6.4: Links and Style

Linking marks a critical difference between authoring a unilinear text and building a hypertext with multiple reading orders. Linking cannot be ignored. Links give hypertexts their flex, enabling readers to follow their preferred paths through articles.

Bilbo Baggins

Bilbo Baggins, played by Ian Holm in the Lord of the Rings movies.

When the links work well, the reader has the ability to take meaningful action. To allow for this feeling, the links should behave as expected. We’ve all felt the frustration, not to mention the disorientation of links that take us somewhere we didn’t expect.

Links create associations; the connections are deliberate, not random. This marks a crucial difference between clicking through Web pages and surfing through TV channels (Johnson, 1997). As always, the writer cannot guarantee which associations the reader will make.

The writer also cannot predict which links the reader will follow. This means every link counts. Some readers feel satisfied to click one link and read one component. Other readers feel some compulsion to make certain they have “read everything” and otherwise feel dissatisfied, perhaps cheated; they may resent the resulting increase in their information overload.

Our theory is that the reader should, at some point, feel satisfied — whether or not she has read everything. Feeling satisfied, a reader won’t care if there are components she did not read. She got enough, whatever “enough” means for her.

The reader’s experience always will be formed in relation to the writer’s link decisions. Out of the resulting sense of satisfaction or frustration, trust in (or validation of) the hypertext rises or fails. Did the writer’s link seem to make sense? Did the reader say “Huh? What?” Or did the reader say “Oh, nice!” or “What a crock!”

Style points to ponder

When writing copy, write about your subject, even if the text contains links.

Bilbo Baggins is known as the author of There and Back, an epical work of travel and adventure.

Do not write about the reader’s movements, neither in terms of changing servers or visiting resources:

Go to the home page of Bilbo Baggins.

nor in terms of interactions with their user interface:

Click here to visit Bilbo Baggins’ home page.

The only one place that should mention “clicking” is an introductory page for first-time Web users. It isn’t appropriate for pages catering to a general audience because many of your readers will not use a mouse, and it distracts from what your readers are trying to do.

Another phrase for “click here” is “select this link,” but it’s still bogus. If you owned a shop, you’d write “Welcome” on the door, not “Open this door to enter the shop.”

Do not write about your writing, either:

Here is a list of things that I am interested in.

The readers can see for themselves that there is a list. Instead, write:

I am interested in rings of power, spelunking and fireworks.

Even better, simply write down the list. If you weren’t interested in it, chances are you wouldn’t be talking about it.

Be personal. Too many writers on the Web assume the pose of a “service provider.” You are more than a collection of addresses, images and links to other people’s projects. Something about you is unique. Try to express that in writing; give your readers a chance to get a feeling for who you are.

Be specific in your anchor texts. This site uses “Previous” and “Next,” buttons that interconnect successive parts of a linear text.

Most navigation aids would work well with users who have fast systems, who see only consistent buttons and words, and who know the structure of the Web site.

But most users who just came from a different site with a different overall structure face your learning curve; often they won’t be at your site long enough to learn the structure.

For all of these reasons, “Back” and “Next” alone just don’t cut it; give the users some information about what the next section is about, and where they’ll go when they go “Up.”

Use absolute directions. The temptation to write that a link from a leaf of your subtree leads “back” is high. Don’t fall for it. “Back” is where your visitor comes from; don’t assume that just because your index is the only one you know, it’s the only one that links to your page.

If your readers want to go back, they will use the builtin “back” button on their browser.

The same considerations apply to links that claim to lead “home”; one person’s home may be another one’s adventure.

Listen to your links. Links change the “sound” of their document. They stress their anchor text (because it is underlined, colored, or inverted), and they force readers to think about the anchor text and decide whether to follow the link or not.

Turning a word into an anchor is a rhetorical effect that can be overused. If you want to anchor to a frequent word or phrase, do not stress every occurrence, just those that introduce the subject into a block of text.

Listen to your document. The interaction between text and links is no one-way street: The surrounding text influences what users expect to see when they follow a link. Write your anchor texts in such a way that the link targets match the readers’ expectations within the context.

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 email-sending program) is fine, even when one would otherwise expect a home page or archive.

Weigh your links against each other. Your links give your readers an idea of what the document is about, even before they have started to read. If you add one link, think about what other links you could use to balance or complete the impression of the first.