Web Content: Should Links be Underlined?

3 minute read
Gerry McGovern avatar

The most important thing is that a link is clearly understood to be a link. That way, when you scan the page you can immediately identify the links.

"Techmeme has redesigned," a Techmeme story stated in January 2012. "Drudge Report is now indisputably the web's ugliest news site. In the beginning, links on web pages were underlined, because that let us know they were links. And it was good. But all those underlined words started to afflict the eye, particularly on pages with many links. Over time many web sites, including news sites, abandoned underlines altogether, and more recently even Google News dispensed with all their underlines."

A link is a signpost. A good signpost instantly communicates that it is a signpost so that you can focus on what is on it. A good signpost does not draw attention to itself. It is all about the destination.

In my previous issue about links, I wrote about how the link should not be the file/format. So, for example, you should not call the link "PDF" but rather "Installation instructions". What I omitted to say-and what was pointed out to me-was that it's a good idea to have PDF at the end of the link.

The customer's expectation is that when they click on a link they will be sent to an ordinary webpage. If anything else is to happen, they should be told in advance. So, the best link in my example above would be: "Installation instructions (PDF, 2 MB)". So, you are telling people that if they click on the link they will be getting a PDF and it is 2 MB which gives them a sense of how long it takes to download.

Learning Opportunities

Speaking of PDFs, they are generally not a good idea. They are often a lazy way of publishing, a quick and dirty way of getting print content up on the Web. PDFs are not a web format. They are a way of delivering print content using the Web as a distribution channel. If your website is full of PDFs then your organization is probably still living in the print world. Your website will almost definitely be less effective.

One of the most interesting things about thinking linking is that it forces us to think about the outcome rather than the input. Those who embrace links invariably embrace the customer and what the customer wants to do. If the conversation is all about the content itself, the images, the blogs, tweets, the technology, then that conversation quickly becomes very internal, very organization-centric.

To focus on the link means asking crucial question such as: What does the customer want to do next? And once you ask that question you are forced to think of the language of the link. I've seen data from political campaigns that showed the words "contribute" and "donate" getting very different reactions. Mere words.

Your words are by far the most powerful tools you have. Specific, precise words. Carefully honed and tested. Anchored in data, not opinion. It was like that back in 1994 when I started off in the Web, and it's like that today.

About the author

Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords. He is widely regarded as the worldwide authority on increasing web satisfaction by managing customer tasks.