Lightbox Linking: Framing or Legitimate Linking?

It’s widely agreed that linking to sources where you got information is a good thing. Though attribution doesn’t play a major role in determining whether a use is an infringement (unless attribution is a requirement of the license), it can certainly be the difference between a webmaster taking action against a site or saying thank you for the link.

But the problem with linking source material is that people actually click those links and search engines also take them seriously as well. Giving attribution means that visitors will leave your site to visit the source and many will never return. Furthermore, links are not the most attractive things and many have tried to find a way to make them easier on the eyes.

Over the years, many have tried to find ways around these problems, often with very controversial results. The first, and best known, was the use of framing, which displayed the source link a box below a top banner for the site that provided the link. The practice has been extremely controversial and created such a backlash that even Digg was forced to relent with its experiment on framing.

However, now there is a new method that is starting to gain some traction and will likely be the subject of much conversation. It’s called Lightboxing and, though it isn’t widespread yet, it may be coming to a site near you.

What is Lightbox Linking

Note: I will not linking to or calling out any sites engaging in this practice. The one webmasters I spoke to about this practice has agreed to change it, if possible, as, according to him, he understands the risk of confusion among a minority of users and that the limited benefit is not worthwhile with that in mind. Also, to be especially clear, the Lightbox script nor its creator, Lokesh Dhakar, are involved in this in any way, instead it is just the style that is being used.

The lightbox effect has been around on the Web for a while but first reached popular use thanks to the Lightbox 2 script, which is designed to be used on galleries of images.

The way the lightbox effect works, when used with images, is that it grays out the Web page it is on, making it barely visible, and opens a larger version of the image on top of the gray. The idea is to give a clear way to view the larger image and still provide easy access back to the page it was on.

However, it was only a matter of time before people began to use the effect for other things as the lightbox could house just about anything. Recently, I began getting reports of sites using this effect to link to other sites and, recently, I saw it in the wild.

In this case, as well as others, rather than simply opening up the linked site directly or in a new window, the site instead used the lightbox effect, placing the content from the linked site in the center of the page.

This technique isn’t widespread, but given the controversies that have come from other non-traditional linking strategies, including the recent Diggbar controversy, it seems likely that many webmasters may take issue with it if it does reach the mainstream.

Comparisons to Framing

The most obvious direct comparison is framing. Framing is a practice that was extremely common, and controversial, in the late 90s and made a resurgence recently with the introduction and removal of the Diggbar.

On that front, there are many similarities. For one, Lightbox linking does display the linked site with logos and other materials from site that referenced it (even though those references are grayed out). Also, as with framing, the linked site is not displayed in the full of the browser and has to be “broken out” to take over the entire screen. Finally, as with framing, the linked site’s presence in the lightbox remains even after links are clicked. Finally, the URL bar continues to show the address of the site doing the linking, not the one the user is actually reading, the same as with framed content.

However, the technology behind lightbox linking is different. Where framing is done using frame tags, lightboxes rely upon CSS, and AJAX to work, this creates several key differences.

First, the links themselves are in the clear and SEO-friendly. Where framing links are links to the same domain that display outside content, lightbox links provide a straightforward link in the HTML that is only altered by the link’s class. Second, even though some of the logos and items from the original site are visible, they are not as clear or as confusing as with regular framing. Also, unlike with regular framing, the site doing the linking does not get an extra page view or ad exposure. Beyond the dubious benefit of keeping the visitor on the URL (versus just having them hit the back button), nothing is gained by linking in this way.

That being said though, in the implementation I saw, there was no easy way to remove the lightbox effect and open the linked site in a page of its own, that is, outside of opening a link within the box in a new tab. Also, the amount of screen real estate the linked site got in the lightbox seemed very small to me, making it hard to read the site and visit other sections.

Since this kind of linking is still fairly new, there aren’t a lot of people talking about it. However, it may be a conversation that needs to take place.

Legal Issues with Lightbox Linking

Since the comparison to framing is the best one available, we have to refer to the previous discussions about the legality of framing. The case law is extremely thin, with only one settled case dating to 1997, but there are two areas of concern among legal scholars.

  1. Copyright Law: Though linking in this manner does not create a copy of the work, it may be seen as creating a new derivative work based up on it by adding the other material around it. However, that is definitely less the case here than with traditional framing, which adds must larger elements to the work.
  2. Trademark Law: Finally, given the concern that some may mistake this kind of linking for an indication that there is a relationship between the two sites that does not exist, there is a potential trademark issue to weigh in.

Unfortunately, these issues are very unsettled as the law never adequately addressed framing issues in the 90s, when it was more common, and now there are many unanswered questions legally about any kind of non-traditional method of linking. This has the effect of casting a cloud over both those who want to engage in such linking and those that wish to protest it.

Bottom Line

The reason I write this article is not to vilify or accuse anyone of anything, but rather, to put the question out there: How would you feel if your site were linked in this way?

If you worry about such linking of your content, though I can not be sure without testing, it does appear that frame breaker scripts can defeat this kind of linking if desired.

But is it as serious of a concern as traditional framing? Is it a bigger one or a smaller one? Having only seen first hand one site doing it, I’m unsure if it is going to be wide-spread enough to be of much concern. The bigger question, however, is whether this is something webmasters and bloggers will take issue with and protest against.

That’s a question I am not wholly sure of.

3 Responses to Lightbox Linking: Framing or Legitimate Linking?

  1. I haven’t encountered this with whole websites yet.

    As a blogger, I do like having a link send a person to my site. At the same time, I don’t monetize my blogs, so I don’t care about actual visits as much. If somebody likes what I wrote and “linked” to my site in this way, it wouldn’t bother me too much.

    The aspect that does bother me is the hoarding, “You stay on my page!” message it sends.

    The way I surf (and the way I think most of us who read more than just a handful of blogs each day surf), I right click any interesting link and open in a new tab. That way, when I’m done with the article I started reading, I can move on to the things that writer wanted to share–and discover new blogs.

    If I right click on a link and the content that interests me pops up as a Lightbox 2 script interrupting the content of the person trying to keep me from leaving their site, it really hurts them in ways. It stops me from reading their content, and it’s going to annoy me because it’s forcing the way I consume information.

    I would stop visiting a site using it. I would remove them from my blog reader. And, if I had the time, I might take the time to let them know why.

    With most people I know right clicking and opening links in a new tab, people linking to content aren’t losing readers dragged away by a link.

    To interrupt your own content with Lightbox 2 and not allow me to surf my way, though, you’re truly gonna hurt yourself ’cause I’ll find what I’m looking for elsewhere and go to sites that allow me to open links in new tabs.

    • Some very interesting points. I didn’t think about it much from a user standpoint, just a webmaster one.

      As a user, this changes the expected behavior of my Web browser and, when I noticed it, it did throw me for a loop. It definitely is not the preferred behavior for me as a visitor either, simply because it is so unexpected and limits how I can surf the Web.

      Excellent points all around…

      • My big concern as a webmaster would be a site collecting a bunch of links for a certain topic and trying to present itself as a one-stop place for writing news, technology news, etc.

        It’s bad enough that there are sites that collect links just to try getting hits from Google searches, but a site set up to say, “Hey, get all your Web news, here!” and handling links from technology sites in this manner…well, like you say, it creates a situation where one can argue a site using the Lightbox 2 script seems to be creating derivative works of other sites.

        Hopefully, the interrupting aspect of displaying links this way will ensure that it never catches on beyond people who like shiny things saying, “Wow, cool new script for my site!”

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