The art of naming hyperlinks
Not thinking carefully about how you name hyperlinks can have a massive negative effect on your site’s usability and search engine performance.
- by Peter Labrow
Links on Web pages – or hyperlinks, to give them their full name – are something so ubiquitous we tend not to think too much about them.
In many ways, it’s the hyperlink that makes the Web what it is. By clicking on a link you can instantly leap to another page – regardless of its location. It could be a page on the same website – or a page on a different website altogether.
For those whose job is maintaining a website’s content, which usually includes adding links to other pages or sites, naming those links correctly is extremely important.
Let’s show you how to do it right, by first showing you how to do it wrong. The most common mistake when naming links is to create a link that says something like: ‘to read our news stories, click here’. You’ve probably seen lots of links like that, so it’s not immediately obvious what’s wrong with it.
We’re going to consider what’s wrong with this link – and others like it – from the three key Web perspectives of usability, accessibility, and searchability.
A link is basically a road sign, pointing you to your destination. For a road sign to do its job, it doesn’t need to say ‘to get to Norwich, drive down this road’ – it only needs to say ‘Norwich’. Since we know it’s a road sign, we know that it is pointing us in the direction of Norwich. Everything else is information we just don’t need.
And so it is with links. Web users already know that links need to be clicked – we don’t need to explicitly tell them. A link which says ‘read our news stories’ is better, though we don’t even need the verb – in many contexts, ‘news stories’ or ‘news’ is all that is needed.
Naming links in this way makes them far more usable. When a person scans a Web page, links that are named differently can be more easily differentiated. If they are all named ‘click here’ then the page takes far longer to scan, as they all have to be visually double-checked.
There is another important factor in making links usable. Hyperlinks largely work on the premise of ‘promise and deliver’ – which is to say that the link will tell you what the following page is about, then the page itself will deliver it. Website visitors don’t like it when a link doesn’t accurately describe what the page will subsequently deliver. It’s confusing and annoying; committing one of the great usability crimes – forcing a visitor to waste time by visiting pages that are not correctly signposted. It’s pretty much the same as following a sign to Norwich and arriving in Wolverhampton – it doesn’t make anyone happy.
Up until now we’ve been talking about links mainly from a visual perspective. It is important to remember two other kinds of website visitors who don’t have the advantage of ‘seeing’ links – people who are visually disabled and search engines.
If you are visually disabled, you can’t ‘see’ the page and scan it in the same way that a sighted person can. The page is read out to you, a word at a time, using what’s known as a screen reader – which is either software on a computer or a dedicated device for browsing.
If all of the links on a page say ‘click here’ it is nothing short of a nightmare for a visually disabled person to tell one from another. A visually disabled person might have the entire page read out, to understand it, then skip from link to link to find the right one. If all the links have the same name, they can’t be told apart without having the whole page read out again. If they are named differently, it’s easier to find the right one.
Likewise, if they are not accurately named – based on the premise of ‘promise and deliver’ – the visually disabled person may well have to read an entire page before realising it’s not what he or she was looking for.
For search engines, another group of visitors that effectively have no sight, naming a link correctly is vital if we want to convey accurate meaning. Sure, once a search engine follows a link it will be able to index the subsequent page – but the name of the inbound link does a lot to help search engines understand what the page is about, and therefore to which keyword searches it is most relevant.
Don’t underestimate how important this information is. Search engines base a lot of the weight of their search results on inbound links. The effect of this has been prevented in the past by a process known as ‘Google Bombing’ – which is feeding a lot of inaccurate information about a page, via inbound links, so that the page comes up for an unrelated search. One of the most famous Google Bombs was inbound links entitled ‘miserable failure’ which at one time led to Google searches for the words ‘miserable failure’ to deliver the home page of the White House as the top result.
The words ‘miserable failure’ didn’t appear on the White House’s site – the inbound links did the job of getting the site to be number one for that search.
Google has now updated its algorithms so that it can’t be as easily Google Bombed, but it still measures the value of inbound links in essentially the same way.
So, getting a link accurately named is important for the correct indexing and ranking of the page that follows.
So, if our ‘news’ is a specific type of news, we can improve Google’s understanding, indexing and ranking of the subsequent page by including specific terms in the link. For example, if the news is all about golf, then ‘golf news’ is a better link phrase. Making it more specific still can help further– so if the news is only about golf in England in 2008, then ‘golf news: England 2008’ will help Google to return that page when people search using those words.
We do need to strike a balance between the link being usable – which is to say ‘good for humans’ and being searchable, or ‘good for search engines’. The basic rule is, think about humans first; search engines second. That’s not because humans are more important – although they are – it’s because it’s humans who use the search engines. Humans are the ones typing in search phrases – so links should contain plain-English phrases: the kind of things that people who think, say and type. They also need to be visually scanable – conveying succinct information quickly.
In our example, the phrase ‘golf news: England 2008’ works well for usability, accessibility and searchability. It promises exactly what it delivers, it carries no unnecessary words, and it is keyword-rich. It’s about a million times better than ‘for this year’s English Golf news, click here’.
Yes, it’s possible to improve your search engine ranking for a specific phrase by using the Google Bomb technique, but there’s little point. Google gets better all the time at weeding out such activities, and in any event, if the links are misleading then it will only deliver website visitors who will leave immediately because you have let them down in terms of failing to deliver what you promised – just like delivering lots of people to Wolverhampton who want to be in Norwich. It’s far better spending your time creating accurate, ethical links that will stand the test of time and deliver what they promise.
It’s also worth noting that any inbound links to your site from other websites will have more value if they contain keywords that are important to you. So ‘great golf news site’ is of far more value than ‘great news site’. Of course, it’s very difficult to control how external links are named as they are outside of your control – another reason why websites use them to understand what they are indexing and ranking.
It doesn’t take much time and effort to name links correctly, but it does take some – but it is time that is well spent, delivering more usable, accessible pages and far better search engine results.