An important part of writing on the Web is the use of hyperlinks. (I'm not talking here about links that are part of the site's navigation, but about links that are relevant to an individual piece of content and are most appropriately seen as "part of" the content.)
The destination of these links should be clear. Mostly this can be achieved by following some simple standards; it's also possible to be more explicit in various ways.
What should be linked?
If users may want to go to another Web site (or another page within your own site) based on something you have written, then you should provide a link.
For example, if you mention any companies or organisations, you should link to their sites (you needn't link from every mention, just the first one will do).
As another example, if in a Web site of country walks, one walk's page included the sentence "Like the walk at nearby Spurn Point, this can be windy at times" - referring to another walk covered on the site - then that should also be a link.
Inline or sidebar links
Some sites don't place links in the main text of their story. Instead, they hide links in a sidebar or a references section at the end of a document, even if those links were relevant to a particular part of the document.
It is sometimes claimed that if a user follows the link then they'll lose the thread of the current document, so links should be placed at the end. This is silly. Users are not forced to follow a link, and they can leave it to the end if they like. It's only courteous to give them the choice.
Within each story, the links relevant to that story - even obvious links like names of organisations - are hidden in a sidebar which might easily be missed. My train of thought is usually disrupted when I read an article and come across something which ought to be a link but isn't...
There are two possible explanations for this behaviour:
- The BBC's web designers smoke really high-grade crack.
- Lawyers made them do it.
In Wired News articles, the relevant organisations are linked within the text. There are also references at the end of the document, but this is an example of a different and useful technique ("if you were interested in this, you might now be interested in these") which is probably most appropriate at the end of a document.
What text should you link?
Avoid linking text like "Click here" unless you write advertising copy. Apart from making little sense for users of text-only or speech browsers, this gives an amateur feel to the site, and is often used as a substitute for actually describing the link.
Try to keep links brief but descriptive. If links are included within text, simply pick the words that describe the link. Some examples (most of the links do not actually work):
- I studied at Durham University. [Link to university's site.]
- I studied at Durham University. [Link to a page about the town.]
- I studied at Durham University. [Link to a page about studying in general.]
- I studied at Durham University. [Link to a page about studying at Durham University - this is getting a bit long, so it could also have been just the word "studied" again.]
If links are separate from the text, for example at the end of an article or on a separate links page, it's standard to link the title of the web site, and then include a brief description.
- Durham University - a well-respected university in North-East England; situated in probably the most picturesque university town in the country.
Opening new windows
It is possible to make links open in a new browser window instead of in the current window, by setting the target attribute of the <a> tag to "_blank".
<a href="target.html" target="_blank">link text</a>
(This works for most web browsers, but not on devices which don't support multiple windows like WebTV or text/speech browsers.)
Occasionally there are good reasons for doing this, but most sites do it simply to keep users on their site, which is a bad idea:
- The technique can confuse users who are new to the Web
- Both major browsers allow users to open any link in a new window if they choose, so why not leave the decision to users?
Indicating link targets
Some Web sites give more information about where the link goes.
A small icon by the link can indicate whether links are internal (within the site) or external (outside the site). Similarly, an icon could indicate whether the link will open in a new window or an existing one (or better yet, could give a choice).
Some Web sites also change the text in the browser's status bar to describe the link. This is normally a bad idea because experienced users often want the URL in the status bar in order to find where they're going. Less experienced users never even look at the status bar, because it's miles away from everything else.
Each person in the group should write a sentence about some topic. The sentence should contain something (an organisation, a type of object, a person, etc.) which might be linked. Indicate which text would be part of the link by underlining it.
Discuss it in the group to see whether you agree with the choice.