"Inline" links for usability

May 24, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Usability, Web Development.

Inline linking is the practice of incorporating hyperlinks into text passages within the main body of your website. Generally, this is a technique for providing contextual explanations or additional information as an immediately accessible resource for site visitors. I recently read two articles concerning this subject – the first, at Wolf-Howl questions the practice of inline linking as being bad for usability. The second, by Bill Slawski, discusses Graywolf’s ideas.

Both articles make a number of valid points – but I feel that the overall question is a matter of preference. Personally, I find the presence of links within a contextual body to be extremely valuable. For context, there’s nothing to beat it. Graywolf suggests that lists of links following the text are less disruptive to the flow of reading. This may be true, in certain circumstances. I certainly agree that it helps in the specific example he provides. However, it seems to me that what he suggests only works for short, tightly focused texts.

In his example, a single paragraph is followed by four helpful links. Given this density of contextual links and the length of the content, this is clearly useful. However, provided with a document which is significantly longer – a 1500 word article, for example, this technique would be rather clumsy. Either you would end up with a block of links every couple of paragraphs, which I feel would disrupt my reading quite significantly, or you have a lengthy set of links at the foot of the document – which may provide insufficient context to be clear on the referenced point.

I have to think about this from an accessibility standpoint, as well. If the links are provided only at the end of the article, a user with a screen reader has a significant amount of ground to cover before they can reach any further information. With contextual links, the user can decide right away if they’re interested in additional information. Either way, they can use keyboard navigation to quickly skip from link to link – but with links only available in the footer, it’s may be very difficult to quickly identify the context of the link.

I also mentioned the post by Bill Slawski. One talent that Bill has is the ability to aggregate a huge number of relevant sources on a subject very quickly. Bill points out several references I thought were very apropos, including information from Jakob Nielsen, the usability guru, the psychology department at Wichita State University, and others.

Bill doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other – which I think is very fair. There are advantages and disadvantages every way you cut it for linking — either they’re disruptive or they’re convenient. They’re collected for easy reference or they’re separated for their immediate context. It’s always a choice you need to make — link to the most important references within your text, and leave a collection of additional links at the end of the article may be the best choice.

And always provide well structured internal navigation!


2 Comments to “"Inline" links for usability”

  1. That’s certainly true – link titles can be quite helpful. That’s also a difficult balance to strike, sometimes – avoiding redundancy while providing superior context.

  2. Context is really important in where you place your links, but I think that you are right that personal preference plays a strong role in how you link to pages, too.

    I’ve been negligent on my blog in not including link titles with embedded links. I think that’s another way of making those links better from an accessibility stance.