Bald-headed Britney and the Lost Art of Linking

I think we’ve missed a big trick with links. You know, those underlined words on a web page that take us somewhere else. They’ve been around a while now, so you’d think we’d have explored them a bit, built a little etiquette around them, what to do, what not to do when you link to something else. After all, by turning a word, an image or a button into a link you’re building a door into another world, sort of.

Links are great, it’s just we don’t know how to use them. When we come across a link like this, we’re automatically thrown into confusion: Where does the link go? Do we click on the link and stop reading what we’re reading? Do we not click on the link and keep reading and make a mental note to come back and click on the link later and yet never do? Do we click on the link and open it in a new window? A new tab? A new computer? And then what happens?

Sure, something similar happens in newspapers. You come to the end of the page, and there’s a link to what we professional journalists call The Jump. As in DRUGS, continued on page 4. CARS, continued on page 5. TEDIUM, continued on page 7. UK satirical magazine Private Eye realised these links’ comic possibilities by adding Continued on page 94 at the bottom of its sillier pieces until the term entered the lexicon itself. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon with its usual literalness (“No issue of Private Eye has ever run to anywhere near 94 pages.”)

But this doesn’t induce the same confusion as online. What are we supposed to do when confronted with a link that doesn’t explain where it’s going? When I insert a link under the words “Wikipedia explains” above, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry on Private Eye. But most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time we have no idea what words are linking to what. Don’t bother clicking on any of those links; I was just trying to make a point. Which is this: Words or phrases with links on that aren’t clear where they’re going would be like marking doors with obscure labels like ’open’ or ‘Ffortescue was here’ or ‘door’. (And don’t get me started on those links that look as if they’re going one place and actually go to another internal page, like the company links in this page at Webware.)

Which is why I like MTV’s website and their coverage of Britney Spears going Rehab AWOL again. OK, so the links don’t go outside the site but to other MTV stories, but I both admire the fact that MTV explains what they’re linking to in the link, and the, er, clarity it throws on Britney’s recent lifestyle deviation.

This time, her family and manager intervened, and announced yesterday that Spears had voluntarily entered rehab (see “Britney Spears Checks Into Rehab”).

Now that’s a link that explains itself. Actually it explains itself so well you don’t really have to click on it. Plus it really bolsters the bald (sorry) assertion that precedes it. You’ve got to hand it to MTV . No silly, teasing but vague headlines for them. These guys probably moonlight at Wikipedia.  Like this one:

After returning from her first trip to rehab, Spears made a shocking public appearance Friday night, debuting her newly shaved head at a tattoo shop in Sherman Oaks, California (see “Britney Spears Shaves Head, Gets Tattoo”).

or my personal favorite (The combination of story and the title of the link would not look out of place in Private Eye itself):

“She is obviously in a lot of pain and needs help immediately,” agreed Doreen Seal, the mother of Jason Alexander, a longtime family friend to whom Spears was briefly married (see “Britney On Her Marriage: Vegas Made Me Do It”).

Maybe it’s just Britney’s story naturally lends itself to links that make sense. But I would wager that it’s more MTV’s excellent linking that leaves us in no doubt of what we’re clicking on. I’m going to take a leaf out of their book and practice safe Link Labeling from now on (see “Loose Wire on Linking: Britney Made Me Do It”)

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22. February 2007 by jeremy
Categories: Blogs, Interfaces, Internet life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 comments

Comments (3)

  1. Why don’t you use the title attribute of the <a> anchor tag? It should reproduce its contents in a tooltip whenever a cursor hovers over that link.

    Not only can it provide clues & information of said link, its use removes unnecessary clutter and makes any layout less verbose and more elegant.

  2. From the reader’s perspective, this is a great reason to open links in new tabs or windows. Open the link, but read it later, not breaking the train of thought.

    When I open an article from the feed reader, it opens a new browser window. From there, I open most links in tabs, so each open window represents a thread that started in the feed reader.

  3. This is the problem that link preview utilities like Cooliris and Snap try to solve, with varying degree of success.