The Great Inline Link Debate


Inline LinksOn her blog, The Link Spiel, the always smart and interesting Debra Mastaler asks, "Can You Handle On-Page Links?" The post is a response to Nicholas Carr's post "Experiments in Delinkification" on Rough Type, as well as a post by Marshall Kirkpatrick called "The Case Against Links" (also responding to Carr).

Carr writes that he is beginning to come around to his friend Steve Gillmor's way of thinking about hyperlinks—that is, that inline links are a needless distraction and should be done away with or moved to the end of an article. His reasoning goes:

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It's also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What's good about a link - its propulsive force - is also what's bad about it.

I disagree with his assessment of the relative "violence" of footnotes and hyperlinks. I personally find footnotes to be far more distracting, because they pull my eyes down and away from my place on the page; I tend to feel a compulsive need, as though forced, to at least glance at the bottom of the page to see what the footnote is about, but in general I always feel obligated to read it right then. It's there on the page and if I go onto the next page without having read it, I feel like I've skipped something potentially important. (I assume this is why some publishers favor endnotes to footnotes.)

I feel no such compunction to click every inline link. Why? Because they reference information that exists on another page. I interpret a link as a courtesy—there in case I am interested in seeking out additional information—rather than a requirement. I can read a full page of text online without clicking any of the links, and feel confident that I've finished that text without skipping anything. Links, to my mind, are more like the suggestions for further reading that sometimes appear at the end of a chapter or a book, rather than footnotes. (I wonder if comfort with links could be a generational thing?)

As Debra points out, Carr says "studies show" that "People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less … than those who read the same material in printed form," but he doesn't link to said studies so readers can assess them on their own. I immediately question the design of the studies—there are many other factors that make reading online different from reading in print (eye fatigue, column width, ads and images, etc.). How can we be sure these studies were controlled for those factors, if it's even possible?

In any case, even if we concede that "the absence of links encourages more concentrated, calmer, and more enjoyable reading" as Carr claims, the question remains: Is the goal of every website concentrated, calm, and enjoyable reading? Not really, right? The goal of most business websites in conversions, and it's hard to make conversions happen without links. (For a little evidence that links help drive conversions, check out this cool case study on "copy vs. design," in which Brian Massey illustrates how a slick new design can fail to increase conversions. In-copy offers and links are cited as one of the reasons the more old-fashioned-looking website had a higher conversion rate.)

Debra basically finds Carr's post silly and condescending:

Here at the Link Spiel we’re going to stick with linking out from the body of the copy, we know our readers can handle clicking, reading, and returning to our blog. We feel the whole link clicking thing is akin to walking and talking or eating and reading, it’s possible to do it without getting distracted. Hopefully we’re in the majority with this line of thinking, I’d hate to see people change what’s natural, helpful and algorithmically efficient. Nobody puts our link baby in a corner.  

Kirkpatrick doesn't really come down on one side or the other; he seems to find Gillmor's and Carr's arguments compelling but isn't fully convinced. The main takeaway I got from his piece is that the lack of links therein made it hard to skim. Seriously. My eyes had nothing to latch onto.

This goes back to Carr's point about calm, concentrated reading—what if your readers aren't calm?! What if they don't want to concentrate!? Sometimes online readers are busy and aren't actually inclined to focus completely on one piece of text. They want to skim it to find the information they need as quickly as possible and leave the rest of the piece behind. That's where I was with Kirkpatrick's post—I was hurried and looking for his quick take on the matter, but basically had to read the whole thing to get to the (non-)conclusion that links, like everything else web-related, are still an open question.

(BTW, it was an open question four years ago too, when Joe Dolson responded to posts by Michael Gray and Bill Slawski on the exact same subject. Who says this industry is changing all the time?)

Have a great weekend, all.

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Jonathan Daniel
Jun 05, 2010

I personally would rather see links throughout the copy. Now that I think about it, I don't use footnotes at all. This may be why my opinion is so. When I read articles and see hypertext throughout it, it kind of gives me the sense that what I am reading is not the end of the knowledge I can gain on the subject I'm researching. I often get tired of hitting the back button on the browser just to find the next article on the subject I'm researching. I am a person who likes to learn and learn and learn. So hyperlinks throughout content kind of subliminally lets me know "this is not the end of the knowledge you can gain on this matter." I hardly pay attention to footnotes at all. Sometimes I convert speech to text, and that is the only time I actually hear footnotes. That's often interrupting. This is a great post! It really identifies with me and my reading preferences.

Elisa Gabbert
Jun 07, 2010

Often when I see a link within an article that I want to investigate further, I right-click the link to open that page in a new tab. That way I can continue reading what I started reading first, then move on to the related material without too much interruption.
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