TL;DR: Links are the digital world’s citation method: they support what you say, grow your community, and represent the logic and interconnectivity of the digital world.
Just like an argument is incomplete without evidence to support it, all digital texts you create should include the citation method of the digital paradigm: the hyperlink, or more commonly known as just the link.
The hyperlink has been around for decades, and according the Brian Carroll, links enhance a user’s comprehension of the material by providing a general sense of the important points on the page. Links provide users' with options to dig deeper into the content, jump to a related page, or pursue another line of interest altogether. Links connect the pages of the internet in a non-linear fashion, so they should do so in a logical way. Therefore, linking should be practiced logically and consistently, keeping the following guidelines in mind.
Make the Stand Out
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Links used to be underlined, but these days they are usually a different color from the text and often bolded. Whatever way they are displayed, they should stand out from the surrounding text and remain consistent throughout the document. When working on a platform like Wikipedia, link appearance is already set.
Support Your Writing
Especially in an academic context and on platforms like Wikipedia, the link should provide the primary way that you supply evidence for what you write. Links allow writers of digital media to lead users right to a source without interrupting the flow of the text. You needn’t link every sentence, but your source, like in traditional research papers, should be evident by the context.
Avoid Ugly URLs
Never just paste in a URL when you can link actual English words. For example:
- Use Google (http://google.com/) to search.
is correctly presented:
- Use Google to search.
Most platforms have easy, elegant ways to insert links.
Back when the World Wide Web was young, the link was a foreign idea. Users surfing for the first time didn’t necessarily know what a link was or what one was supposed to do with it. In order to explain the link, an action was often built-in. We’ve all seen:
- To access this document, click here.
Arguably, this has always been awkward, but somewhat understandable. However, now that the use of links has become normalized, we no longer need to give instructions about what to do nor where to do it. Avoid any mention of “click” and “here,” unless you want to make your users feel dumb. Also, using “here” actually hides what users are clicking and just makes the text wordy and awkward.
Link Specific Nouns
Links should be intuitive. That is, users should know exactly where a link will land them. Link only key words: or the most specific noun of the sentence — the one that most accurately communicates the content of the link. Proper nouns are often the best choice for links as they are unique and unambiguous.
For example, if you’re linking to a book, use the title, not the word “book”:
- For a discussion of implementing these ideas, see Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital.
Since the title of the book is italicized, users understand it’s a book already. Logically, the link would take users to a page where they could find more information on Being Digital. Ending a sentence on a link will also highlight it. Avoid linking too many words in a row.
If the platform allows it, always link English words. Avoid pasting ugly URLs when possible. If for some reason a URL is necessary, try a service like Bitly that will shorten them.
Keep links concise by only linking a couple of words — never a whole sentence.
Sources should be linked only once on a single page. For example, if Negroponte’s book above was referred to again on the same post, linking would be redundant. In other words: link only the first occurrence of the reference.
Give Links a Context
Never just ambiguously link nouns in a sentence; for example:
- I often used to travel to Germany for work.
With this link, users have no idea where following it might lead. Does it go to a Wikipedia entry, an essay about bratwurst, a review of Oktoberfest in Munich, or a Lonely Planet travel guide? The only way to find out is to click, potentially wasting users’ time. Instead, be specific about where the link will land:
- I often used to travel to Germany for work, as I detail in my Work Deutschland blog.
Similarly, never just point to a link:
- Betty Harnett discusses spelunking in her article.
This might be true, but give a users a bit more of a reason to check out Harnett’s article:
- For an exciting account of spelunking in the 100-mile Mexican cave, see Betty Harnett’s “The Great Mexican Cave Dive.”
When linking, consider this overall guideline: always sell your links to your users with specific details.