December 18, 2017

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.

  • Writing For the Web and Mobile in Chicago

    People devote 86% of their time and attention to the upper two-thirds of a mobile screen, according to a study by Briggsby.

    Chicago Writing For the Web and Mobile workshopAt Writing For the Web and Mobile — a two-day digital writing Master Class on June 12-13, 2018 in Chicago — you’ll learn to reach them where their eyes are.

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    • Organize your webpage using the temple structure. Designed for the web, it's the most effective way to help visitors find what they're looking for online.
    • Choose from 5 types of web leads that work. And learn 3 common approaches to avoid.
    • Tear down obstacles to reading your webpage by passing The Palm Test.
    • Get found and clicked. Help Google and humans figure out what your piece is about with 6 quick tricks.
    • Pass the 80/20 test. Put your key messages where readers will be 84% more likely to find them.

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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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