In the world of print, you can attract attention to a word by placing it in bold face or italics. Or you can underline it. Or you can put a number after it to refer the reader to a footnote¹ or an endnote².
In the world of the Internet, you can also give it a hyperlink. Since the link is usually colored and underlined, it automatically conveys emphasis. A hyperlink is similar to a footnote because promises clarification or contextualization.
The Chicago Manual of Style, drawing upon centuries of established print tradition, suggests rules for using boldface, italics, underlining, and footnotes.
What about hyperlinks? When and where should we use them?
According to prevailing wisdom, providing a link in the middle of a section of text benefits the reader. Like the footnote, it can reveal a source, explain a term, or provide a deeper excursion into a given topic. For example, if you link the “Battle of the Bulge,” your reader presumes that by clicking on the link, there will be some web page waiting that expounds on that topic.
But the reader doesn’t necessarily know where the link leads. Wikipedia, maybe? Or some World War II site? Placing the cursor over the link brings up the URL code at the bottom of the window, and right-clicking it can open it in a separate window for later perusal.
Nicolas Carr, in his recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, argues that links embedded in running text interrupt the flow of thought. Somewhere in the back of his brain the reader must make a few judgments: Where will this link take me? Should I make the jump now or come back later? Should I skip it altogether?
These judgments must be added to the cognitive load of reading the passage itself. It’s like trying to read while someone is tugging on your sleeve. Carr argues that these competing thoughts interfere with comprehension. Even worse, if the reader actually follows the links, there’s a risk of losing him entirely.
One solution to this problem is to resist linking until the end, and then to present an array of choices, like doors at the end of a hallway. That way the reader can sustain attention for the full written piece without distraction.
In a web essay, Carr experiments with placing all his links at the end.
Carr make an interesting point. Why not link at the end of a piece? The reader can recall the key concepts or names when he or she sees them again in the endlinks. Because endlinks don’t need to fit into the syntax of a sentence, they can be composed to suggest not only the topic but the destination. For example, instead of “Battle of the Bulge,” the endlink can read: “Battle of the Bulge on U.S. Army's Official Site.”
Carr’s argument won me over—but not completely. You may have noticed I have generally shifted my linking strategy, putting them mostly at the end.
There’s no need to be a purist. Sometimes you might want the reader to head out through a side door, and that a kind of channel-surf-skim-reading style is one of the pleasures of the Internet. Not all pieces of writing are long rational expositions requiring uninterrupted concentration. And, as several people pointed out in the comments after Mr. Carr’s essay, embedded links can signal the credibility of the writer’s source material, something that a reader might want to establish before the end.
What link-placement strategy do you prefer? Please let me know in the comments.
NOTES and ENDLINKS
1. Traditional footnotes aren’t really possible on a Web page, since the “page” is scalable and infinitely long; therefore, on a computer, they’re all really endnotes.
2. Amazon’s Kindle handles endnotes by following the word with an asterisk. That asterisk links within the e-book database to the relevant note.
Battle of the Bulge on U.S. Army's official site
Battle of the Bulge on Wikipedia
Chicago Manual of Style Online (a subscription service with a free trial)
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain on Amazon
"Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review." by DeStefano and LeFevre, Carleton U.
Nicolas Carr’s Blog Post: "Experiments in Delinkification" (May 31, 2010)
The Scholarly Kitten blog: "Arguing Against Links"
ReadWriteWeb: "The Case Against Links"