I had someone ask me a question about sharing and linking at my recent presentation about Blogging for Business at AGS University.  They said someone had told them they shouldn’t link out to others because it was taking traffic away from your website and giving it to others.  I thought this was a strange perspective and strategy to take, and here’s why.  If you never link to anyone else, why should they link to you?  You will then be limited to only the traffic you can generate yourself, and very little referral or word of mouth traffic from others, which is how most people generate new business.  It seems to be a short-sighted strategy, like overbuying food you’ll never be able to consume- it’s hoarding your own traffic at the expense of others, but it’s also not doing you very much good, either.

There’s a chapter looking at Altruism in the new Super Freakanomics book. (There seems to be some controversy around, especially regarding the chapter on global warming, but the most relevant chapter to me was about altruism.)  In this chapter, the authors discuss how part of altruism and doing good things for others that may not always serve you the best, is the side effects of being seen as a good and trustworthy person.  The warm feeling you get from helping other people is one of the benefits of altruism, and it’s why most people who volunteer will say things like “I get as much out of it as I put in.”

On the web, trust, authority, search engine optimization and the like are all geared towards measuring whether or not your business/blog/website is relevant to people searching for information.  The more links, tags, keywords and the rest on your site, the more the search engines can parse whether your site is a good match for people searching for “dog food” “specialty gifts” or even “consultants.”  The more other people consider you an authority, the more authoritative by default you become.  It’s a positive (or negative) feedback loop, that you grow by being generous with others.

This is a concept at the heart of Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents– how you can build your “juice” online by being someone worthy of trust, by becoming an authority, by helping other people.  This is the old “bread on the water” strategy, that often you help other people without charging, with a tacit if unspoken understanding that if you are asked for a favor in return, it’s more likely than not someone will help you out in return.  It’s “paying it forward”.  It’s the old cliche of “you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

And if you want to get down to the neuro- and behavioral science, people remember positive experiences- positive reinforcement is the greatest tool to help alter behavior, where negative reinforcement or bad experiences tend to cut off a behavior, but doesn’t necessarily replace it with a new behavior.  So for example, if I want my kids to clean up after themselves, small amounts of praise is more likely to get them to comply next time than yelling at them ever will.  Likewise, if I want people to come back to my website, I better offer them useful information, a product they can use or take advantage of, or share  resources- something to make it worth their time and attention.

Personally, I use Google reader and Delicious, a social bookmarking site, to save and share blog posts, websites, and other online information sources for myself, but also offer it up for others who are interested.  I tell people in seminars that if you really want to know what I am up to, a check of my Delicious site will give you an idea of what I’m finding new and notable and what I’m researching.  I check on the sites of friends for the same reason, because usually I find something there that I haven’t come across on my own.  Rather than keep these bookmarks private on my computer, these bookmarks are web based, meaning I can access them from anywhere and use this information more efficiently than if it’s locked up at home on my machine.

Likewise with Google Reader- there are gazillions of blog posts everywhere online.  Using my friends as a filter, I get pointed to some of the best stuff around, on topics I may be interested in, that I might not have found on my own.  Over time, these tools build my personal library of information, making it more useful for me, but also to everyone I know.

Keeping this information a “secret” helps no one.  When we’re taking about information out there on the web, we can’t possibly keep up with it all, yet it’s all public, so how “secret” can it be, anyway?  By taking a sharing mentality, I help myself, but I help others at the same time.  I become a resource for information, which helps my reputation and consulting business.  This “looking to help others” mindset therefore also pays off for me personally, creating another positive loop.  It also has the side benefit of just being good karma, which I can live with as well.

So in the end, I honestly believe sharing information online helps you more than it hurts.  While you might not share a secret pharmaceutical formula or the 7 secret herbs and spices on the web (some things are industry secrets), anything available on the web, openly, you might consider sharing- you become an aggregator, a reference source, and a trust agent, just by sharing a bit of what you know and think.

Plain and simple- people you like you more and pay attention- and that’s not something that you can discount these days.