where to put the link

This has been a back-burner issue for me for a while and I haven’t been able to resolve it for myself nor have I found any good articles/discussions. Specifically, when using embedded links, where should you place the link? That is, when linking via embedded links, how do you decide what word or phrase should be contained in the <a> tag?

For example, in the second sentence in the above I decided to link the phrase “embedded links” to a description of “embedded link”. In this case, the decision of what phrase to use as the link was rather simple. However, consider the following sentence from a recent post:

In this month’s issue of IEEE Computer, the article, “Replacing Proprietary Software on the Desktop”, by Don Hardaway, discusses…

What word or phrase should link to the article? The word, “article”, or the title of the article itself? Should there be one link that starts at the word article and terminates at the end of the article title or should both be distinct links?

In this case, the last two options are easily ruled out. One link encompassing both the word and the title wouldn’t make sense since there is a comma between “article” and the title. It would be misleading – plus it would be a little bulky. Having two distinct links would be confusing.

But selecting between the word, “article”, and the title is more subtle. On one hand, the word “article” describes a tangible object. Linking the word establishes a link from the term “article” to an actual article. However, the title offers a better description of the target.

The problem here seems to be a matter of context. Both the word “article” and the title provide us with the information we need to understand where the link will take us. (We can assume that linking to somewhere other than the article would be a poor design decision and isn’t a consideration for this discussion.) We can further complicate this discussion by considering the phrase “IEEE Computer” to be a candidate. I would say the argument for linking that phrase is not as strong as the other options but it’s still feasible.

Suppose, however, the sentence were constructed as

In this month’s issue of IEEE Computer, Don Hardaway discusses the various options facing enterprises that want to evolve away from expensive vendor products and perhaps look to open source solutions.

Where should the link go? Here, there are several candidate phrases:
  • “discusses”
  • “discusses various options facing enterprises”
  • “Don Hardaway discusses”
  • “Don Hardaway discusses various options facing enterprises”
Each has different levels of specificity but specificity is at the expense of bulkiness. While the last option is the most specific, depending on how links are decorated within the document, the length of the phrase may cause distraction to the reader.

As should be evident from this discussion, the choice of wording impacts the decision tremendously. Actually, in practice it’s probably the other way around: the decision to include a link impacts the choice of wording. Using our example, the first phrasing of the sentence is easier to link, and provides more context, than the second. (And it is probably the case that because I wanted to link to the article, I selected a phrasing that makes the linking more natural.)

An interesting side effect of navigability of the web is the use of anonymous indicators such as “this” or “here”. For example,

You can find the article here.

This article discusses …

Such an approach is not possible with the non-hypermedia. If such a sentence or phrase appeared in a newspaper or book it would be useless. Should such an approach to linking be considered a good practice? I would argue that it shouldn’t. Though I have been guilty of it myself when in a hurry, it can be avoided by restructuring sentences. This promotes richer context for the reader.

The discussions I have found on-line regarding links tend to be more about usability. Many discussions, such as Robinson’s “Guidelines for Linking”, address the physical display of the link in the document or the placement of the links, either embedded within a discussion or placed on the boundary, such as the study by Bernard, Hull and Drake. The findings of the latter were interesting. They state that navigation is not directly affected by link location. However, they do state that “participants indicated that they believed that embedding the links within a document made it easier to navigate, easier to recognize key information, easier to follow the main idea of the passages, and promoted comprehension.” This is probably not too surprising as the embedded links benefit from context.

On-line news sources tend to use the external link concept more than embedded links. CNN.com, uses this approach but also has the occasional embedded link for generic terms. For example, the recent article, “Deaths mount as Pakistani troops enter mosque” contains recommended articles on the right hand side, as well as within an article inset on the left, but also has the word “Islamic” linked to a topic page.
This approach makes sense as much of the linking can be automated based on keywords – and perhaps a simple manual identification of related articles that might be missed via keyword identification. As well, if the article is destine for multiple uses – on-line and print – providing a stock for-print version would make the most sense.

In terms of the physical rendering, I am not certain I agree with the traditional approach, advocated by Robinson and most other advice sites. Specifically, they suggest that links need to be underlined and visited links need to appear differently. I have never found either that appealing. Personally, I think user habit biases the thoughts here. Some decoration is useful – such as a subtle change in the link color – but a good deal of pages I visit have rather distracting decoration policies. I suppose underlining or more emphatic stylings isn’t a bad option.

To be fair, though, different types of pages might necessitate different approaches. For reference-oriented pages such as site maps or the Google search results, varying the color for visited and non-visited links, is useful as the referencing page will probably be visited several times as the user tries to find the information needed. However, articles can utilize context. As a reader, if the context is sufficient – and for solid writing I think it should be – I should be able to determine whether or not I have visited a referenced target. In both cases, we should consider the notion of visited and non-visited to be limited to single session.

Of course, in my cursory search, I wasn’t able to find any supporting evidence for or against so the above is simply conjecture and opinion.

In the end, I’m still unresolved as to where to put the link. In specific situations, it’s rather clear. In others, it’s a matter of style. The discussion still feels half-baked so I will probably be revisiting it. I haven’t really found the motivation to read books on web design theory but might in the near future.

Anyone have any thoughts?

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