Links here, there, and everywhere

I can’t imagine a website without links. Well, you could actually build webpages with no links to anywhere but that will not be fun to do, will they?

Links are very special part of the web because without links, our webpages will not be connected. It will not look like a web, but more like spaghetti strands — a description not fit with the vision of the smart people who created the World Wide Web.

Link our thoughts

Before we continue, I’ll share a bit of history. While Tim Berners-Lee’s work paved the way for the World Wide Web, it was Vannevar Bush who introduced the concept of linking documents into a single trail of information in his essay “As We May Think” published in 1945. Then in 1965, Ted Nelson, coined the term “hyperlink” for his Project Xanadu.

When we include a link in our webpage, what we are trying to do is to associate the link with another thought located on the Internet. The link could be for a detailed information on our website, or a reference in another site. Technically, it is very easy to provide links in a webpage. The hard part is communicating the meaning of the link.

When you see the link What are cookies?, what I am trying to tell you is that if you click on the link, you will be taken to another webpage that answers the question, “What are cookies.” At least that’s what I am trying to tell you.

The problem with communication is that the you may be interpreting the message differently from what I am trying to say. “Cookies” may be interpreted as a special computer code by geeks or a tasty children snack by mothers, depending on the context where the word “cookies” appears, knowledge differences, and other things.

When we are talking to another person face-to-face, we have cues on whether the other party understands us. When she nods her head, crosses her eyebrows, or says “I don’t understand”, we can see and hear it. Given our ability to process multiple signals at the same time, we can react instantly and use alternative approaches to deliver our message. We could pause to give her time to think, repeat what we have just said but this time talking a bit slower, use an analogy, or draw on the whiteboard.

Unfortunately in the Web, our feedback tools are limited and our chance of getting feedback instantly is almost nil. When people visit our website, we could be asleep. Even if we are awake, we wouldn’t know she is reading. Even if she gives a feedback, the medium is limited to words and pictures only.

We can’t react instantly. The only thing we can do is influence the readers such that they’ll interpret the meaning of the link as close as possible to what we want. But before we can achieve that, first we have to make sure visitors can recognize the link. Yes, of course, it is a no-brainer. However, many websites still include links where the only way it could be recognized is if the visitor positions the mouse pointer on every single word on the webpage. I may be exaggerating here but consider this: People don’t read on the web, we scan.

We don’t ready every word in a webpage. We scan for items that may attract our attention, then we click. It could be the animated banner ad, the heading of a sports story, or a teaser. Of course, there’s always an exception. If you are looking for reports, news, or the online version of the Half-Blood Prince, we may settle down and read every word. But if it is the typical webpage with numerous links at the top and sidebar, and content excerpts, we scan (not read). This is why some usability gurus would like every link, especially those embedded in a document, to be underlined aside from setting its color in contrast with the rest of the text. Underlined and contrast texts provides for easy recognition and scanning.

Describing links

Just because our visitors can find the links does it mean our job is over. Actually, we are only done with the easy part. The difficult part is describing the link or deciding the words that will be included in the <a> tag.

Visitors first look for specific words that match what they are looking for. If they are looking for jobs, they will surely click the link that says “Jobs”. If they can’t find it, they will look for other words that closely resembles “Jobs”, like “Careers”, and “Employment Opportunities”. Synonyms are useful but they don’t generate the same interest as specifics words do.

Sometimes, designers organize links and pages into a hierarchy, typically from the generic to specific words (my other programmer-self prefers the terms “abstract” and “concrete”). What happens is the homepage, being at the top of the hierarchy, will have the most generic words like “Opportunities”. Since generic words could almost mean anything, it does not attract visitors as “Jobs” do.

Worse, synonyms are used in the same neighborhood but for different purposes. I had this experience with a homepage that has the links “Sign In” and “Sign Up” side-by-side. I have no idea which is which but I’m sure one is for creating a new account while the other is for existing accounts.

If you blog or in-charge of writing, you will always have to deal with embedded links. These are links within our sentences to provide more or related information. The beauty of embedded links is that readers can use the context in which they appear to have a clear picture of what the link provides. Unlike menu or category links, in embedded links you have the luxury of using several words to produce a more descriptive link.

Consider the following text:

A recent study in Canada revealed that visitors make snap decisions in just 50 milliseconds or in the blink of an eye.

If we want to make a link to the survey page, there are different ways to compose the link and each one means differently.

  1. A recent study in Canada revealed that visitors make snap decisions in just 50 milliseconds or in the blink of an eye.
  2. A recent study in Canada revealed that visitors make snap decisions in just 50 milliseconds or in the blink of an eye.

Link #1 tells me that I will be taken to the survey study, which may include other findings, while Link #2 points me to a specific finding in the study. There is no perfect choice here because it depends what you want to describe.

Using links

Conventions play a great factor in the way visitors interpret a link. Links at the top represent the structure of the website or how the pages are organized; links in a list form are of similar topics; and embedded links mean “if you need more information, click here.”

Even though our tools to convey the meaning of the link is limited, what is amazing is that visitors have come to accept that limitations and are willing to take a chance that the link may or may not provide what they are looking for. Naturally, first time visitors would tap into their experience with other websites to help them decide what to click. Maybe in their company website, jobs are under “Opportunities”. Frequent visitors will be used to the design of the links and will have little difficulty them (even if it always launches a new window).

Another reason visitors tolerate badly created links is because the penalty is just one or two “Back” button clicks. She may already be disappointed on the second click. Nonetheless she would still try for some reason. Of course, if disappointments are frequent, she will leave.

There have been debates on how many clicks a visitors can tolerate before they get disappointed. Some suggest only up to 4 clicks. There is no doubt that providing the least number of clicks provides a pleasant online experience but the number of clicks do not matter. Visitors will keep going as long as every click seems to take them closer and closer to their goal. To repeat the 2nd law of usability by Steve Krug, “It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.”

Every click must be as painless as possible. The actual click is not hard (unless you are using a defective mouse) but what burdens a visitor is the extra thinking required to decide which one to click. For example, many e-commerce websites group products into ‘Home’ and ‘Office’. A purchasing supervisor working for Jollibee will choose “Office” in a heartbeat. However, for Juan who works as a freelance designer with an office in his home, the choice requires some mental processing. Will Juan find what he is looking for in ‘Home’ or in ‘Office’?

As website creators, we don’t want to disappoint our visitors. Unfortunately for us, a lot of things could go wrong in our website and some of these are beyond our control. For things we can like links, we should strive to provide a painless online experience to our visitors. Often, the lightness of creating a link causes us to take it for granted. We often settle for poor link names like click here and download. We can argue that the link name is in context and should not be hard to figure out. But how sure are we about our visitors’ thinking? Visitors may arrive in a webpage with a goal but she may suddenly change it upon seeing a link that attracted her attention. How certain are we about the areas our visitors look at and the order in which they view the elements in our webpage?

We don’t need to become psychics to understand our visitors though it would certainly be a valuable asset. What we need to remember is our job is to relay our message across our visitors. If we do it right, we get our message across — clear and unaltered. Do it wrong, we could be sending the message “we suck”.

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