Get clicked by writing good link text
Users look for links on pages like puppies look for your best shoes.
Or so say Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, the authors of How People Read on the Web.
They should know. The authors studied more than 300 people using hundreds of different websites for a total of 1.5 million fixations — or “looks” — and recordings that comprise more than 300 GB of data.
Links have superpowers …
Here are some other reasons that links matter:
1. Readers look at links.
Web visitors typically focus on link text when they scan a page, writes Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group.
Want to put your key messages where readers’ eyes are?
|Where web visitors looked|
|Story lists (headlines that linked to stories)||35%|
|Clickable teaser text or related-story summaries||27%|
|All other elements||20%|
|Source: The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack 07 study|
Embed them in your clickable elements — links, story lists and teaser text, according to Eyetrack07, a Poynter Institute eye-tracking study. Those elements account for nearly half the “eye stops” — we non-scientists call this “looking” — on the web.
This finding gives us one more reason to write better links. Links draw web visitors’ eyes — and skimmers don’t read the surrounding text — so it’s essential to make yours more substantive than Click here or Read more.
Focus your attention on links, story lists and teaser copy. That’s where you’re most likely to reach readers online.
2. Links are scannable.
Users often skim for links and headings before they read other elements, according to Pernice et al. And they use links not just to get somewhere, but also to get a sense of what the page is about.
3. Links help SEO.
Search engines use linked anchor text as one clue to what the page or document is about. So good link writing can help boost your search-engine ranking.
4. Links increase social media reach and influence.
5. Links are a service to visitors.
Worried that external links might lead your visitor to another site?
“In online media, relevant links are always a service,” writes Amy Gahran, media consultant and content strategist. “In fact, if you mention something in a story for which you could include a relevant direct link and fail to do so, you’re probably only going to frustrate and eventually alienate your online audience.”
6. Links increase credibility.
Links to other sites increase credibility by more than 30%, writes Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group.
Providing links to other sites “is a sign of confidence, and third-party sites are much more credible than anything you can say yourself,” he writes. “Isolated sites feel like they have something to hide.”
7. Links get reciprocated.
Finally, Gahran says, you get what you give on the web.
Inbound links are essential to both website traffic and SEO. Visitors arriving by way of a link from a third party are more likely to pay closer attention to your site.
“If you don’t give many relevant links,” Gahran writes, “it’s unlikely you’ll get many in return.”
… But links are distracting.
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.
Why this movement against embedded links like this one? Among them:
1. Links are distracting.
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.”
Links “foster a kind of attention deficit disorder, creating casual, easily distracted surfers instead of committed, engaged readers,” writes Jan H. Spyridakis, professor at the University of Washington College of Engineering.
We now know that that distraction follows us from the browser into the boardroom, thanks to Nicholas Carr’s 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. What are other problems with links?
2. It’s harder to get clicked on mobile.
Half of your audience members now visit your web pages, look at your email messages and browse your social media channels via their mobile devices, not their laptops. Problem is, mobile readers click 40% less often, according to Mailchimp.
Blame Fat Fingers/No Bars Syndrome. After spending a few hundred seconds waiting for a page to load on our smartphones before our streetcar stop, we’ve learned better than to try to click the right tiny button on our phones.
As a result, a mere 3.8%, on average, of people who view emails on their laptops or desktops click on at least one link. But only 2.7% of people who look at emails on their mobile devices click on at least one link.
Mobile readers also click on fewer links — 42% fewer than desktop or laptop users and 30% fewer than tablet users:
- Desktop or laptop users click on an average of 6.7% of links
- Tablet users: 5.6%
- Smartphone users: 3.9%
3. Links can discombobulate people.
- Readers will likely read the link first. As a result, they’ll read the sentence out of order, writes Spyridakis. That makes it harder to understand.
- The more links on a page, the harder it is for users to answer test questions in a study, writes Jared M. Spool, CEO and founding principal of User Interface Engineering.
- The more embedded links on a page, the harder it is for visitors to find what they were looking for, Spool’s research found.
4. Links can lead web visitors astray
External links can also take visitors to another site. (Not that visitors don’t know how to do that without a link.) And that makes some folks shy away from including external links.
Plus: Following embedded links “can be the web’s equivalent of traveling without an itinerary,” write P. Lynch and S. Horton in the Yale C/AIM Web style guide.
Link writing resources
Ready to write better links? Learn how to:
- Polish your link writing
- Write links that aren’t too long or short
- Avoid overlinking
- Format links
- Write press release links
“Impact of Mobile Use on Email Engagement,” MailChimp, Aug. 8, 2017
Michael Bernard, Sprint Hull and Denise Drake, “Where should you put the links? A comparison of four locations,” Usability News, Jan. 10, 2002
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
Amy Gahran, “External Links from Stories Are a Service, Not a Threat,” Poynter, updated March 3, 2011
Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton, “Imprudent Linking Weaves a Tangled Web,” Computer, July 1997
Lynch and S. Horton, “Yale C/AIM Web style guide,” 1997
Marieke McCloskey, “Writing Hyperlinks: Salient, Descriptive, Start with Keyword,” Nielsen Norman Group, March 9, 2014
Laura Miller, “The hyperlink war,” Salon.com, June 9, 2010
Laura Miller, “Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain,” Salon.com, May 9, 2010
Jakob Nielsen, “Trust or Bust: Communicating Trustworthiness in Web Design,” Nielsen Norman Group, March 7, 1999
Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen; How People Read on the Web: The Eyetracking Evidence; Nielsen Norman Group; Sept. 10, 2013
Matt Ritchel, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price,” The New York Times, June 6, 2010
Jared Spool, Tara Scanlon, Will Schroeder, Carolyn Snyder and Terri DeAngelo: Web site usability: A designer’s guide (PDF). User Interface Engineering (North Andover, Mass.), 1997
Pegie Stark Adam, Sara Quinn and Rick Edmonds, Eyetracking The News, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 2007
Jan H. Spyridakis, “Guidelines for Authoring Comprehensible Web Pages and Evaluating Their Success” (PDF), Technical Communications, August 2000