Usability and SEO of hyperlinks and link text (Reflections on Jakob Nielsen)

By Matt Cornock

Jakob Nielsen is proclaimed as the guru of web usability, analysing and writing about usability and SEO methods any web designer, developer or author can apply to their site. He is both adored and panned by the web community for his insightful and informative, but hideously designed website*. Ranked very highly in the community, his work (when you ignore the shameless promotion of his pricey conferences, reports and books) quite often presents a particular argument followed by a very short counter-argument.

His latest post once again stirs my enquiring eyebrow: [Alertbox] First 2 Words: A signal for the scanning eye. To summarise, Nielsen suggests that the first 11 characters of any weblink should provide cues to its purpose, especially in the case of lists of links.

This makes sense, however you have to also consider the context in which these links sit. The example of a bad link ‘Working while you study: paying tax’ from the DirectGov website, isn’t actually all that bad when you consider the context in which the link sits. Re-writing the link to start with a reference to ‘tax’ or ‘study’ would probably be more confusing as there would be many more links relating to the broad topics of work, tax or study that you can’t simply use the first 11 characters alone.

It’s established that the F-shape reading pattern from Nielsen’s eye tracking research shows how web users scan pages rather than read text. However I would argue that instead of just looking at the ‘nanocontent’ (Nielsen’s phrase, not mine!), focusing on better page layout to create defined sections providing context (content framework) as well would be beneficial.

For example, structuring a page so that lists of a similar nature (top level navigation, news stories, expanded detail, resources) appear in a similar place could aid the speed at which the purpose of a link can be assessed by the user. Likewise, the context provided by a list header speeds up the process. What Nielsen suggests is to make sure that within these lists, the first ‘eye full’ of letters help to distinguish the purpose of the link (the content that would appear when you click on it). What I would suggest would be to make the headers of the sections easy to distinguish and make the link text relevant, short and descriptive. The 11 character suggestion wouldn’t work for specialist (or even just plain boring long) words, I for one would go with using longer words more relevant and unique than shorter, more vague language.

Having the most significant words upfront does help though. Especially in the case of page titles (which are used for website links in search engine results pages – a prime example of a link list) as a key SEO device. In terms of SEO, hyperlinks are also good contributors to page status. Hyperlinks were originally designed for linking to relevant resources within body text, not only to be confined to navigational lists. Making sure that hyperlink text (the actual text used to create the clickable link) is a short description of where the link goes, aids in page status ranking. When you use a ‘click here for more information’ style link, not only are you providing no new information for your user, you also provide a link which when scanned (as suggested by Nielsen) is useless. ‘Click here’ style links are also really bad for accessibility too.

Aside from the minor gripes, the theory for good SEO and usability is sound:

  • Keep text short and relevant. 
  • Stick keywords at the start of any title, heading, paragraph or link.
  • Be descriptive and add context through page structure to aid identifying purpose of a link or block of text.

I’ll be writing more detailed SEO and usability posts in the future, as well as critiquing Jakob Nielsen amongst others.

*Aparently Nielsen keeps the site looking  so bad (nasty bright yellow header and nothing more than black and white text) in a semi-ironic way: “I’m probably the only one who could get away with it. I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody starting out now.” [Technology – Guardian – 9th August 2007]

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