Polish your online road signs

Write links that tell visitors where they’re going

If you saw a road sign that said, “go here,” “drive more” or “road sign,” would you follow it? Probably not.

Polish your online road signs

Now that’s a road sign Are your links as informative? Image by Zach Savinar

And if you saw a link that said, “click here,” “read more” or “link,” would you click it? Probably not.

Think of your link as a road sign. Like a road sign, the best links are clear, complete and self-contained.

“Links should have good information scent,” writes Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group. “That is, they must clearly explain where they will take users.”

1. Make them stand on their own.

When your links are too short or incomplete, readers have to go back and read the surrounding words to understand the link. But readers should be able to understand your link without reading the rest of the text.

So write links that stand on their own. What would you say in the link if you knew it was all the customer would see?

After all, you wouldn’t click links these links without knowing more about them, would you?

  • Video
  • Piece
  • Says
  • Covered
  • Too Much
  • Karl Deisseroth
  • Weed
Weakest links

The weakest links Write links that stand on their own. These links are so short, the reader needs to read more to understand them.

2. Use the words in your readers’ heads.

Not the words in your head.

Web visitors found the information they were looking for 72% of the time when the words in their head — aka “trigger words” — appeared on the webpage, according to a study by User Interface Engineering.

But when those trigger words didn’t appear on the webpage, visitors found what they were looking for only 6% of the time. That means the ROI on familiar words, at least in this study, was 1,200%.

This isn’t the first time short, familiar words have trumped their opposites in research. High-frequency words (those that are used often and so are familiar) and short words are easier for readers to recognize and understand than unfamiliar or long words, according to classic research by linguist George Kingsley Zipf.

To use the words in your readers’ heads:

  • Don’t use product names or other internal terms as links. Instead of “Rosetta Stone,” writes Stacey Wilson, president of Eloquor Consulting, call it “language learning modules.”
  • Choose short words. They’re easier to process and understand.
  • Spell out acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms, suggests Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. This is helpful for all users, especially for those using screen readers. Exceptions: Abbreviations like DVD that have become widely used words.

3. Front-load the topic word.

Web visitors usually read just the first two words of a link, according to research by the Nielsen Norman Group.

That means the best links start with the most important words, writes Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group.

So front-load your links with the topic word.

Instead of Read the new issue of Rev Up Readership, for instance, McCloskey would have you write, Read the new issue of Rev Up Readership.

So drop from your link, McCloskey suggests, words like:

  • Read more about who we are
  • Read the latest issue
  • View more videos
  • Visit the answers website

And if product or division named include the company name, drop it, Nielsen suggests. Instead of FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery, for instance, write Express, Ground and Home Delivery.

4. Place links at the ends of sentences.

That’s less disruptive to reading, writes Jan H. Spyridakis, professor at the University of Washington College of Engineering.

5. Don’t repeat link text.

When users see the same link text twice on the same page, McCloskey reports, they assume that both go to the same place. So if the second link refers to a different page, write a unique link.

  • Get to the point faster

    Because web visitors spend 80% of their time above the fold

    Consider the numbers:

    • Web visitors spend 80% of the time above the fold, or on the first screen of a webpage, and just 20% below the fold.
    • Material near the top of a webpage gets 17x the attention of that near the bottom.
    • The average difference in how users treat information above vs. below the fold is 84%.

    Get to the point faster

    But where’s the fold? Content that shows up above the fold on a 30-inch monitor can take as many as five screens on a smartphone.

    Reach readers where their eyes are.

    So how can you reach your readers where their eyes are?

    At Writing for the Web and Mobile — our two-day hands-on web-writing master class on June 12-13 in Chicago — you’ll learn how to:

    • Pass the 1-2-3-4 test to put your message where web visitors' eyes are. Tip: Try this simple test on your smartphone for best results.
    • Make it a mullet — and 4 more steps for writing effective web heads. (No. 5 is the most important thing you can do to improve the ROI of your site.)
    • Optimize webpages for Google and humans with our three-part test. Note: If you're still using SEO tricks you learned in the 'oughts, Google may be penalizing your pages.
    • Don't drop the deck. Learn to make the most of the best-read element on your webpage.
    • Steal headline-writing tips from the BBC — the source of the best news heads on the web, according to Nielsen.


Sources: Marieke McCloskey, “Writing Hyperlinks: Salient, Descriptive, Start with Keyword,” Nielsen Norman Group, March 9, 2014

Jared M. Spool, “The Right Trigger Words,” User Interface Engineering, Nov. 15, 2004

Jan H. Spyridakis, “Guidelines for Authoring Comprehensible Webpages and Evaluating Their Success” (PDF), Technical Communications, August 2000

G.K. Zipf, Human behavior and the principle of least effort; Addison-Wesley (Reading, Mass.), 1949

Gerry McGovern, “Tips for writing great links,” New Thinking, Jan. 22, 2012

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