Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A discussion of naive use of links

with 2 comments

People with a poor understanding of the Web and/or “hyper text” often add links in odd and suboptimal ways, including what I think of as “here”* links, which make the text specific to the medium, can confuse readers, and/or cause problems for automatic and semi-automatic tools (screen readers, link listers, search engines, whatnots). A typical example**:

*Because of the common use of the word “here”.

**All examples adhere to patterns that I have seen on many occasions; however, none are direct quotes. I mark the linked portions of the text by an opening and a closing “#”. For instance, “a #b# c” implies a text of “a b c” with a link on the “b”. (Using real links could cause problems very similar to those I advice against with this text, and has the added complication that the difference between e.g. “#a# #b#” and “#a b#” is not always obvious.)

Smith has written an extensive report on X. You can find the report #here#.

Consider e.g. how this would look in a link list: Now we have a link identified only by the word “here”… Consider what happens after printing, conversion to plain-text, or similar: What is “here” even supposed to imply? “You can find the report here.” leads to the obvious question “Where?!?”, which cannot be answered from the text it self. (And there need not be any indication in the text that this resulted from a link being lost, since coloring and, often, underlining will also be lost.) Consider the lack of information as to where the link leads. Consider how search-engines are hampered in their attempts to make classifications and evaluations. Etc.

Of course, these problems are not restricted to “here”. Consider variations like:

Smith has written an extensive report on X. #Use this link to download.#

Unsurprisingly, it is common for “here” links to occur repeatedly in the same document, often in the same sentence:

[…]
You can find the report #here#.
[…]
Other sources can be found #here#, #here#, #here#, and #here#.
[…]
For more on X click #here#. For more on Y click #here#.

Now the problems are made that much worse, because the links are indistinguishable without further investigation.

Contrast the first example with:

Smith has written #an extensive report on X#.

This avoids most* of the above problems, is more informative, more user-friendly, and shorter to boot. Other alternatives are possible, especially when some reformulation is allowed. For instance, “#Smith has written an extensive report on X#.” is even more informative, but makes the link unnecessarily long (which is why I preferred the chosen version).

*When moving to another medium, the link is still lost; however, the result is at least less confusing. (This could be avoided by spelling out the full link, which is legitimate and sometimes the best thing to do. Much more often, the negative effects on the HTML view would be too large through breaking a natural text flow or taking up too much space, as with e.g. #https://www.fictional-college.edu/~john.smith/my-extensive-report-on-X.html#.)

Similarly, what if the middle part of the third example had been:

[…]
Other sources include #an interview with Mike Tyson#, #the book XYZ#, #a NASA study#, and #Smith’s Ph.D. thesis#.*
[…]

*The exact texts to use are open to discussion, depending on factors like how the author prioritizes informative links vs. short links, what is clear from context, and similar. Going down to e.g. “[…] include #Mike Tyson# […]” might, depending on context, keep enough information, and would make the link shorter.

Ideally, the resulting text should read in a manner that is agnostic of the medium and could be moved unchanged to e.g. a (printed) news-paper article, as with a regular text that has simply been enriched with links for the convenience of the reader; ideally, the text of the link should have sufficient explanatory value that the reader has a good expectation of what to find even when just looking at a link list, but, at a minimum, when looking at the full sentence of the link. (Which is not to say that these ideals are always realistic or that I, myself, always keep them in mind—I do not. However, by making links even somewhat sensible, and by categorically avoiding nonsense like “You can find the report #here#.”, most of the problems automatically disappear. Compromises that I often deliberately make include “#an older text#” and the “#[1]#” discussed below.)

The alternative of using “#[1]#”, “#[2]#”, etc., is a hybrid between “good” and “bad” linking. Compared to “#here#”, such links have the advantage of being unique, being easily recognizable as references in other contexts (e.g. after printing), and allowing an easier transition to another medium by extending the text with a set of explanatory references (cf. how Wikipedia handles references*). They also allow for easier intra-text references. They still share disadvantages like the linked text not being very informative. I use this alternative fairly often, especially when several links are given at once and/or I will reference the same source later on in the text—however, I stress this is a compromise between effort and result.

*I.e. as combination of bracketed numbers in the text that refer to a later section with more information, including the full link, book title, author, or whatever might apply. In terms of results, this is arguably a better solution even for HTML; however, it implies a lot more work than if a link is put directly on the bracketed number, and will be impractical in many contexts. To boot, the effort for the reader can also be increased unduly when he is expected to actually visit the linked-to source in a high proportion of the cases (which is not the case with Wikipedia).

Excursion on other problems:
Other common problems include failing to indicate that a link leads to non-HTML content (e.g. a PDF-file), causing unexpected behavior* when the link is clicked; and forcing the opening of external links into new windows/tabs, contrary to the expectations of a reasonable user, potentially breaking tabbed browsing**, and violating the principle that the user should be in control: If the reader wants a page to open in a new tab/window, he actively does so. If he does not, it is not the right of some far away author to override his decision.

*Including opening additional applications (or a sub-standard browser view), often in combination with focus stealing; longer download times; and bandwidth wasted for those on a slow or non-flatrate connection.

**Even when the page is opened in a new tab, the result rarely fits the normal workflow of tabbed browsing, i.e. that tabs are opened in the background for later viewing, while the user remains on the original page. If the browser does not support the conversion of “new window” requests into “new tab” requests, the results can be far worse.

Excursion on too specific assumptions in general:
Youtube provides many examples of making too specific assumptions. For instance, a video that asks the users to “comment below” might become misleading even through a minor Youtube redesign. Others, e.g. “please ‘like’ this video” might survive even a drastic redesign, but would still be irrelevant if moved to or viewed in another context, e.g. after a manual download.

Blogging comes with potentially similar problems, but is rarely as bad (likely because bloggers are less obsessed with “likes” and subscriptions); however, I advice being careful about using highly blogging specific terminology for a text that might later appear in another context—just like a book or news paper written in the era of e-books and online news should avoid speaking of the paper it is (not necessarily) printed on. (I acknowledge that I have often violated my own advice.)

Many instructions for computer and whatnot use make far too many assumptions. Consider e.g. giving users instruction to use a certain key shortcut that is browser specific (or even to “click” on a link), telling him to start a certain program, giving him OS instructions that require Windows (or even a specific version of Windows), giving instructions on how to start an application through menus in a specific language (instead of giving the name of the application to start), …

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 16, 2018 at 8:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. […] unconsciously making the same mistakes that I criticize in others. For instance, I have condemned linking on the word “here”* as naive (and stand by that text!), but found that I have myself made this mistake on a few […]

  2. […] I quote a text on naive links written in the […]


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