There’s a lot to like about links. They’re one of the primary differences between print and onscreen writing—the ability to cross-navigate a document, to jump between sections of the text in the way you choose. They’re also something that is done quite badly, a lot of the time.

This article won’t be touching on link design elements, the affordances that make good links work (we’ll look at that next time!), but rather on the link text itself. This has a huge impact on whether people will even notice your link, and if they do, whether they’ll click on it.

I may get a little ranty. I will try not to swear, but there may be some euphemistic alternatives. You may already know much of this—but I hope you learn something new!

Let’s start with the basics.

Meaningful, scannable link text

Brace yourself, revelation ahead: your link text should use words that describe what you’re linking to. (I know, right?) A reader should be able to scan your page, visually (or using assistive technology) skipping from link to link until they find the link they want to click.

This doesn’t need to be the actual title of the page you’re linking to, but it should have enough meaning so that when the reader arrives at the linked page, they won’t be surprised or disoriented.

For example, this style is not so great: Click here to read the full report. (Actually, it’s terrible!)

At a glance, particularly if the page is full of other click-heres, this doesn’t help narrow down what one might find if one actually does ‘click here’; It just increases a reader’s cognitive load, because then they need to read the text around the link for context. You’ve just given them more incentive to go elsewhere.

Better: Read the full report.

Generally, we know that for most types of content, the reader will be scanning the page (this is not true for all content; I know you are eagerly savouring every word of this post! And if not, you’ve probably just missed this meta reference…), so each link must fight to survive.

People will generally have some keywords in their head when they’re reading a page with a goal in mind (as opposed to just reading for pleasure or learnin’ purposes). They may be thinking things like:

  • ‘I want to find out if I’m eligible
  • ‘How do I register to attend?’
  • ‘How do I turn this damn autocorrection off?
  • I need a review of Ulysses, so I don’t have to read it before I write my assignment.’
When humans are concentrating on things, they do it by excluding anything not central to the main task. This frees up the brain’s processing power for the task at hand. (To view this in the wild, just try interrupting a man when he’s ‘doing something’.) When someone is scanning a page, such as a list of Google results, they will mentally exclude other results/links if the links use language that doesn’t match their mental picture—even if it is synonymous with what they’re looking for.

They just won’t see it. Your link may as well not be there.

So, make sure you use plain English—or the language of the audience you’re trying to reach. In some industries, certain jargon may be more recognisable than plain English alternatives. (Such as in the training industry, ‘assessment’ may be more recognisable than ‘test’. Maybe.)

Research from the Norman Nielsen Group suggests that web users will only give a link or heading around  2 words, or about 11 characters, to prove itself, before skipping ahead—unless there is enough of an information scent in those first 11 characters to keep the reader reading. This behaviour is also demonstrated by people using assistive technologies, like screen readers. (They’re equally impatient.)

This gives us the simple link text test:

  • Does it make sense in isolation?
  • Is there enough of an information scent in the first two words?
It also helps to define a few simple rules.

Don’t waste valuable characters with generic guff… Terms such as ‘information about’.

Don’t start your links with the same text, such as:

  • White Paper 001: Cheese consumption in Australia
  • White Paper 002: Correlation between cheese consumption and reality TV growth
  • White Paper 003: Beans—Australia’s silent killer.
Don’t include the verb in a link, unless it’s a call to action. If people are looking for information, they’re thinking of the topic, not the action of ‘reading’. However, there are certain goals where the verb will feature prominently, such as: register to attend; apply for this job; upload documents.

On a side note, if you are including the action in your link, make sure it is something doable online. You may be able to ‘make a booking to donate blood’, but you can’t ‘donate blood’ online… unless there’s an app for that?

Don’t include your brand name in the link text, or if you must, put it at the end where it won’t be taking up those valuable first characters. Your brand probably isn’t as well known as you think it is, particularly if you work for government.

What do you mean you haven’t heard of NextQ2SupportUConnect? We’re big in Japan. (Great Tom Waits song, by the way! That is, ‘big in Japan’, not ‘NextQ2SupportUConnect’.)
For example (caution, shameless plug ahead) what conveys more meaning to you:

More about links, including structure, placement, design affordances, and SEO next time…

Further reading

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