Mar
30
2015

Inline links – challenging to the reader and the writer

We don’t advocate inline links on our University website. In fact, the current corporate content management system (CMS) Polopoly, won’t allow them. At present, the new CMS EdWeb will but this may change in future. I thought it was a good point to go over why we’ve set the policy, and clarify a few things for fans of inline links.

First off, what’s an inline link?

When I talk about inline links I mean links like this that appear in the flow of a paragraph. At the University Website Programme, we have long advocated links to appear in their own right at the end of paragraphs instead.

This is how we advocate links be presented

The debate about link structuring

There’s a fair bit of debate on the topic of links appearing within the flow of a paragraph but no writing I’ve seen seems to focus on the web editor.

The articles I’ve read are always writers writing for writers, talking about the reader. The reader is important of course; critically important. But the thing is, so is the writer, and on our website and on many others (in the public sector at least) a significant number of editors are non-specialist and have very little time for the task. That’s little time for editing and publishing, and even less for reviewing and improving.

When I wrote my rationale for link style on the University of Edinburgh website a few years ago, I had the CMS editor in mind just as much as I had the website visitor.

While I’ve got nothing against inline links when done well, I just feel that more often than not they’re not done well. A sometimes cryptic collection of words united in a hyperlink with no title to properly express what I’ll get if I click it. And distracting – do I read on or do I click the link? – a question coming up again and again as I read.

In the end, I think it’s just so much easier to do a better job of writing accessible and usable link text if it’s pulled out of the paragraph and presented in its own right. You don’t have to be a great writer to do this reasonably well, and to do it right right first time. Consistently.

We’re always looking to raise the standard of content accessibility and usability across tens of thousands of university web pages written autonomously by hundreds of web editors. I think that avoiding inline links has helped us towards this goal.

Rationale for link style on the University of Edinburgh website (PDF)

In his blog, I’d Rather Be Writing, Tom Johnson writes about how he came round to being comfortable with no inline links. His article quotes a range of research that supports his thoughts. In a nutshell, the research suggests that reading speed and comprehension is impeded by inline links.

In other words, the more hyperlinks that you embed within your sentences, the less readable your posts become because the brain must make a decision with each link whether to click it for more information or keep reading. After several of these links, your brain starts to take on more cognitive load. As a result, it’s easier to get sidetracked with tangents or to lose retention of the content.

In other words, the more hyperlinks that you embed within your sentences, the less readable your posts become because the brain must make a decision with each link whether to click it for more information or keep reading. After several of these links, your brain starts to take on more cognitive load. As a result, it’s easier to get sidetracked with tangents or to lose retention of the content.

Removing Inline Links to Increase Readability – blog post by Tom Johnson

Further reading on my blog

I originally wrote a version of this post on my blog.

Inline links – challenging to the reader and the writer – usability ed post from November 2013

I previously blogged a couple of articles about writing good link text which, while using inline links, illustrate how to it well.

Link writing advice – usability ed post from November 2011

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