About naming and linking – where Steve Krug might go wrong

Posted: July 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

Everyone who designs websites or theorizes the internet should think about linking at some point. My main subject here is transparency of links.

The phenomenon of expressions with different senses pointing to one reference has never been so important and omnipresent as on the internet today.Each webpage with its unique url can be called a reference. But there are millions of ways in which this reference can be given, and url shorteners like tinyurl.com or bit.ly are tools to generate infinitely many new links, different ways of giving the same reference.

(One can also name a link whatever one wants as in a blog post, when you hover over a link. It can be described any number of ways as when instead of showing a url when you hover the description can say, “link to hypios blog”).

So, while links seem simple enough because we are used to them, linking actually involves us in a complex phenomenon.

The basic issue: How transparent are links?

The basic issue about links is transparency. Links may be more or less transparent. People may try to induce you into thinking that a link points towards the website of, say, your bank and then direct (or redirect) you to a quite different page. Links may try to attract you to a page that you presumably don’t want to go to, like a harmless music video by Rick Astley. And then there’s of course the harmful ones, directing you to pages that damage your computer, or attempt to retrieve confidential information (aka: pishing). Most non-transparent links simply want to get you to buy something or attract your attention. Many of the comments on blogs come with this kind of links (we filter the most obvious ones). It is because transparency is a security issue that bit.ly and wordpress now include previews of the page a link directs you to. But I’m not going further in the security issue here. What I’m interested in is the connection of transparency and user friendliness.

How transparent should links be?

The fact that a link isn’t clear is not always a sign of bad intentions. It may sometimes be hard to find the most transparent name for a link. On hypios, we used to have a Marketplace tab, which has become the Problems tab: we realized that on a site for problem-solving the former tab (and a tab is a form of link) was much less transparent than the latter.

In fact, initially it was Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think that got me thinking about link-clarity. And I immediately realized that Marketplace wasn’t clear for anyone who had never used hypios before, while Problems would be. Marketplace forces users to think what it could mean while Problems doesn’t.

Where you link from is as important as where you link to

Krug thinks that a link should always have the same name as the page it directs you to.

This is a principle which we don’t always apply in our webdesign, simply because there is more to a link than the page it leads you to: there is also the page where it gets you from.

On twitter, hypios tends to use a twitter specific, usually more catchy, description of our blogposts rather than simply using the post’s name.

When you complete a text with links (as I do it here) and don’t want to interrupt the flow of your writing, you sometimes prefer to link non-transparently, as above when I linked Rick Astley to the wikipedia article concerning the phenomenon of Rickrolling rather than to Astley’s biography. Why? His biography is not interesting for this article, while the phenomenon of Rickrolling is. What this example also shows is that transparency comes in degrees. Linking Rick Astley to the Rickrolling article wasn’t as murky as linking ambiguous link to the music video.

Why the url is not transparent

There are different ways of classifying ambiguities: the most basic way, but surely not the best, is according to the hierarchy website – webpage. If the sense of a link is very ambiguous, it doesn’t transparently sort out which website you’re on your way to, if it is mildly ambiguous, it does not transparently link to the particular page. But I would welcome other classification suggestions.

It might seem like giving the url is the most transparent way of linking. But this is only true in principle (it’s true for computers not for human-users). In many cases, the url is determined at the backend according to a system which has more to do with the site administration than with its usability. This is most prominently the case on youtube. Or did you know what “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NlkL1PrsLo” was before clicking (go ahead, we promise you won’t get rick roll’d)? Telling you that it is a documentary about how the first problems were solved on hypios would have been more transparent, right?

When the same tab should lead to different pages (users have a history)

Another of Krug’s rules for webdesign is consistency: a link with the same sense (Frege) on your website should always lead to the same page. This implies, for example, that “Connections”, wherever it appears on hypios, should always lead to your list of connections. Well, as it now stands, it doesn’t.

Here’s what happens with all but the Problems tab: they lead to a description of each feature for the people who have not signed up yet while those who have become Solvers can access the function that the tab refers to. In this case, hypios uses a very basic contextual piece of information about a user to determine where the tabs will lead him to. Most of the people who aren’t logged in on hypios are still discovering the website and need to get more information on what hypios will offer them once they decide to sign-up. We believe that rather than confusing our users, this increases hypios’ usabilty.

Further, having the tabs on the site even before you sign up gives you a feel for the environment you will enter once you do join the Solver community.


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