Five steps to more usable links

Here’s a post I wrote for The Real Adventure blog recently.

Link usability and UX

How one man’s dream became a billion links to kittens

Have you ever had to describe the World Wide Web to someone? Probably not, or at least not since about 15 years ago, when a less technologically savvy family member asked you to.

It has become such a constant part of our lives that it’s easy to forget exactly what the Web is. We’ve come to relate to it in terms of the content we view on it; news, Facebook, funny videos on YouTube, cute pictures of kittens and so on, rather than the medium itself. This is in much the same way that we might think of television in terms of watching EastEnders or the X Factor final an Adam Curtis documentary, rather than as a box for receiving moving images and sound.

So what is the Web then? Yes it’s Facebook and funny kitten videos, but what is that content fundamentally made up of?

Tim Berners-Lee proclaimed, back in 1991, that the ‘reader view’ of ‘The WWW consists of documents, and links’. Brilliantly simple – no wonder it caught on.

As well as connecting the documents of the web together, links are the work horses of the Web – they act as sign posts, showing us where to go. They build our ranking on search engines, they persuade us to do things, help us learn, connect with each other, and add context and citation.

So, for such a key element, it’s surprising how often they under-perform in terms of usability.

The first rule of Link Club

So what are the rules for using links? How can we make them perform better? As a set of guidelines to help improve the usability of your links, I’ve dug through some research on the topic and added my own thoughts.

First a quick disclaimer – there are many types of links; navigation, calls to action, pagination, buttons and so on, but in this article I’m just talking about the use of links in body copy; the type of content we might all enter into a CMS or blog at some point or other.

1. Never use ‘click’ or ‘here’. Even worse: ‘click here’.

Not only is the phrase ‘click here’ device-dependent (it implies the use of a pointing device such as a mouse), it says nothing about what will be found if the link is followed. Instead of ‘click here’, link text should indicate the nature of the link target, as in ‘more pictures of funny cats’ or ‘text-only version of this page’. Just remember that while some of your readers may be using a mouse, they could equally be using a screen reader, voice control, keyboard or touch screen, or could have printed your web page on to paper.

A general rule is to avoid talking about the mechanics of the Web where possible – if you owned a shop, you’d write ‘Welcome’ on the door, not ‘Open this door to enter the shop.’ Using the word ‘here’ also conceals what the user is clicking – the link should ideally describe what it links to. More on that shortly.

2. Be descriptive.

This follows on from Point One – links should describe what they link to, or do. If it all possible, the wording of a link should act as a page title for the content that you are linking to. The user should be in no doubt about what will happen if they click a link, thus avoiding them having their expectations dashed. We shouldn’t rely on the text around a link explaining it either, as we need to optimise for scan reading (see Point Three).

Another reason to be descriptive is for search engine optimisation (SEO); a descriptive link will affect how that link performs in search engine rankings.

Sometimes we need some extra information in our description – is it a 5kB or a 50Mb PDF? A 30 second or a 120 minute video? Help avoid nasty surprises.

3. Optimise for scan reading.

A common misconception made by authors is that their audience will read almost every word on the page, but sadly this is far from the truth. According to Jakob Nielsen’s research findings (‘How little do users read?‘) users can be expected to read just 20% of the words on a page. This is because people don’t read on the Web, they scan. Scanning visitors cast their eyes rapidly over a page, picking out pieces of information to build their own mental picture of what the content is about. To the scanning eye, links (being underlined and in a different colour) stand out on the page, which means that their wording will be used to help make those quick decisions on whether to stay or leave the page. So in short – make them count!

Remember that the words you link will give readers a feel for the subjects covered in the page, so be careful not to unintentionally skew this by linking lots from one topic or keyword and not another. Try to balance your links so that a visitor can scan read your page and get a genuine feel for what it is about.

It’s also a good idea to keep the number of links on a page down – too many will disrupt the user’s ability to scan read the page easily, making the copy harder to read, and ultimately losing you visitors.

4. Keep it simple, stupid!

Keeping things simple and familiar to the user are good ways of making them easy to use, and links are no exception. Links should look like links; underlined and clearly differentiated from other text through the use of colour (traditionally blue).

They should have appropriately sized hit areas; this has become more of an issue since the recent proliferation of touch screen devices. How often have you tried opening a link on a smartphone or tablet and accidentally got the one next to it? Links need appropriate spacing around them to avoid this, and hit areas should be large enough to click easily, as dictated by Fitts’s Law.

Links should nearly always open in the same window. The user can choose to open a link in a new window or tab if they like, but you shouldn’t make that decision for them. Don’t remove choice, keep the user in control.

5. Don’t radically alter link behaviour.

As I said at the start, hyperlinks date back to the dawn of the Web. And from that point up to today, we’ve got used to using them. So if you decide to alter how they work, you are going to confuse people by confounding their expectations. Adding things like adverts that appear on rollover ruin the user experience and gain you very little in return. Please promise me that you won’t use them?

Go forth and link to kittens

So there you go – five ways to make your links more user-friendly. There are exceptions to every rule, but I hope that you find these guidelines useful. If you’ve got any more tips for improving the usability of links, please add a reply below.

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One Response to Five steps to more usable links

  1. Pingback: Ten tips for successful Calls to Action | Phonic

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