To link, or not to link, that is the question

I’ve recently read an interesting post by Tom Standage, Digital Editor at The Economist. And yes, I’ve nicked his title for my article. Thanks Tom, think I’d struggle to come up with a better one.

The premise of Tom’s post is that links, although wonderfully convenient, are also very distracting.

It piqued my interest because since launching Cicada about a year ago I’ve got incredibly busy, and I’ve become very interested in ways to make more effective use of my time or reduce the number of interruptions to my workflow.


For instance, I’ve recently switched off email notifications on my mobile phone and I’ve got rid of Google Notifier, which does the same sort of thing, on my MacBook.

Following a discussion on this subject with Zahid Malik at fry, a London-based web agency, I’m trying to discipline myself to read and reply to emails only a few times a day, rather than whenever I see a new one has arrived. Now that’s a tough habit to break.

And I’m making more effective use of Twitter by using lists. So rather than skimming through an endless stream of posts looking for nuggets, during work I can easily find tweets that matter to my work, and away from the office I can browse my more social lists.

Sorry, got a bit distracted there. Back to Tom’s post. He references an article by Nicholas Carr who writes:

” Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read.

“Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not.

“You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension. “

So what is the point of links?

When you use a search engine to find something online, its task is to present you with web pages ranked by their relevance to your search.

Google does this by considering lots of factors, some say around 200, and amongst these the number and the quality of inbound links are very important. So the search engines are faced with quite a task given that according to Netcraft, a company devoted to tracking technology on the Internet, as of October 2010 there were more than 230 million websites, representing billions of web pages.

The question of how to attract links to your website is a big subject in itself, but reaching out to other sites by linking to them is a good start. It’s also just plain good manners to reference your source material.

As an experiment, I’ve written this post for a purely human audience rather than for one that includes search engines and therefore benefits from a peppering of keyword-focused links. It felt rather liberating.

Creating links between pages that are under your control is of course easier than attracting them from elsewhere.

It’s a good way to drive traffic from the homepage, for example, to pages deeper down in a site like product pages in an online store, contact pages, call-me-back forms and new blog posts. But of course it can be tempting to overdo it and risk distracting people from the core task.

Nicholas Carr makes the point that links in the middle of the main narrative of a webpage are distracting. I’d agree with this, but links and their positioning are still important considerations when building a site that converts visitors to customers, whatever that may mean for your organisation.

I like the idea of putting links at the bottom of an article, like I’ve done here, or in a side bar so that they are obvious from the start but don’t interfere with the flow of your reading.

What do you think?

Tom Standage’s post

Nicholas Carr’s post

How to set up lists in Twitter

My Twitter lists

Zahid Malik’s profile at fry.com

Netcraft web survey

3 thoughts on “To link, or not to link, that is the question”

  1. David K28th October 2010 at 2:59 pm reply

    Interesting musings, Ned! I know exactly how easy it is to end up in labyrinthine twists and turns around the web after that initial curious click – you half expect to end up at Minotaur.com!

    I tend to use different conventions depending on the context. On commercial websites I always leave links until the end. The effect of carefully crafted copy is destroyed if someone clicks elsewhere halfway through it. If they reach the end of the copy, however, the effect is complete and there’s a handy link taking them to the next stage of your strategy.

    With blog entries, though, I’ve approached it differently. Since they are much longer and less tightly focused on calls to action I’ve felt happy peppering them with relevant links where appropriate, almost like the photos and illustrations alongside a print article. But I must admit I like your idea of ‘footnote links’. Not only do they prevent distractions but they actually provide stronger opportunities for SEO-friendly anchor text.

    In fact I might even experiment with a footnote approach, using numbers as page anchors to the link list at the bottom.

    Out of interest, I wonder if search engine algorithms factor the position of links into their calculations?

    Thanks for some interesting ideas!

    1. Ned Wells2nd November 2010 at 8:32 am reply

      Good to hear from you David, and thanks for your thought provoking reply. This is indeed an interesting subject.

      I’ve not seen anything in the SEO literature to indicate whether the position of links is significant, other than in a relative sense: the first link on a page tends to get clicked more frequently. But I’ll certainly be looking out for it more.

    2. Ned Wells21st November 2012 at 11:01 am reply

      Morning David,

      Found myself re-reading this post just recently, and wanted to get back to you re your last point, on whether search engines factor the position of links into their calculations.

      I can now update you on this and say that, yes, indeed they do. The value of a link is proportional to its usefulness, and to a degree, the difficulty of ‘building’ it. Although we increasingly need to think in terms of ‘link earning’ rather than ‘link building’.

      So an editorial link, in the middle of an article, has more value than a footer link, or a sidebar link. There’s also evidence that the first link that a search engine comes across on page carries greater significance than other links on a page.

      Hope that’s of help!

      Best,
      Ned

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.