access to screens that may lead to potential new revenue.)
The Sidekick link is a variation on the Wi-Fi one: it queries the "Products" database, but not the articles one. By comparing the two URLs and tweaking the Sidekick one, I easily created a link that queried both databases for "Sidekick". So, someone somewhere made a conscious decision to have the "Wi-Fi" link query both databases but the Sidekick link query only one.
In addition to the various design decisions that were made, business model decisions for nytimes.com were also made as they worked out a linking structure to let customers navigate information and maybe spend some money. The decisions that were made were interesting enough that I just went back through what I've written here and removed three uses of the word "interesting." I'm sure that watching the old gray lady continue to make and evaluate these decisions about linking will continue to be interesting.