External links from news sites - what should the user experience be?
Over the last couple of days I've been blogging about how external and internal links are placed on guardian.co.uk, following on from Patrick Smith's debate provoking blog post "Link to the past: why do some news sites STILL not link out in 2010?".
One of the problems with this debate is that those involved tend to come at it from the point of view of journalistic process, production tools, or the SEO benefit of link love from major news sources. If you are even considering whether the links in question should be nofollow or dofollow, then you are already far removed from the average audience understanding of how hyperlinks work. I see too little debate about what the audience want or expect in terms of links. Just because deep inline linking is the cultural norm for bloggers, it doesn't follow that 'links are good' should be adopted as a religious mantra.
There are several clear use cases where additional links on news stories should be added as a matter of course, though - stories that reference medical or scientific reports, stories that reference published consultation papers, stories where quotes and pictures are sourced directly from the web, and stories specifically about websites.
(Of course, if you were being unkind, you might suggest that a consistent policy of linking back to press releases that have barely been reworded, stories from rival publications, and surveys that have been commissioned by bodies with an obvious vested interest may not make for an edifying spectacle!)
There are some other key user experience considerations though.
Sign-posting external links
Should external links be signalled in a different way from internal links? You can do this easily if you have a 'Related links to this story' component, but what about inline links? Using different colours on different types of links within an article won't make it obvious to the user what is going on, and littering body copy with icons and (External link) parentheses doesn't make for a great reading experience. And how do you make that distinction for users who rely on assistive browsing technology?
Another issue to consider is the consistent requests from a number of users for external links to open in a new browser window. And sometimes from journalists too. In the comments on Patrick's piece, Chris Wheal says:
"I prefer external links to open new windows. This means no matter how many further links people follow, your website remains open in their browser."
He links to the RNIB's advice on the matter. Not only for accessibility reasons, but the good practice of leaving the user in control of how their browser is behaving, opening links in new windows is to be avoided with almost everything except an audio player. But should you build a little widget that allows users the option of turning on 'external links open in a new browser' during their session on your site?
Do news sources need to provide clear disclaimers about links on every page, or is it ok to mention 'we are not responsible for the content of external links' buried once in the mostly unread terms & conditions of a site? At the BBC I ended up always including 'The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites' in the footer of the homepage for the very few occasions it carried a direct external link.
Another user experience conundrum is what to do about 'linkrot'. Do users expect inline or related links to websites to work as advertised on your site for ever? Do you need to build tools and processes that sweep through your site cleaning up damaged links? Again, whilst I was at the BBC, I built a very crude tool that went through the external 'best bets' links for search, seeking out 404s, other error codes, changes in homepage
<title> tags and suspicious re-directs, all of which might indicate that a link was no longer what it had claimed to be. What is the attitude of your audience to broken links - do they think it reflects badly on the destination, or on your brand?
From a user experience point of view, the issue isn't as simple as just chucking a few relevant links onto a news page. Three blog posts in, and I still haven't exhausted my thoughts about this crucial issue of how news website relate themselves to the rest of the digital landscape. I shall hopefully be returning to the theme shortly...