Good Blogging is Good Linking

I have been reading too many blog entries lately where the authors don’t seem to realize that they are writing hypertext and can link to their referenced content, or do a poor job of using links. A good blog entry leverages the fact that it’s HTML and can link to the sources or material. Here are some guidelines I follow in trying to craft a useful blog entry:

  • Try and combine three sources (one or two can be personal experience) don’t just recapitulate and annotate (what’s been call “cross-examining”) a story or blog entry.
  • Incorporate key summary material as a quote.
  • Add a link if it will add useful context or provide a good reference for readers unfamiliar with the topic.

Here are some other guidelines for good linking to bear in mind as well.

John Barger wrote about “adding value to your links” on May 16, 1999. His advice is still excellent. Here is an excerpt, read the whole thing:

  • Extract some pull quotes that capture the best the page has to offer. Nothing ‘sells’ an article better than a sample of how good it is.
  • Don’t just link to the top page of a site– pick the best page. Readers in a hurry will be grateful, readers at leisure can find the rest on their own.
  • Have you checked for similar pages that do the same job even better? Look at them all and link only the best.
  • If a version-for-printing is offered, link to that. It will load faster and is usually easier to read, without all the distracting side-columns.
  • Warn about formatting oddities. Does it take a long time to load? Does it require Java or RealPlayer? Are there annoying interstitial pop-ups?
  • Choose the most descriptive word (or three) within your long description to highlight as anchor-text. Lots of underlined-blue is hard to read, so limit it to a word or two that describes what the page is: “essay”, “hotlist”; or what it’s about: “tutorial on animation”.

Phillip Lenssen (author of the “How Linkable is Your Blog” tool, reviewed back in 2006 by us with “Philipp Lenssen’s Tips For Crafting a Linkable Blog Post” ) wrote “11 Link Usability Tips” in October of 2007, here are my picks–retaining his original numbering scheme–for the top 4:

1. Make sure there’s enough space to click on for a given link. Do you know those A-Z link lists? They’re a common navigation element on top of some directory-style pages, going like this: “A | B | C | D | …” etc., where each letter is linked. In this case, some letters – especially the “I” – become much too small to comfortably click on. Use a non-breaking space around each letter (”… I …”) to increase the clickable area, allowing for easier navigation. You might also want to use this approach for link text like numbers (e.g. “1”) or symbols (e.g. “#”).

2. The first link should be the most important. As a rule of thumb – and there may be exceptions – the first link in a blog post or article will gain the most attention, and the highest click rates. So make sure it’s also the most relevant one for your article. If you are discussing new website XYZ, then make a link to XYZ the first link in your article – not necessarily within the first sentence, but just the first link – and put links to related material over subsequent words. This allows visitors to be guided best.

3. Select which links are important, and don’t link to everything. If you write an article you are often filtering for your audience. One such filter is to only link to pages that are truly relevant to get your point across (or to allow readers to cross-check it for validation). If you include a link in every second word of a sentence, then it will hurt readability as people don’t always know which links are worth to follow. (One noteworthy exception are those “train links” which, on purpose, link e.g. half a dozen words to different reference sites. It can be a style element to indicate for instance “a lot of people discussed this issue before.”)

8. Make link text flexible enough so that it “survives” even the removal of the link. This is more an issue of readability than usability, actually. In some cases, people may read your content in places where they can’t follow up through to your link. For instance, they may have printed out your article. Or they may have saved your article on their laptop but they don’t have an internet connection at the time. Or they may click on your link but the page in question has been removed, or is down, or has been changed dramatically.

In these cases, a good link will a) contain enough information on its own so that the article doesn’t fully depend on the external source, and b) is phrased in such a way that its link can be ignored.

Link text like e.g. “click here” both disturbs the reading flow – no one would write “click here” on paper, yet your article may be printed out (or be navigated without a mouse, e.g. the keyboard) – and also may lack crucial information to continue reading your article.

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