The Value of Embedded Links

There’s something magical about having the right link in the right place at the right time on a page.

Most web pages that you visit these days will have some type of main navigation on their site to the major categories within the site. Often you will see another set of links pointing to things like a privacy policy, a contact page, or directions, or other information about the site, and the people or business behind the site.

Many sites also use secondary navigation on pages within sections of the site, to point to the main pages within that section. Go to a different section, and you may see a different set of links in the secondary navigation. This is pretty common in a site that has a tree like hierarchy, and it’s a practice that is helpful to visitors, and even to search engines. Seach engines will try to get an understanding of what a page is about by looking at the content of the text within links that point to pages.

These navigational structures often surround a content rich area on a page, filled with articles or information, or descriptions (and possibly pictures) of products or services. On pages describing products or services, it’s not unusual to have a link from that description to a page specifically about that product.

On pages that are about specific products or services, or which are informational in nature such as articles, you may sometimes see links embedded within the text in the content area on those pages. While there may be a benefit, from a search engine optimization standpoint, to having links to other pages of the site embedded within content, I’ve always considered that search engines to be a secondary reason for including those links.

That’s why it came as a little surprise to see a blog post on Gray Wolf’s site titled Inline Linking Bad for Usability (no longer available).

He makes a nice argument for the search optimization benefits of having inline links, but questions whether those embedded links make it more difficult for readers to see a link and read the content of the page.

I think the points that Gray Wolf raises are valid ones. It can be hard to pick out a link on a page, and get a sense of where it points to when you see it within the content of that page.

One of the issues that is cited as a danger when it comes to including links in the information rich content part of a page is that visitors tend to scan pages and can miss those links easily. But, as Jakob Nielsen points out to us in Is Navigation Useful?, visitors also often just quickly scan the navigational elements of a page on their way to the content.

So, regardless of where links are, chances may be that some visitors will miss links. Ideally, the way around that is to make sure that links within content can be easily seen. (saying that, I need to get some underlines or dots under links here, and maybe a brighter link color.)

The Web Style Guide also points to some usability issues involving embedded links. One is that if you have too many, they can make it difficult to read the text on a page. Especially if they stand out, like I suggest having them do in the last paragraph. So, only the most important and most outstanding links should be inline in your content. They suggest that you:

Group all minor, illustrative, parenthetic, or footnote links at the bottom of the document where they are available but not distracting.

I recalled a couple of nice usability studies on links from the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory at Wichita State University, which point to a preference by site readers for embedded links:

The second article comes up with some reasons why embedded links might be preferred, and why other placements of links may be ideal for some readers. Here’s a snippet from the article:

There are several possible reasons why the embedded arrangement was most preferred. First, embedded links require the least division of attention because the links and the passage are in the same visual area. In addition, it provides for a greater context, since the embedded links are part of passage. However, embedding links within a document can make it more difficult to find and refer back to specific links because of their embedded nature. It is possible, then, that embedded links are superior for the initial information search, whereas corresponding links that are located to the left of a passage could be superior for searches after the information associated with the links is known.

Maybe we can take away from this that context does matter. Having the right link at the right place at the right time depends upon what task the visitor to your site is engaged in when they are reading your pages.

One of the ideal places for an embedded link is a link to a privacy policy in text immediately above a form for visitors to fill out, which asks for personal or financial information or both. It can help to have a well written privacy policy to go along with that, but often people won’t visit the privacy policy, knowing that they can if they want to, and that one exists.

I also like introductory overview pages, that introduce visitors to a range of topics covered in a section of a site. Imagine an area of a site on a specific topic that is broken down into four subsections, and each has a page that explains that subsection in more detail. Those pages are introduced on a main category page which has a paragraph or two about each of them on it. An embedded link to each of those four subsections from within the paragraphs describing each of them can also be a very good use for embedded links.

And, when it comes to blog posts, I’m not sure that I could see writing one without embedding links in the body of the post. But, I think that I’ll take one of the suggestions from the Web Style Guide above, and start putting some related links at the bottoms of posts, when they aren’t quite on point, but something I want to share anyway. And I’ll start right now. Here are a couple of additional links about links that I enjoyed reading:

Avoid Within-Page Links

Free Choice and The Usability of Links

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6 thoughts on “The Value of Embedded Links”

  1. Pingback: Inline linking, usability, and accessibility | inter:digital strategies
  2. I have to agree on the opinion that embedded links actually make it somewhat harder to read. On the other hand when they are underlined or highlighted in the right spot and in the right time it puts significance on the point of the passage. Good article Bill! If I ever start seriously blogging, I’ll have to keep this in mind when embedding…

  3. Pingback: Usability and inline links in user assistance systems | just write click

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