Links Are a Promise

Update, 29 Jan 2020: In doing some unrelated research on writing for the web, I stumbled across an awfully similar post from 2014 on the Nielsen Normal Group website: “A Link is a Promise”. Did they read my article, travel back in time, and plagiarize me? Seems unlikely. Did I read that article when it was first published? Probably so. Did I have it in mind or remember it when I wrote this article? Definitely not. Nielsen Norman Group has created an amazing repository of usability research and advice. Much of what I do is heavily based on their findings and recommendations, so it’s not shocking that this article touches on many of the same points as theirs. So credit where credit’s due, and I hope you find both posts interesting and useful.

“Links are a promise.” That’s what I tell people when it comes to writing links on any website.

Given that links are possibly the defining feature of the web, it’s worth putting in the effort to get them right. This is simple advice, but it covers a lot of important usability concepts when unpacked.

Making the Promise

“Anchor text” is what you call the few underlined words that a website visitor clicks to visit a new page. The words you choose for your anchor text are critical. They are the promise you make to your user.

Active verbs like “Donate”, “Sign Up”, or “Contact” set expectations of quick actions like filling out a form or calling a phone number. Longer phrases like “explore our services”, “meet our newest board member”, or “program eligibility requirements” imply helpful information that will answer a visitor’s specific question or help them achieve a specific goal.

What’s missing from those examples? “Read More” and “Click Here” which might as well be “Use your finger to press the mouse button to trigger the loading of another web page.” These links don’t make any promise beyond the vaguest and least useful. They mostly explain how links work to people who know how links work. Making a good promise is the most fundamental reason that “click here” links are a bad idea.

We dream that visitors come to our websites looking to “explore”, “be inspired”, or “learn more”. In reality, most people have much more specific goals they hope to reach by visiting our websites. Clearly written anchor text is how you help them be successful and enjoy using your site.

Keeping the Promise

Click. The moment of truth. We have told a person somewhere in the world: “This thing I said is possible. I will help you do it now.” If the words of a link set a micro expectation, the page that loads after clicking it must deliver a macro response.

Links and web pages are inextricably connected, literally. Just as we must accurately describe the linked page with anchor text, the page itself must be written and presented in a way that helps the user do the thing they want to do. We make a promise with a link, but we keep a promise with a good web page.

What’s a good web page? It’s one focused on a clear task—making a donation, calling the office—or answering a specific question—who works for this organization? what services do they offer unhoused people?

How do you do that?

  • Write simply
  • Cut all unnecessary information (and form fields!)
  • Put the most important information first
  • Don’t assume too much prior knowledge

You Write the Sign Posts

Websites are like a choose-your-own-adventure book. You can’t know where a visitor will enter or where they want to go. Links are how you can be there with a visitor, pointing to the paths they can follow, and telling them what lies at the end of each.

Bad links lead to dead ends, frustration, and the mistaken assumption, “well, I guess they don’t have what I need.” Good links lead to action, success, and return visitors.

So take the time to get link text right. It really can be the difference between success or failure for a visitor of your website.

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