To link or not to link: is that the question?

By Grant Jacobs 01/06/2010 7

For some, anyway.

With apologies to Shakespeare:*

To link, or not to link: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to not know

The slings and arrows of the source,

Or to take arms against a sea of urban myth,

And by linking end them? …

An on-going debate amongst some is that articles from the media ought to contain links to sources and where these ought to be placed.

Nick Carr has written a blog post querying if links should be placed within the body of an article, arguing that their altered style distracts attention from the flow of the text and argument, and that thus links should be placed at the end of articles.

Good insight.

But he has presented this as a writing style question.

I’d like to suggest another angle, that this isn’t a writing problem; it’s a web document design problem.

Perhaps the question is not to link within the body of the article or not, but how to best present documents on the WWW.

Links don’t have to be represented in any particular way. The ’classic’ style, hailing from the early WWW, is for them to be underlined and coloured in blue. No web designer has to present them this way, and haven’t for some time.

Good web design uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to describe the style of all elements on a website. This includes links. They don’t have to be blue. They don’t have to be underlined. That’s just convention. They can be anything you want. You can even leave them ’invisible’ – i.e. in the same style as the body text – unless the mouse is rolled over them if you wanted to. On sciblogs they’re blue but not underlined.

Use of underlines and colour does ’grab’ attention. Use more subtle themes if what you have seems too bold. Longer articles probably favour more subtle design.

What I really want to get at, and am working towards, is that not only do links not have to be in a particular style, they don’t have to be static: they can be dynamically altered.

A while back I developed the beginnings of a e-Document format, hoping to use this as a lead-in for writing on-line documentation for computational biology (my specialist area). I’ve been ’programming’ on the WWW since just before the first HTML standard (HTML 1.0), so I research document design and spent time thinking about how documents are presented in print and what might be added to an HTML-based presentation that resulted in some features I rarely see.

One concept my approach featured was to have documents adapt to what a user wants. Pull-down menus offered readers choices as to how they wanted the material presented to them and Javascript code enacted the changes.

Rather remove the links from the body of the article, provide a means for readers to hide them if they prefer to read ’plain text.’ They can reveal them later if they want to explore further. Or readers could choose to emphasise links if they want to visually scan the article for a link.

What’s stopping this?

Not the writing, the software.

I’m aware this won’t fix the immediate problem, but my thought is that perhaps people are rallying at the wrong thing.

Thoughts welcome in the comments.


I’ve written another longer article on links in articles in general. Seeing as three articles at once on the topic would be overkill, I’ll leave it for some other time! (Aimee has another post on this theme up.)

A quick thought for those stuck with fixed styles. One problem with having the links to the bottom is that they are disconnected from the text; this is the reason, of course, that blogging style usually refers to sources directly. One compromise is to use footnote marks, like the numbered references I have used in some of my articles. I link them so that they move the reader to the corresponding item in the reference section on the same page, like clicking on the super-scripted reference after this1 will take you back up to the poem. A problem with this solution is that the footnote marks provide a very small target for clicking. Research shows that users favour larger ‘click targets’. This, and the effort involved in manually setting these links up, is that reason I’ve stopped doing this. I’d be interested in comments on this, too.

* I’m tempted to do the entire sonnet, but I haven’t the time…

Other articles in Code for life:

Science communication shorts

Professors, lost souls with great oratory power?

Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

Post-embargo publication delays: be gone

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

7 Responses to “To link or not to link: is that the question?”

  • People need to take a step back and consider why inline linking gets used. I have to write using a number of different styles which use either inline links or links at the end. The two styles of writing turn out to be quite different – and I’ve argued against house styles using one or the other in different contexts because of this issue.

    Inline linking became popular largely due to blogging and is useful because it allows you to construct a post quickly – all I have to do is put in the link and assume if the reader is not up to speed on the subject they will click to find out. Those that are aware of what’s at the end of the link don’t have to read through yet another description of what the link’s endpoint says, which is what happens if you bung the links at the end (and then provide some more description to remind people what the links are all about).

    So, I’d argue for someone who is aware of a thread of stories, the inline link format is less distracting. However, if you want to do long-form writing, and feel that there is an audience for it, then presenting the text link-free, maybe with a Javascript-assisted hiding scheme, is arguably the better bet. In that case, an inline link plus the description is arguably a form of tautology.

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that authors play with distraction all the time in the interest of maintaining interest in a story by scene shifting. With inline links, you’re just inviting the reader to do their own scene shifting if they feel like it.

    Thinking about the Javascript angle, perhaps what would be handy would be a flag button or “open in underlying tab” so you’ve got the links for the sections that most piqued your interest when you’ve finished reading.

  • Chris,

    Thanks for writing. Just FWIW I usually get the links sorted before writing, so it actually takes (me) more time to add them in-line in the appropriate places than to just dump them at the end!

  • Myself, I like in-line links, for the reasons Chris gave. And partly because I tend to construct posts as I go, so building them in as they’re found works well for me :-) I guess I like the idea of constructing a metadocument (?) that lets people choose to stay with me or go off on their own little voyages of discovery if they want to :-)

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