External links from news sites - what should the user experience be?

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 11 August 2010

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?

New windows

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?

Legal disclaimers

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.

Handling linkrot

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?

Next...

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...

8 Comments

Interesting comment about the linkrot - something to ponder a technical solution for.

On the vexed topic of opening links in new windows or not, I feel compelled to advise web designers to take any usability advice with a very large pinch of salt. Yes it is nice to be accessible, but don't get obsessed by the issue.

I used to use a social website which underwent a major redesign, carried out by a graduate with a head full of "rules and regulations" about web design, but no understanding of human experiences.

It was a disaster on so many levels - but the pertinent one here was that the rules said not to use "_blank" in hyperlinks, so the users had to learn to right-click on external links. As we were talking about a website that people would keep open most of the day, it made sense for external links to automatically open in a new window so that you didn't lose the source website.

Alas, the web designer was too wedded to the rules as he had been taught them to take into account user experiences and expectations.

We were in the wrong - not him.

I was more worried about the slavish attention to "the rules" that some people pay without taking into account the reality of real users actions.

Just because an organisation says "do this" for reasons of accessibility doesn't actually that a) they are right or that b) even if they are right for website X, they could be totally wrong for website Y.

I think links should never open in a new window, unless the user has specifically requested it. You seem to make an exception for audio players, though I've seen people on twitter complain about iPlayer launching their audio player in a new window.

I don't think you need to worry too much about differentiating between internal and external links and adding disclaimers everywhere. If users really care, they can look at their status bar to see where the link goes.

You ask about the audience's attitude to broken links. I think, particularly for a news site, people expect the links in all your recent articles to work; if they don't, it reflects badly on your brand. However, for older stories, its understandable if one or two links no longer point to the right place (as long as they're not internal links), that's the destination site's fault and clearly outside of your control. I don't think anyone expects you to go through the links of every article periodically and check they work. A bot could do it for you, but you'd need to be careful they don't remove intentional links, for example, if you did an article on which websites have the funniest 404 pages.

"What is the attitude of your audience to broken links - do they think it reflects badly on the destination, or on your brand?" - Depends on the age. If it's a new link, they looking for reliability. If it's old then it shouldn't matter.

Also people should just link and not worry about nofollow or follow, unless it is for advertisements.

About internal versus external links: I'm not sure whether a little 'exit' icon before or after an external link actually hurts the reading experience. I certainly don't mind it when I surf on Wikipedia, though admittedly that's hardly scientific evidence.

About linkrot: well, I'd like to see news websites mimic Google in this regard: keep internal text-only caches of everything you link to. When a sweeper reports that the original link is a 404 or otherwise unavailable, rewire those links to your internal cache. Insofar as that's viable copyright-wise, that is. While not exactly important if the external link points to a little bit of non-crucial additional information, assuring external links keep working is very important for link journalism or other situations where an external link provides crucial context, like a response to an earlier piece on another website. Even when those pieces are way old.

Anyway, I'm a sucker for detailed analyses of IA/UX issues, so kudos!

Interesting comment on how to make it clear what is an internal/external links. I once had a blog post planned on this very subject as I'd been reading a Guardian article with three links in it - one to an internal tag page, one to an external site's home page, and one to a previous Guardian article.

It was impossible to tell where they were going (from memory, I think they were all one-word links) without checking each one.

I never wrote the blog post as I couldn't come up with a solution that worked for everyone - although I did think colour coding could work for the Guardian as you don't change the link colour of already visited links - so your current pale blue could be used for internal links and, say, dark blue for external ones. You could maybe use the title tag to make it clearer from an accessibility point of view.

But then i realised that new users would probably think that the dark blue links were links they had already visited. So no one would ever click them. Then I gave up.

There is no one rule to apply when it comes to internal and external links. As each site is different and so are your users. Some of them will bitch about links opening in new windows and some will bitch about links not opening in new windows.

Color coding could work, but what are you going to do? Put a legend next to the heading of every article?

I prefer in most instances, that external links open in new windows. Like you said, it keeps your site open at least to some extent.

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