Fine-tuning link-text: if the headline ain't broke, don't fix it

Old hippie bus.

Hi Rachel
We have a couple of questions about link-text. If it's not too much trouble, we'd like your opinion. We can't find the answers anywhere.

Question 1:  When you are linking to another page on the same website, should the link text be exactly the same as the page title that you are linking to or can the link text be more descriptive of what the reader will find on that page?

Resource title = Terms and conditions for Singapore sports clubs
Link text = read our rules for sports clubs

For example, a page we might want to link to is called “Terms and conditions for Singapore sports clubs”. Should this be the link text we use on an associated page or could we use something shorter and easier to read? For example, Read our rules for sports clubs. And should we use the same link text across the site to refer to the same page?

Hi Gulika
Happy new Year of the Dragon! (I'm a dragon, so watch out for fireworks from Contented this year.)

This can be a sticky problem. But here's what I think: use the page headline (or title) as the words in your link if you possibly can. And be consistent across the web site. When a page or a document has an adequate headline, no need to tinker with it: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

A. Terms and conditions for Singapore sports clubs
B. Read our rules for sports clubs.

  1. Both links and page headlines ought to be concise, complete, packed with keywords and crystal clear.  A passes, B not so much. 
  2. The reader should not be surprised or puzzled after clicking the link: she should know she is on the right page. Links should not confuse people even for a moment's wondering, 'Oh, where am I? There is no confusion when the link-text is identical to the headline or title on the target page or target PDF. A passes, B not so much.
  3. Every link should start with a unique few words. The first 2 words are all-important: these are often the only words people notice. Don't waste that precious slot on any generic, common or vague words. A passes, B not so much. 
  4. Links should be task-oriented. At first sight, 'Read' is a command so the link seems to task-oriented. But it's an illusion, because reading is not much of a task. We take it for granted that every link will lead to something that needs reading! That's true even if the main purpose of the target page is to enable us to register for a conference, or purchase something, or sit a test. You could put 'Read' at the beginning of half your links, thereby wasting some of your most valuable real estate, and reducing the likelihood that links will be noticed.

EXCEPTION: If people are likely to need to print a page, and if the printed page has links to essential information for the task at hand, actual URLs should also be provided. This is an accessibility issue. Here's where decisions get sticky! I would make this kind of link-text the exception, not the rule. I know this comment is vague, sorry: all the more reason to figure out a policy for your web site. Some elegant solutions are possible. 

Rachel, here’s another of a less obvious type  – is the link title solution below better or not – my rationale: you lose ‘issues’ as keyword but get a sense that there are practical tips from ‘How to’ and suggests a concrete, active solution to the user’s problem? Or would it be better to say ‘How to deal with complaints’, so that there is some reflection between the title of the resource and the link?

Resource title = Dealing with issues and complaints
Link title = How to handle complaints
Thank you!

Gulika, again, just stick to the resource title: it will work very well as link-text. This type of link is dealt with in Gerry McGovern's latest newsletter, so I will quote him:

Have unique beginnings for all your links. The first 3-4 words are so incredibly important on the Web. If you have a guide on how to install a router, write the link: “Installation instructions”. Don’t write “How to install this router”. Otherwise you’ll have lots of links beginning with “How to”. Lead with the need.

Gerry McGovern is a hero of the Web. I love it when he says the same thing as me.
Photo of old hippie bus: If it ain't broke, don't fix it, CC Skeggy's photostream

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine



Sandra Clark
Sandra Clark

January 26, 2012

Thank you for that most interesting blog post, Rachel; it is very helpful. I agree with your enthusiastic comment about Gerry McGovern. It seems that whenever I have a problem to do with web content he resolves it, unless you have already done so!
Kind regards, Sandra.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

January 27, 2012

Thank you Sandra! I’m flattered.

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