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Hyperlinks are the heart of the Web. They provide the basic structure and function of this unique medium; without them, publishing and reading on a computer screen would make little sense. Consequently, links deserve special attention. Writers and editors need to ensure that hyperlinks offer readers value and that they don't confuse readers.
Step One: Forget About Hyperlinks
Writer Gay Talese once observed that good writing is like glass: so smooth that readers don't realize they're being swept along. All too often, however, Web writing is more like a potholed road, with hyperlinks drawing attention to themselves or to their destinations.
That shouldn't be the case. As Jutta Degener suggests in an insightful article on writing hypertext, "When writing copy, write about your subject; even if the text contains links."
Notice how the link in that last paragraph blended into the copy. Too often, writers and editors make the link more obvious and intrusive. For example:
Click here to read Jutta Degener's insightful piece on writing hypertext.
Go to Jutta Degener's article on writing hypertext.
The first example draws attention to the reader's interaction with the user interface; the second draws attention to the reader's movement through cyberspace.
Step Two: Make the Destination Clear
The Web is a magnificent time-sucker. It's easy to log on to do a quick search or check for the latest offering from a favorite columnist — and look up to find that two hours have passed.
Hyperlinks often contribute to this phenomenon, for both good and bad reasons. The good reason is that hyperlinks can add value to the information presented in an article. As Jakob Nielsen notes, "well-selected links enhance the value of your own service with the best of all the Internet has to offer, driving up user loyalty and repeat traffic to your site." Users will rarely regret time spent finding useful information.
But you can count on users to regret spending time following links that take them somewhere other than where they expect to go. You can help avoid that problem by doing three things:
Make your words work.
Writers and editors need to choose carefully which words they use for hyperlinks. Just a couple of words or at most a short phrase should offer the reader enough information to know what lies ahead. Choosing link words carefully will help readers not only in determining where they're headed but also in interpreting the destination page once they're there, consequently reducing disorientation.
Supplement the link text with titles.
Modern browsers offer two means of providing the reader with even more information on the destination. Recent versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer support the HTML link title attribute:
<A HREF="http://www.press.umich.edu/jep" TITLE="The leader in online-publishing information">The Journal of Electronic Publishing</A>
If you're using Microsoft Internet Explorer, the text above that follows "TITLE" will appear in a pop-up window when you put your cursor on the link.
<A HREF=http://www.press.umich.edu/jep onMouseOver=(window.status='Visit the leader in online publishing');return true">The Journal of Electronic Publishing</A>
Passing your cursor over the link above should put the message "Visit the leader in online publishing" in the status bar at the bottom of your browser.
Nielsen suggests that link titles can be used to provide the name of the site and subsite; the kind of information to be found on the destination page; and warnings about the destination (e.g., registration required to access information). Short titles are best; Nielsen cautions against exceeding 80 characters.
Don't mix link types in a series.
I recently was reading a multipart hypertext document with a series of links across the bottom of each page. Each time I clicked a new one, I got another page from the hypertext. At least that's what happened until I clicked the final one: Then I got a "mailto" link. The link text did not indicate that was coming, and there was no title to indicate that outcome could be expected. Not only was it a surprise, but it also left me feeling dissatisfied that I had reached the end of the text without realizing it.
That made me think about all the different things that can happen when a readers click on a link. Among the possibilities:
- They can move to a different part of the same page.
- They can move to another page on the same site.
- They can move to another page on a different site.
- They can call up a "mailto" link.
- They can call up a graphic, video, or sound clip.
- They can go to an FTP archive.
While it is least confusing for the reader to have all links in a document be of the same type, that's not always practical. When it's unavoidable to mix link types, link titles can help. Also, the context in which the link is found can help. Jutta Degener notes: "If you write about the appearance of something, linking to a photograph is fine — even when one would otherwise expect a text about the subject. If you invite your readers to contact someone, linking to a 'mailto' URL (that invokes some kind of e-mail-sending program) is fine, even when one would otherwise expect a home page or archive."
Don't offer more than one link to the same page or site.
I recently was looking over a page with several links, and I clicked one of them. After I looked at the destination page, I went back to the original page and found that five or six of the links now showed they had been visited. In other words, the page author had included five or six links to the same site, using slightly different terminology for each. As an experienced Web user, I found that slightly irritating. New users, however, might be thoroughly baffled as they click a series of links that take them to the same place. In general, don't offer more than one link per page to any other single page or site. If you need to reference a site previously linked to, try this: "In the Johansen study mentioned earlier ..." There's no need to offer another link to the study.
Step Three: Keep Your Links Alive
Perhaps the worst outcome for a reader is to click on an interesting link, wait a while, then find the link leads to a 404 error or other dead end. Unfortunately, a 1998 survey found that nearly a quarter of all Web pages include broken links. The easiest way to keep a site free from link rot is to regularly run a link validator. The correct URLs for missing links should be located, or the links should be removed.
To help other Web authors avoid dead links, Nielsen suggests that publishers should never let any URL die. Letting links expire means that at least some potential new readers will find error messages instead of the valuable content they were expecting. In cases in which pages become clearly outdated (e.g., a preview of upcoming conferences), Nielsen suggests keeping the URL alive to post an update or redirect visitors to a useful page.
Step Four: Make Scholarly References Useful
One carryover from the world of print makes sense on line, too: the use of citation numbers to link to references. That convention not only is immediately recognizable but also distinguishes citation links from all other links. For instance, earlier in this piece I included a direct link to Jutta Degener's online work, then a few lines later provided a link to the citation information located at the bottom of this page. The citation-number format makes it clear that the two should lead to different types of information (as does the alternate citation style used by other journals, such as that [Lieb, 1980] used in The Journal of Information, Law and Technology). Because many readers print online articles, all URLs should be repeated at the end of a piece for convenience.
In the flurry of submissions, revisions and publication deadlines, it's easy to underestimate the importance of good hyperlinks in online work. But putting a little extra attention into your links helps assure that your site will be one users leave with a good impression — and look forward to returning to regularly.
Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University. You may contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Jutta Degener, "Writing Hypertext Copy."
2. Jakob Nielsen, "Fighting Linkrot," 14 June 1998.
3. Jakob Nielsen, "Using Link Titles to Help Users Predict Where They Are Going," 11 January 1998.
6. Terry Sullivan, "How Much Is Too Much?" All Things Web.
Links from this article
Jutta Degener, "Writing Hypertext Copy." (http://kbs.cs.tu-berlin.de/~jutta/ht/writing/text.html)
The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/)
Terry Sullivan, "How Much Is Too Much?" All Things Web. (http://www.pantos.org/atw/35654.html)
The author thanks Suzanne Bourdess and David Wizer of Towson University for editorial review.