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No Weak Links

How many ways are there to weaken Web site links? I count at least 23. Improve your Web site's usability by eliminating the weak links.

I'd been planning to update my Web site and to add several new links. I also have some ancient links that I'd like to eliminate. Before getting started, I decided to document the latest thinking on creating useful, usable Web links. Two days later, I finally came up for air. After sorting through all the information, I came up with 23 distinct varieties of weak Web links!

1. Broken

Broken links happen for a variety of reasons. Pages are deleted, Web sites are renamed, URLs in links are mistyped when they're authored. If you don't want to annoy the visitors to your Web site, you'll need to retest your links frequently and repair broken links as soon as you find them.

Have you carelessly broken any incoming links? Incoming links are priceless for introducing new visitors to your site. So don't throw them away by deleting old pages. Whether you move a single page or restructure your entire site, replace the content on the old pages with redirects to reorganized content. If you need to delete an obsolete page, keep the URL and redirect the visitor to similar, current information.

2. Wrong

Have you ever linked to a great article that's located on another Web site's home page? Beware! When that home page is updated with a new article on a totally different topic, your link will be wrong. When you retest for broken links, make sure you also take the time to review the working links for correctness.

3. Orphaned

Orphaned links are kissing cousins to broken links. They happen when you create a page but forget to link to it, mistype the link, or replace the link with another. The orphaned page is on your site, but no other page on your site links to it. Granted, an orphaned link may not bother the visitor to your site. If the link is simply missing, they'll never know the page is there. Nevertheless, you would be irritated to learn that these pages are going unviewed -- and visitors will be upset by incorrect links.

4. Slow

It can be slow linking to busy and low-bandwidth sites. Think twice about whether you need to include slow links on your Web site. Links are also slow when they lead to huge pages. Please do your visitors a favor and mark these links. You can easily show the size next to the link.

5. Embedded

The book offsite link.Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide describes embedded links as those links that are contained within other text. It discusses usability test findings that show that embedded links make it harder for visitors to pick out the desired link. According to the test findings, separating the link's description by a line break helps the user select the appropriate link when searching for specific information within a set of links.

When links are contained within other text, it is harder for users to pick the link they want. Theoretically, this is because users skim rather than read. When users are searching for something specific, they scan a page looking for relevant links. If they must stop, back up, and read the surrounding material to understand the context, they will go more slowly.

On the other hand, if the link itself contains or is followed by a description of its content, users can more readily eliminate those links that don't apply. They only have to look more closely at those they haven't eliminated.

6. Miscolored

There's no single correct answer for setting link colors. Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen argues that Web sites should always follow the convention that blue identifies unvisited links and red indicates visited links. Another common convention is to use the same color for unvisited and visited links, but to make the unvisited links twice as bright. This calls attention to the unvisited links and allows the visited links to recede into the rest of the text without being lost entirely. Never use the same color for visited and unvisited links.

7. Confusing

Have you ever encountered a long Web page that includes a table of contents at the top with links to sections within the page? This can be confusing to visitors who expect the more common approach of jumping to another page on the Web site. After clicking back and forth to read the table of contents links, visitors are likely to scroll down to finish reading the page, only to discover they've already read the entire page.

8. Misdirected

Confusion also may result when Web sites attempt to help visitors navigate by offering Next and Previous links. Consider the case where the visitor reads pages one, two, and three, and then clicks page three's Previous link to reread page two. If the visitor then clicks the browser's Back button, it will return to page one -- right? Wrong. The browser will return to page three, the most recently viewed page. A Web page's Previous link and the browser's Back button are the same thing only in the visitor's mental model. In actuality they will often conflict.

9. Off-putting

Sending your visitors off-site through external links can be off-putting. Give serious thought about how to link effectively to other sites, while still enabling visitors to easily explore your site. For example, you probably shouldn't include external links from the main page of your site.

Many Web sites let visitors know that a link will jump to another site by offering a visible clue -- typically in the form of a small icon (often a tiny globe) next to the text link. This puts the visitors in control and makes it easy for them to choose to finish reviewing your Web site before leaving it.

Some Web sites try to force a hold on visitors by opening a new browser window for every link to an external Web site. But taking control of a visitor's screen real estate is unacceptably rude. It is also confusing. If the new window opens maximized, the unaware visitor may be caught off guard by the disabled Back button.

