June 23, 2003 | Category:

Writing Link Text Well

I’d like to talk about writing link text well, specifically in the context of a blog. Most blogs are centred around links: blog A links to blog B, blog B links to C etc. Without that important little bit of navigation, the blogosphere would fall apart. It is, in essence, our glue.

The problem is that so many people write link text so badly that it’s difficult for the user to know where they end up. If usability studies have shown us anything it’s that the average user is fundamentally scared of the unknown. They will not use anything that they don’t have a decent understanding of; whether it be a command in a menu or following links on the web. They just won’t do it.

Now, if people aren’t following your links around the web (as is the intention of actually providing a link) then something has gone horribly wrong. They’re either not interested or are too confused by the text that they don’t want to follow it. The former you can do little about, but the latter is another matter.

First thing you need to know is how to evaluate link text to see if it is good enough. The best way of doing this is to remove it from the context you provide. Cut and paste your link text into another file (just the text, not the link itself). If you were provided with just this text and not the rest of the document, would you know what to expect upon clicking it? If you can honestly say yes, then your link text is good enough. Congratulations.

If you can ever answer no to that question, then you have a problem: your link text is not clear enough. Worry not, though, there are some very easy solutions.

First of all is the widely used technical solution: add a title attribute to your links. The text included in the title should say exactly what the link refers to. If this ends up as vague as your link text, then it’s useless. In fact, it’s distracting; you’re just giving your users more unknowns and that, as we know, will stop them clicking. An example:

the link text <a href="http://example.com" title="a site containing examples of bad link text">here</a> is terrible

Here we have a very poor choice of link text: the word “here”. What does “here” mean to anyone? It’s subjective, temporal and provides a plethora of unknown possibilities. We have, however, added a title attribute that says what the user should expect when they click. This helps a lot. The user might just click after all.

Ok, that last example is at the extreme end of bad text, but it does happen (a lot).

The second solution to the problem (and one that should be considered far more than it currently is) would be to rewrite the link text and, if necessary, the surrounding text. Now, I can hear a hundred writers complain, “But these are my words! I can’t change them to suit linking.” Well, why the hell not? Links are blogging glue. If changing a whole paragraph is necessary to let the links make sense out of context, then so be it. They are just as important, if not more so, than the commentary that surrounds them.

Think about it this way: the commentary would be utterly pointless without the links. We are generally commenting on the link content, so if the link content isn’t being viewed because of bad link text then it throughs the context and focus of the commentary way out.

Link text is important. We need it. Make your text count.