Writing for the web: Hyperlinks

Hyperlinks create connections

Hyperlinks connect one image or piece of text with another part of the same web page, a page somewhere else on the same site, or a file somewhere else on the web. If it isn’t clear where a link is supposed to go, there’s something wrong with the link: on most sites, a visitor should not be surprised by the result of clicking on a link.

Links to other sites can be risky, as you have no way of knowing when the other site is rebuilt: the domain name could be sold and the content completely replaced, so site maintenance must include a regular program of checking all external links. It is good practice to let people know if they’re going to leave your site: sometimes a small icon is used for this.

Text hyperlinks should rarely be more than five or six words long – button text is generally only one or two words. Avoid ‘clever’ names for programs or products unless your audience is already familiar with them. Ginny Redish gives the example of a link ‘Children’s Compass’ on the British Museum’s site which led to online tours. (The site has been redesigned and this link no longer exists.)

Avoid ‘click here’ (and more …)! If it looks like a hyperlink, anyone who has been using the web for more than five minutes knows they will need to click to activate it. Ideally, every link should make sense out of context, and be unique on the page: this means that when someone using a screen reader chooses a list of the links on a page, each of them makes sense.

Linking to download files

When you link to something other than an HTML file, or a point within an HTML file, the file must be downloaded to the user’s computer. It may appear within the existing browser window, within a new browser window, or within its own application (PDF files may appear within the browser or within an Acrobat Reader window).

Before including a download file, consider what advantages it has over HTML. PDF is often used where a particular format needs to be preserved (e.g. for some forms). If you provide content in an HTML page and also offer a second copy in another format, you need to ensure that both are updated together.

Within the link to a download file, include the file type and size, so that users can be confident that they have the right software to read it and that it isn’t likely to crash their system (e.g. download A guide to writing hyperlinks [PDF, 3MB]).

Where to place your link

A link is an invitation to go somewhere else. Each time you add a hyperlink, consider whether it would be better placed within the flow of text or at the end of a document: on the one hand in-text links are immediate and their context is clear; on the other they may break up visitors’ ‘flow’.

The test is to put yourself in a reader’s shoes, thinking of the task they’ve come to your site to complete. Will the link move them forward or distract them? There is no one right answer.

Further reading

Redish, Janice (2007) Letting go of the words: writing web content that works. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.