Good Hyperlink, Bad Hyperlink

by chromatic

Related link:

Writing for books is far different than writing for the web, at least when it comes to hyperlinks. Until the day someone invents a mouse for dead trees (or ink on paper stops being a great way to find information), books have to print hyperlinks without descriptive titles.

Web pages are far, far different though too many of them ignore that difference. Weblogs are particularly bad. (That sentence could have multiple meanings.)

The greatest sin of bad hyperlinking is not linking a link at all. The rule here is very simple. If you're writing in a web page and want to give a link to another page, make it an actual, clickable link.

The next sin is omitting the link title. See the link to Martin Hardee's weblog up above here? That's a terrible example of a link; there's almost no context at all. The only good news is that Martin's provided an anchor which gives some indication of the link destination. Most links aren't that useful. Links have titles for a reason; use them.

The third sin is even more prevalent -- it's giving links bad titles. "Click here" is one. "This" is another. Rephrasing an example from an article I'm editing right now (I don't want to ridicule an author, but I do want to improve technical writing for the web), you might see:

You can see more details in <a href="some_file.cfg">my</a> system configuration.

I changed the link title to something like my some_file.cfg file. Now the link title describes its destination; there's no surprise to the user.

One of the dozens of things Ward Cunningham did right in the Portland Pattern Repository wiki code is to JoinCapitalizedWords
to link to other wiki pages. Without any special syntax to make ironic or alternate link titles, users don't have to go to any trouble to make coherent links! They happen naturally, in the flow of the text.

It's true that writing an article that describes how to download and install, say, the latest version of MisterHouse, needs more complicated hyperlinks, but it doesn't take much extra work on the writer's part to make life much, much easier for multiple readers.

There are occasions where the style of writing allows for ironic linking (or bad linking, as I did above for didactic purposes). However, in technical writing, links are a tool for clarity. Used properly, they can provide powerful background or backchannel information. Used improperly, they will distract from the writing.

The final sin is overlinking, but if people start providing decent link titles, I'm happy to delete an extra hyperlink or two now and then.

Yep, it's my pet peeve of the day. What do you say?