Writing good link text

Links are like sign posts. They should tell you what you’ll find when you follow them. Writing good link text isn’t difficult, but there are a few things to be aware of when you do.

Link text should make sense

Links should stand out visibly from the surrounding page content. This makes it easy to scan a page looking for the link that will take you to the information you’re looking for. This strategy works best when the link text makes sense on its own.

Imagine a link that simply said “On the next page”. If you saw it, you’d almost certainly have to stop, look at the content surrounding the link, and then decide whether the link was worth following. It might only take a few seconds to do that, but its hassle you could live without.

If you use a screen reader, the act of scanning the content around a link is more difficult. Visually you can take in a large amount of information at a glance. With a screen reader it’s possible to explore the surrounding content, but it takes a little more time.

Some screen readers have the ability to display a dialogue containing all the links on a page. This approach is useful because you can use first letter recognition to move quickly between links (for example hitting h to find the “Home” link). If the links on a page don’t make sense on their own though, this approach falls apart completely.

Jaws link dialog box showing a list of poor link text such as 'See More', '1', and '2 Dirt 3'

Jaws link dialog box showing poor link phrases

Don’t be device specific

Link text such as “Click here for more…” is a bad choice for another reason. It assumes you have a mouse. This has long been a mild point of irritation for people unable to use a mouse, but it’s now a very out dated assumption in general. Touch screen anyone?

Use link text wisely

It’s fairly common to find pages with several links that all start the same way. An example might be a news site, with links such as “Read more about the Eurozone crisis”, “Read more about Posh and Becks”, or “Read more about arrests at airport”.

The chances are that people scanning the page will rapidly start to ignore the “Read more” bit of each link. In fact it may as well not be there at all.

It could be argued that (in this specific case) not everyone will read the subsequent page at all. We’re getting into some very pedantic semantics here, but there’s a good chance people will be listening to the page as much as reading it. This is almost an incidental point, but worth acknowledging.

Using repetitive phrases at the start of every link text also makes things awkward for people using their screen reader to call up a list of links on a page. The ability to use first letter navigation to find a specific link is completely neutralised.

Include relevant information

Links don’t always lead to pages of course. It’s equally important to make this clear when you write your link text. There are few things more painful than activating a link on your mobile, only to realise it’s begun to download a 20Mb PDF!

Writing good link text

The trick to writing good link text is to ask yourself where the link leads. Focus on that piece of information, and write your link text to represent it as concisely and accurately as possible.

For example, if your link leads to a news story about a diamond robbery, the text might be “Diamond heist at De Beers”. If the link points to a report for download, your link text might be “Lloyds TSB annual report (PDF, 25Mb)”.

In this way you’re enhancing the experience for all visitors to your website. You’re making the process of scanning the page for links more efficient for sighted and blind people. You’re making it easier for people without a mouse, people on different devices, and people who consume information in different ways. You’re also making the best use of the space on the page, which might just make things easier for you too.

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10 comments

  1. Sometimes I wish this knowledge could be compressed into pill form and fed to content writers! In the meantime, one can always refer them to your blog post here!

  2. Thanks Karen. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to download knowledge directly into our brains (Matrix style)! In the meantime, we’ll do our best to keep writing useful posts.

  3. Ade says:

    I agree with you regarding the phrasing of “read more” links, but your article raises the question of how to rephrase them.

    Would you suggest “Writing good link text: read more”? (Or “…continue reading”, which I prefer). I’m thinking as I type and, off the top of my head, that seems like the best solution and it avoids offending my grammatical sensibilities!

    The hard part will be modifying the CMS’s default output, but that is a problem for another day and another website.

  4. Gary Miller says:

    Good article on a subject that is an absolute basic requirement for website accessibility.

    It’s made me realise that I’ve been failing in one area: Starting a sentence with the same few words to introduce a link.

    Let me explain:

    The first page of my blog contains the first paragraph or so of the most recent five articles.

    Each excerpt ends with the following text: Read the rest of “[Title of article]“.

    I now know the problems this approach will cause screen reader users who use a l
    Links List dialogue to navigate.

    Question is: How to get around it?

    Would the following work better:

    “[Title of article]” continued.

    Thoughts anyone?

    Thanks.

  5. Those links that invite you to continue reading an article (or news story) are really awkward. There’s a definite conflict between good link text and good grammar.

    One approach is to do away with such links completely. It’s the approach we’ve taken on this blog. The link is the heading/headline before the summary.

    Another approach would be to take the repeated phrase out of the link entirely. Put it in plain text before (or after) the link itself. This way the link would just be the title of the article in question.

    More ideas welcome though. Funny how it’s the simple things that confound us sometimes!

  6. @Gary According to what Léonie writes, your solution would work. The “Continue” text should’t be in the link text – only the article being linked to. I wondered what I had and I was relieved to find my “Continue reading” is not included (as far as I can tell).

    @Léonie – I just wanted to share a rant I had about this 1 year ago at http://www.mardahl.dk/2010/11/22/i-dont-want-to-read-more-or-click-here/ In the comments is a post from a guy who was inspired to write up how WordPress users could modify the standard “Click here” text. It’s a great recipe so I thought I’d share it here. PS If you visit my site, can you confirm that you do not get “Continue reading” in your list of links on the best. I think it is best tested on the main page where there are several posts listed with that phrase. Thanks!

  7. Link text making sense out of context: I’ve always taken that as gospel. So I was very surprised recently to find that it’s only a ‘AAA’ requirement (lowest priority) in the WCAG 2.0. For ‘A’ conformance it’s OK for the link text to only make sense within the context of the surrounding text.

    To see what I mean, compare 2.4.4 and 2.4.9 here:
    http://webaim.org/standards/wcag/checklist

    Any idea what their rationale was for the low priority?

    Where a design called for link text like “More” I’ve usually added context in invisible text, such as

    More> about articlename.

    But using aria-describedby attributes seem to be the modern way to go: http://yaccessibilityblog.com/library/easy-fixes-to-common-accessibility-problems.html (“Adding a description to a link”, with a video of it in action.)

    Is this a technique you’d recommend?

  8. Léonie Watson says:

    Love that rant Karen!

    ARIA is definitely going to solve a lot of problems Francois. In this case, I’m not quite sure it solves everything though.

    The “More…” link would still be context dependent visually. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a general show stopper, but I think it might prove troublesome for people with reading/learning disabilities?

    Using aria-describedby would solve the problem for screen reader users. Until ARIA support reaches critical mass across assistive technologies, I’d definitely recommend including a fall back solution (as well as the ARIA) for legacy support though.

  9. Roddie Grant says:

    I’m sorry to say I found this article rather disappointing – I already know about the problem of link text and I was hoping for very specific advice on how to mitigate it. I regularly get text from customers for their websites with “Click here” or “Read more” as the links they want, which I have to re-write to something better. It’s surprisingly difficult. Has anyone created a “Don’t write this, write this…” list? Such a list would at least be a help to get into the right mode of thought.

  10. It’s great that you have a good handle on writing good link text Roddie. The article was aimed at people discovering this information for the first time of course.

    The idea of a set of “do this” and “don’t do that” guidelines is interesting. There is good guidance available in WCAG, but not perhaps as specific as the guidance you have in mind?

    The challenge with writing such a set of guidelines would be covering all the styles, types and grammatical variations that links encompass. Something to consider for a future article on the HT blog perhaps!

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