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Welcome to the Exit

A Look at Link Pages

July 15, 2008

Link pages are lists of links to external sites. We've all seen them: short to long, focused to seemingly random, mundane to cool. The idea of the link page is as old as the web itself: a collection of interesting or important off-site pages that we hope the reader might want to visit.

On one hand, links themselves are a great way to help your visitors find information that you don't cover yourself. Links to online applications for government services, external information on corporate partners, tangible examples of our successes... there are many good reasons to link to external information.

But is the link page itself the right way to go, or has the medium evolved beyond these simple lists of links?

First, the Good News

Links to external information are often quite useful. If the content you present to your visitors begins to wander out of your area of expertise, or you wish to point to reference materials or affiliates, links can allow the visitor to explore beyond what you are willing, capable, or legally permitted to present. External links allow web managers the freedom to explore only the information within our immediate focus, while still understanding that the visitor may be seeking greater depth.

Additionally, if we provide quality links to external information that allows the visitor to learn more, we may find that our site has increased in utility to the user, even though he or she may have temporarily left. For example: Google provides almost no information on its own, but it is often the first place people visit when seeking information. This repeat business is due solely to the fact that Google's results are more often useful and relevant than those of other search engines. If the external links we provide on our sites help our visitors find the depth or services they seek, we can improve how we are perceived by those visitors even if we don't present a comprehensive picture within our own site.

Pit Stop or Destination

And yet, though every link to another site is an opportunity to network with the larger web universe, each is also an easily opened doorway enticing your visitors to leave your site entirely. If the alternative options you present have more and better content overall than your own site, what incentives do they have to stay or re-visit?

If your site is not seen as a frequently updated aggregator of what is cool and useful to your visitors, why should visitors return once they've exhausted your links and found better content elsewhere?

Of course, to be honest, there is nothing that traps any user on your site. If users want to leave, they will. But we should take care to assure that visitors leave for the "right" reasons, and not because we've pushed them away, in order that they may return again later. Even if we offer our visitors frequently updated and useful links, as in the case of assuming the role of a "portal", we run the risk of sending the wrong message.

In an era where content is king, announcing that you have little while pointing to those that do is hardly an ideal way to make yourself relevant. Rather, we risk making our sites just another signpost along the way... a pit stop at which the traveler got their bearings, but not the actual destination.

Retaining Relevance

In order that our sites become the destination rather than a waypoint, we must strive to find balance between what content visitors expect or prefer locally and what information they're willing to go off-site for. That doesn't mean that we must incorporate all possible content on a subject in the local site, merely that we stick to well thought-out rules about when and where links are a better option.

We must also be certain to live up to our brand promises as well. If our site claims to be "the premier stop for information on the nutrition of eggs", but relies upon the content of others for the specifics of that information, then the site has essentially misled the visitor. This is not only true of mission statements, but of site navigation as well. If the main navigation of our site suggests "Community Resources" as a topical area, but leaves the dirty work to other websites, we've not done a very good job of convincing our visitors that we care about the community... merely that we are aware of it and its potential importance to the visitor. Not exactly the best message, is it? If something is important enough to list in our mission statements or topical navigation, it should be important enough to warrant our full attention.

The opposite is also true. If the point of our site is still to be "the premier stop for information on the nutrition of eggs", but we sidetrack into information about chickens in general, we may be clouding our message and losing focus.

In short, be sure the actual content of your site lives up to its brand promises, but don't be afraid to link to external media that supports your site in areas you've clearly decided are not within your purview.

The Paradox of Choice

With a clearer picture of when and where to use external links in mind, it is still worth noting that too much of a good thing is nearly always bad for you. This is even true of some ideals that we cling tenaciously to as a free society. As is well outlined in the recent book, "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz (Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College), being presented with too many options makes us feel powerless rather than empowered, and as a result, the choices we do make often leave us dissatisfied as opposed to contented.

In example after example, studies have shown that, despite what we may "say" on the matter, our brains tend to prefer fewer, well articulated suggestions of course than a multitude of less defined paths. For example, as Professor Schwartz observes:

"A large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and don't buy the product. Or if they do, the effort that the decision requires detracts from the enjoyment derived from the results."

Further on:

"When college students who are deciding what courses to take next semester are presented with summaries of course evaluations from several hundred students that point in one direction, and a videotaped interview with a single student that points in the other direction, they are more influenced by the vivid interview than by the summary judgments of hundreds."

The lesson to be learned here is that our visitors do not need or even necessarily want the full array of choices that are actually possible, but rather a well-reasoned and focused few that guide them on their way. Even if what we offer are not necessarily the "best" choices, visitors will often feel better about the simpler choice simply because they won't feel stress about each road not traveled. As content producers, it is our duty to help our visitors find their way, not to simply dump the responsibility of choice into their untrained hands.

Context Matters

Once we've determined what information we are and are not prepared to provide, how much and what kinds of external content we want to use to subsidize our own, there is still the question of how to organize that information and present it to visitors.

In the early days of the web, it would often suffice to have a page simply titled "Links" to act as the catch-all, junk-drawer solution for all the little orphans we care about enough to mention. While these "link pages" still survive to a small extent online, their original prevalence was due in large part to the fact that no one had yet bothered to think of a better way... a standard basically developed out of apathy rather than utility. Additionally, their usefulness has been largely surpassed by the effectiveness of search engines and improvements in organization through meta-data, tagging, and the like. Fortunately for everyone, the days of rolling the dice when clicking links and hoping for relevance, while not entirely gone, are beginning to fade.

This begs the question: why have lists of external links at all? If users can typically do a search on Google and find exactly what they're looking for, what additional benefit can your website possibly provide with external links that Google does not? The answer is simple: context.

One of the key differences between starting a search on Google versus browsing to specific content on a topical site is the establishment of context, of starting with a simple understanding rather than a blank slate. Doing a search for "nutrition" on Google returns well over one hundred million results... but browsing to "nutrition" on a site dedicated to eggs is far more likely to get specific information that interests a visitor.

The same holds true for content we link to externally. If the context we provide is little more than alphabetized chaos, we're not really helping anyone. Since many classic links pages were merely collections of "things not covered here" with overly simple categorization, these pages were typically of little more use than a simple web search on generalized topics.

So how do we provide this context?

A Better Ideal

It seems clear by this point that the old standard of simple lists of links is hardly the way to move forward. The options are too many, the context is too loose, the assistance in way-finding sadly lacking, and too often the options are redundant with each other or even our own offerings.

Though pages dedicated to off-site offerings are not entirely a bad idea, we should in the future take care to be sure of several factors:

First, choose external sources that work well in parity with your own services and content, making up for what you lack while allowing you to adequately cover the ground your visitors expect from you personally.

Next, be sure that the options you present are well-defined and described. This can be done by relating them to content on your own site of a similar nature, by offering textual descriptions and other visual guides, by organizing them into clearly identified categories, or a combination of the above.

Third, select a focused set of options rather than a wide variety. Remember, "more" is not "better".

Finally, avoid the "junk drawer" approach to linking. Context is important, and if linking to external sources is important to you and your visitors, be willing to give your links the attention they deserve.

Though the days of the pure links page are finally drawing to a close, there is still plenty of room for the appropriate use of external source listings. With these guidelines, your links to external sources can once again become a tool that works to the advantage of both you and your visitors.

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