Nicholas Carr’s recent post on delinkification explores whether we’d be better off if we didn’t use hyperlinks in-line. He’s hitting on an old issue among the hypertext crowd, as various kinds of hypertext systems, from Apple’s Hypercard, to Hyper-G, have explored the pros and cons of the entire concept of hypertext.
In ancient times, I did some rudimentary studies on the effect of links on reading in 1995 for IE 1.0 and IE 2.0 – I recall many preceding academic studies on hypertext that went further than we did (oddly enough, they’re hard to find on the web – still looking). Some of that data will be too crusty to apply to today’s web, but some of it is entirely relevant. I’ll follow up if I can find the good stuff.
A few points worth adding to the debate:
- The skill of the author is missing from the conversation. The better the writer, the better the job he/she does at anticipating questions or making sure the links are worth the cognitive cost of forcing the user to decide to click or stay. In similiar fashion we can criticize paragraphs, semi-colons, (parentheticals), fonts, bold/italics,blog templates and many factors that we know impact people’s ability to read, as when they are used poorly they do create problems for readers. All choices writers make have cognitive tradeoffs. Readability, a simple filter that makes pages easier to read, is a surprisingly good alternative to many website and blog designs, but for the better writers on the web, it takes away more than it gives.
- This echoes the debates about footnotes and endnotes. I’ve done anecdotal research on this, and in reading this 30+ comment thread of people’s impressively specific preferences, I concluded there is no final answer. It’s too personal, and often people’s feedback hinges on the endnote/footnote style of the last book they read. It’s easy to forget there are many ways how footnotes are used, much like links, some better and some worse. Some uses, in some situations, earn their cognitive costs more than others.
- Good browsers should apply preferences for links, including what Carr describes (holding all links until the end). Markup languages are supposed to allow the browser to choose how to present various things, including links. If the reader wants to view all the links at the end, or on the side, or automatically go and pre-load pages, they should all be part of what a browser does to create a good reading experience. This does create conflicts of artistry (should my words appear as I want?) but the spirit of HTML/CSS or any markup language is to give control to readers as well as writers.
- Tabbed browsing changes the risks. For those users who use them, it gives an alternative. I know I and other tab users open links from an article in tabs as I go, and let them wait until I finish the article (or until I get stuck on a fact/reference I hope is addressed in a link).
- If minimalism for reading is ideal, web site design is a factor too. Even Carr’s site has a top navigation section, and a sidebar with various links and images of books to be clicked on (not that this negates his argument – less distractions are less distracting). Images are possibly more of a drag on cognitive load than a single hyperlink, and it wouldn’t be hard to do research to find out (I suspect in a reading comprehension comparison of Readability vs. most website designs, Readability wins).
- Perception of credibility. Forget the reality – in some cases links show the possibility the writer has done their homework. In a glance I can see the link density of a page – too much and I might pass, but none at all, and I might wonder if the writer has thought much about the topic, since they didn’t bother to show they’d found a reference to support or counter their own claims.