10. Unfocused

Consider carefully your goals and the goals of your target visitors when evaluating linked content. Then eliminate both internal and external links that are not clearly focused on achieving these goals.

11. Inferior

Poor quality links will detract from your image in the minds of your visitors just as surely as high quality links will enhance your image. This is true for both internal and external links. Don't worry that external links will drive visitors away from your site. If they are valuable links, they will enrich the value of your Web site, and visitors will return for more of the same.

12. Offbeat

You may attempt to win friends and influence enemies with offbeat, joking, or silly links. On the other hand, these links may cause you to lose friends, make new enemies, and contribute to Web rage. If you want to take a risk with such links, be considerate. Warn your visitors by using descriptive text to make it clear these are not serious links or by flagging these links with a special icon (such as a tiny clown face).

13. Empty

Here's another great way to annoy your visitors. Link to pages empty of content, but be sure to label them "under construction."

14. Unexpected

Because the vast majority of links are to other Web pages, any other links will be unexpected. Do your visitors a favor by warning them about links to other types of files such as PDFs, DOCs, and ZIPs. Let them know how large the files are and what software may be required to use the files.

Similarly, let your visitors know when a link is an e-mail link. When I encounter a link on someone's name, I expect to jump to a biographical page. I almost always want to read about someone before e-mailing that person. So don't startle your visitors by launching their e-mail program unexpectedly. A link labeled "send e-mail to John Doe" will make your intentions clear.

15. Disorganized

Embedded links (see number 5) make it harder for visitors to pick out the desired link. If you have a lot of links, organize them -- in bulleted lists, in the margin of the page, or at the end of the page -- to help your visitors stay focused on the content of the page.

If your Web site is organized hierarchically, consider leaving what Web designers call a trail of bread crumbs. A set of hierarchical text links at the top of the page, such a trail is designed to guide your visitors back to previous levels in the hierarchy.

Screenshot: Breadcrumb links on WebMonkey.com.

16. Nondescript

Don't waste your visitors' time by making them click on a link in order to find out its purpose. One or two word links will seldom be clear on their own. Try not to make your visitors read an entire surrounding sentence or paragraph in order to decipher the link. Instead, explicitly describe the link in the link text itself or, if necessary, in a description immediately following the link.

17. Meaningless

Meaningless links are another form of irritation. "Click here to link" tells the visitor nothing. Make sure the link comprises text that clarifies the linked page's content.

18. Wrapped

Don't go overboard in an attempt to write descriptive text links (see number 16). If a link is so long that it wraps to two lines, it will look like two links, and some of your visitors are sure to find it confusing.

19. Unclear

Make an extra effort to clarify text links by adding the title attribute. You code it this way:

<a href="../company/about_cjp.aspx" 
title="Biographical information for Constance Petersen">my bio</a>

In newer browsers, you'll see the title text (in the form of a tooltip on Windows or balloon help on a Macintosh) when the mouse moves over the link. Newer auditory browsers will read the text aloud and not display it visually.

20. Overwhelming

Have you ever seen a page where every other word is a link to another page? It's simply overwhelming. You don't know where to look or what to focus on. Unless your intent is to confuse, don't do it.

21. Unreciprocated

Unreciprocated links are links which send visitors to other Web sites, but don't send visitors back to you. To help bring new visitors to your site, try to obtain reciprocating links. However, don't let this stop you from providing your visitors with useful, high-quality external links (see number 11).

22. Ambiguous

Quick! What's the difference between a Western Union Mailgram, Cablegram, Opiniongram, and Telegram? Avoid using ambiguous terms, and your users won't have to waste time spelunking multiple links in an attempt to guess which one holds the information they desire.

Screenshot: Ambiguous links on WesternUnion.com.

23. Indistinguishable

If I want to book a flight on Travelocity.com on a specific day at the best possible price, do I select "Find/Book a Flight," "Find the Best Fare," or "Special Deals"?

Screenshot: Indistiguishable links on Travelocity.com.

The links on my Web site aren't exactly 90-pound weak links, but neither are they muscle bound. Check back in a few weeks, after I've had a chance to apply these 23 tips.

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