On the usability of contextual URLs

November 29, 2007

Topics: Accessibility, Usability.


Visit this site! http://www.joedolson.com/

I run into this, or into something like it all the time, and it’s pretty understandable why. Obviously, if you don’t know how to create a hyperlink, or if you’re working with a CMS (Content Management System) which will automatically convert a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) into a hyperlink, this is the most reliable way to provide access to somebody else’s site.

Either they have the URL, and can use it “straight up” if they know how, or they can follow the hyperlink generated by the system. Nice and easy. I understand perfectly well why an inexperienced content manager might make use of hyperlinks au naturelle, or so to speak.

Of course, I’ve never used them that way myself. Partially it’s because I think about links from a search marketing perspective, and understand that the terms used in the anchor text is very important to the target page. Partially it’s because I think from an accessibility perspective, and believe that clear anchor text is utterly critical to ensuring easy navigation of content.

Nonetheless, I do run across sites created by experienced web developers, where I know that the person authoring and inputting the content is familiar with the use of hyperlinks with effective link text which nonetheless make use of plain old URL strings.


I don’t have a good answer for this — I think it has a lot to do with the way people tend to think about writing content. People think about the direct object of the sentence, and therefore their sentences sometimes tend to be of the format which requires a clear object for the link:

“Visit this site

“Click here

“Read more at http://www.mydomain.com

Effective contextual use of links actual has a general expectation that the link itself is not part of the sentence syntax. The structure of a sentence is not relevant to contextual linking. Any combination of words can act as a link, and therefore the behavior of a link is actually “extra-syntactical” (to coin a silly term.)

As pointers, links relate perpendicularly to sentence structure. They take a chunk of sentence, and use it to discuss something else or elaborate on the active subject.

At any rate, I’m getting a little off topic. I’d intended to discuss whether or not a bare hyperlink, devoid of anchor text beyond it’s defining URL string, has any usability advantages.

I can think of one: that it is absolutely and definably a pointer to another location. Whether it’s an active hyperlink or not, if you see a URL you know that this is a piece of information which can be used to learn more. You never have to worry too much about discovering which parts of a page are actually links and which aren’t — no “mystery meat” exists when it comes to a bare URL.

Of course, this is better dealt with by making use of smart styling. Like Mike Cherim mentions in a recent Accessites article:

What I hope to convey is that if everything is thought of as a progressive enhancement, a solidly applied embellishment if you wish, then the chance of adding this stuff smartly increases. Mike Cherim, “Everything is a Progressive Enhancement”

To apply this in context, if you’ve added styles such that you’ve removed the differentiation necessary to identify hyperlinks, you’ve made the accessibility and usability of the site worse through your actions. If, instead, you’ve styled them such that they’re very clearly identifiable, you’ve instead enhanced the site.

At any rate, I’m just curious about the practice of using bare URL strings in site content. Anybody have any thoughts?

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10 Comments on “On the usability of contextual URLs”

  1. Being able to get the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) information from the printed document is definitely a valuable benefit…

    What I find frustrating is when webbers only give links to a siteโ€™s homepage and expect all their users to do the digging around to track down the page they need – when it isnโ€™t always easy to do! – instead of providing a deep link.

    Yes, that’s VERY irritating. What’s worse is when you’re attempting to deep link to a website which doesn’t have a permanent or fixed link structure! Now that is not just irritating, but damn well stupid!

  2. @Stevie D: The print page example is definitely a good argument for full URLs. Another option, I suppose, would be to provide a printable list of URLs at the end of the page.

  3. People like the internet to be open and transparent. They want to make their links useful, and if they are referring to a website that they feel will be generally useful (as opposed to a specific page that will be useful in this particular context), sometimes they think the best way to do this is to spell out the name of the website, so that it is obvious where the link goes to.

