Links, used wisely

A signpost on a path offers the reader a choice: To go or not to go. The link represents not only a connector, but also a division, a point where the path forks (for an analysis, see Harpold, 1991b).

A word, a phrase, a sentence, an image — whatever its form, the link provides a portal to another place. The link may give the reader a clear idea of what that place will be like, or it may seem very obscure (depending on the link itself and on the individual reader). The reader asks, "Should I risk it?" Each time readers follow a link, they face disappointment, surprise, reward, disorientation.

The reader's expectations of any link are difficult to gauge, because most Web users have had prior experience with links — at many different sites, good and bad. Who can say with certainty what "next" or "back" might mean?

Inventing connections: The writer does this by determining what structure the hypertext will have, by building a hierarchy of threads, and finally, by creating the links.

The writer decides:

  • Which links should appear on which components?
  • What will the links look like? (Images or text? Underlined or not?)
  • If the links incorporate text, what words will be used?
  • Will the links be embedded within paragraphs or listed separately?
  • If the components have distinct titles and headings, what will be the relationship of the link text to those?

When they have been deliberately located and carefully crafted, links create coherence (Johnson, 1997). If a reader finds that links confuse or disappoint, lead to irrelevant material, or fragment the text without reason — look to the decisions made by the writer.