Links distract readers; embed them anyway
Laura Miller has joined the growing movement toward delinkification. Instead of embedding links in the body of her columns, the senior editor at Salon is listing them at the bottom.
Links are a distraction. Always have been. That split second we spend asking ourselves, “click?” draws our attention away from the copy and makes it harder for us to follow the writer’s train of thought.
And that doesn’t count the cognitive juice we spend when we actually do click — even if we don’t take topical sidebars. Somehow, in the course of researching this piece, for instance, I learned about Amazon’s new PayPhrase and visited the blog of a “mild-mannered, 28-year-old, former econ nerd.”
We now know that that distraction follows us from the browser into the boardroom, thanks to Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Pointing and clicking our way through the hyperworld, it seems, makes it harder for us to concentrate in the real one.
Now, where was I?
Oh, yes. So, what’s the best way to link?
How to handle links in a world of distraction
Given what we know about how links affect concentration, what’s the best way to link on your own website?
The web is a hunting-and-gathering device. Use it to deliver nuggets of information: your Chicago office address, maybe, or a list of your palliative care services.
But the web’s not so hot at helping people understand long, complex ideas. Building a linear argument? Put it on paper.
There’s a reason The Shallows is a book, not a website. I’m reading Carr on my Kindle.
2. Place links where they’ll do readers the most good.
Edward Tufte, “the da Vinci of data,” argues against footnotes. Footnotes, he says, make readers look to the bottom of the page, or — worse — to another page to find the citation.
Instead, he suggests, run “sidenotes” in a scholar’s margin along the side of the page. Sidenotes put the citation right next to the information itself — “just as God intended,” Tufte says.
Same thing with links. Use embedded links to connect readers to related material as you introduce it. If you have additional resources, describe and link them at the bottom of your page.
3. Limit your links.
Links are like road signs. Each one invites your reader to consider a different destination. Guide your reader down the right road — don’t distract her by pointing out every off ramp.
Besides, “every link [becomes] a maintenance issue,” say Yale’s Patrick J. Lynch and Dartmouth’s Sarah Horten.
Do yourself and your reader a favor: Link wisely.
4. Make your page “context-independent, self-contained.”
A resource list might make a great webpage, but it ain’t an article.
“Hyperlinks can become a crutch or a mask for someone who hasn’t really thought about what she wants to say,” Miller says. “[Your page] should be able to stand on its own when read by anyone who doesn’t want to wade through the original 40-page report or skim every blog posting and newspaper story on a subject.”
Build an argument, not a link list. Links should reinforce your message, not replace it.
5. Open links in a new browser.
Unless you’re linking within your website, create links that open in a new browser page. Then readers can visit related pages sequentially, not flip back and forth between resources.
Keep them short, make them clear and write about the topic, not the mechanics. After all, “click here” and “read more” steal your reader’s attention without offering anything in return.
Your brain on Google
By nature, the web is a distracting medium. But we’re not going to solve that by bunching our links at the bottom of our webpages.
As for the way our beautiful, plastic brains are adapting to suit online hunting and gathering? Whether that adaptation is a blessing or a curse is for the future to see.
Carr himself, in the Atlantic Magazine article that preceded his book, shares a story about how human minds adapted to new technology some 400 years before the birth of Christ.
Socrates lamented in Plato’s Phaedrus that this development would cause humans to “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” Because we’d be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” he fretted, people would be “thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” And we’d be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”
Turns out Socrates was right.
The technology? Writing.
Sources: Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic Magazine, July/August 2008
Jason Fry, “Maximizing the values of the link: Credibility, readability, connectivity,” Nieman Journalism Lab, June 7, 2010
Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton, “Imprudent Linking Weaves a Tangled Web,” Computer, July 1997
Laura Miller, “The hyperlink war,” Salon.com, June 9, 2010
Laura Miller, “Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain,” Salon.com, May 9, 2010
Matt Ritchel, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price,” The New York Times, June 6, 2010