    Sometimes it can be difficult to find words to fit, especially if the name of the website is the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), or if the URL is more well-known than the actual name – if I’m deciding whether to have link text of Joe Dolson’s website or joedolson.com, I’ll ask myself which people are more likely to recognise – and there’s probably not a lot in it! A URL sometimes seems to stand out more than inline link text, so if you really want people to click on a link, that might be an effective way to highlight it.

    One reason, which is reducing in significance, is that it allows IE6 users to print the page and still have the URL they need to follow – of course, we’re all putting content: ” (” attr(href) “) “; in our print stylesheets, aren’t we!

    No, I don’t generally like using the name of the website as the link text, especially when it is inline, but there are times when it is preferable. What I find frustrating is when webbers only give links to a site’s homepage and expect all their users to do the digging around to track down the page they need – when it isn’t always easy to do! – instead of providing a deep link.

  4. Huh. I never realized that I could do that…guess it never occurred to me to think about it. Actually, I don’t really like that kind of inconsistency…

    Yeah, I constantly fall behind in keeping that list of allowed XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language - HTML reformulated as XML (eXtensible Markup Language)) allowed — every time I update, it ends up back to the default. And it’s a stupid default.

  5. @Benjamin: Thank you very much. That’s what I suspected. The screen reader would announce that it’s a link, then read the link text.

    @Joe: It’s good to be the king. As the blog’s admin, you can post anything you want it in your comments. The admin’s comments are passed through different filtering. I post pre elements in my comments a lot — for form support mostly — but visitors aren’t allowed to ๐Ÿ˜›

    Speaking of “allowed XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language - HTML reformulated as XML (eXtensible Markup Language)),” you should probably strike strike. Somebody might actually use it. Though I don’t think del is allowed. Not sure. ๐Ÿ™

  6. Well, what do you know. It did! I suspected that WordPress may not have actually managed to suppress some of the more obscure markup elements.

  7. I didn’t even notice that parenthetical, actually. Thanks, Benjamin — good to have that explained!

    link: a recent Accessites article

    Just checking to see whether it would work anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis; November 30, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Mike Cherim wonders above whether screen readers would typically read the HREF attribute (the URL (Uniform Resource Locator)) for links that have ordinary link text. In my experience of screen readers, while it would probably be possible to query this information one way or another, what you’d normally hear when going through a page is something along the lines of: “like Mike Cherim mentions in link a recent Accessites article”. Hmmโ€ฆ shame the permitted XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language - HTML reformulated as XML (eXtensible Markup Language)) don’t allow me to enclose that in samp <grin>

  9. Length is definitely a major problem in a lot of cases. An average domain name is usually speakable and usable, but many page-level (or, say, search result level) URL (Uniform Resource Locator)’s are simply unmanageably long — and include numerous special characters, etc.

    So far, not a very strong case for them! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. I can think of two reasons I wouldn’t want to use them and prefer link text: The length. I know this doesn’t always apply, but sometimes. Long unbroken links can ruin a good block of text.

    The second reason is for screen reader users: It would seem to me it’d be a drag to have the nice article that my machine is reading to be rudely interrupted by an ungainly h-t-t-p-colon-slash-slash-dubbayu-dubbayu-dubbayu-fullstop(dot)… etc. (Though I’m not 100% sure about this. It is possible this information would be read to the screen reader user anyway.)

    There are a couple of places where I do use quasi-bare URLs. My home page (click my name to see it) is one such example. On my sidebar I invite visitors to visit some of my other sites and I display what is actually link text, but it is also enough — accessibility wise — to be useful even if the text wasn’t linked. One of the links, for example, leads to GreenMethods.com. As you can see by this, the “GreenMethods.com” part of it, the link text, even unlinked, sufficiently gives the user the URL (Uniform Resource Locator). Since the length fits where it does, I’m happy with it written like I that. If, however, one of my other sites was… “ThisIsOneOfMyOtherSixWebSitesThatIBuiltAndManage.com” I’d feel compelled to fall back on a Plan B of some sort.