Late last year, I urged OJR readers not to forget the value of hyperlinking, to look for opportunities to link their stories to supporting information elsewhere on the Web. Today, I’d like to continue with that topic and write a bit about the thought process behind link content, that is, the decision about which text within an article to link, and to where.
Let me start by writing that I am not going to address issues about the design of contextual hyperlinks — issues such as whether to underline a link, what color to make it, etc. For those questions, I direct you to Jakob’s Nielsen’s outstanding Guidelines for Visualizing Links, which includes his usability guidelines for showing textual links.
How to decide what to link? At many news organizations these days, the decision is punted to a computer algorithm, which inserts links automatically into a story wherever it encounters a noun in the publishing system’s database of keywords or phrases. My wife passed me one such example which recently annoyed her.
It came from a Feb. 3 story in the Washington Post: “Sleepless in Amsterdam (And Munich),” about the orchestra conductor Mariss Jansons.
The offending link came at the end of the story, in a paragraph referencing the Pittsburgh Symphony’s final concerts with Jansons, in Carnegie Hall.
The hyperlink does not link to a review of these concerts, as the context of the sentence might imply. Nor does it link to Carnegie Hall’s website. Instead, it links to an automatically generated page of content about Carnegie Hall, from the Post’s site and elsewhere.
And that page is woefully thin, claiming, for example, “No results” for Carnegie Hall video or audio on the Web.
The Post is hardly alone in relying upon an automated solution for hyperlinking. Indeed, this method is often used by webmasters to build massive numbers of inbound links to their pages on specific keywords, in attempt to vault those pages to the top of Google’s search engine results pages for those words and phrases. But littering your article pages with hyperlinks for search engine optimization purposes can cost a site audience share if it leaves its readers frustrated after they follow worthless links.
If you’re going to opt for automatically inserted links, you must revisit your algorithm from time to time, instead of adopting a Ron Popeil “set it and forget it” approach. Otherwise, you end up with a system like Yahoo’s, which today linked the first reference to the country “China” in a story about the upcoming Beijing Olympics to… a page listing China’s medal count from the most recent Olympics, in 2006. In Turin, Italy.
The three principle reasons for hyperlinking within an article are to cite an attribution, to provide context for an article, and to reward readers with an “easter egg.”
Examples of this type of hyperlinking would be the court records I referenced in my Sept. 2007 piece for OJR, Don’t forget the value of hyperlinking, as well as research papers, census databases and other pages on the Web. (Like how I just linked my previous OJR story.)
Attribution hyperlinks provide readers with the opportunity to delve into original source information, at a deeper level than the writer provided in his or her article. That not only rewards the curious reader, it helps a writer and his or her news organization build credibility with a skeptical audience.
Ideally, a news story will provide within its copy the context that a reader needs to understand the piece. But some stories are so complex that an author will not want to risk testing the patience of loyal readers by rehashing basic info they already know. In these cases, a link to background information can help bring new readers up to speed, while allowing more informed visitors to read ahead without distraction. (This is how Wikipedia’s built a ton of inbound links over the years, and why news organizations ought to consider more frequent use of standing reference articles on their websites.)
Contextual hyperlinks can links to the definition of an unfamiliar term (see, for some readers, the “easter egg” link above). They also can help explain gags that the author attempted but that some readers might not immediately get (see, for many *more* readers, the “set it and forget it” joke above).
3. Easter eggs
These, like the easter eggs hidden in DVDs and video games, are there just for the amusement of writer and audience alike. They defy too much explanation and analysis, as their purpose is simply to provide a little humor. Just, please, for the love of all that is holy, do not let it be a yet another Rick Roll.
Ultimately, the addition of useful hyperlinking within an online news story reflects the strong reporting of its author. If a reporter does not know of online pages with extra information relating to the story, he or she cannot link to them. But if you have that information, why not share it with those readers who are eager for it? In a hyper-competitive online news market, writers and their publishers need every advantage they can offer against other websites.
The test: When to link?
Though I promised not to tread on Nielsen’s turf, for clarity’s sake, two or more links should not bump against one another, leading to readers to believe that they are seeing just one link. Nor should linked text make up more than a small fraction of the text on the page. For that reason, online writer do better to link a key word of clause within a sentence, and rarely an entire sentence, when inserting a link.
To conclude, here is my four-question test for online writers to keep in mind as they consider how, and where, to link within their stories:
1. Does the URL to which I am referring the reader reward him or her with additional content that a reader of this story likely did not know, or know how to get easily?
2. Does the text I am selecting to link this text give the reader an obvious clue as to what the hyperlinked page will contain?
3. Am I using the shortest possible amount of text to provide that clue?
4. Would the content of the linked text, or the context surrounding it, reasonably mislead the reader into believing that the linked page contains something other than what it does?
If the answers to these questions are yes, yes, yes and no, you’re good to go with the link.