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Removing Inline Links to Increase Readability

by Tom Johnson on Jun 19, 2010
categories: technical-writing

In the unfolding saga of inline links within posts and the decline in readability that these links bring about, Adriel Hampton's post helped me persuade me more to this idea. Hamptom quotes from Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Carr writes,

(In a 2001 study) one group read (a short story) in a traditional linear-text format; they'd read a passage and click the word next to move ahead. A second group read a version in which they had to click on highlighted words in the text to move ahead. It took the hypertext readers longer to read the document, and they were seven times more likely to say they found it confusing. Another researcher, Erping Zhu, had people read a passage of digital prose but varied the number of links appearing in it. She then gave the readers a multiple-choice quiz and had them write a summary of what they had read. She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased—whether or not people clicked on them. After all, whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which is itself distracting. … A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding.

In other words, the more hyperlinks that you embed within your sentences, the less readable your posts become because the brain must make a decision with each link whether to click it for more information or keep reading. After several of these links, your brain starts to take on more cognitive load. As a result, it's easier to get sidetracked with tangents or to lose retention of the content.

Every time your readers see a hyperlink in your text, they have to pause and ask themselves whether they should click that link and follow that path, or just stay the course ahead.

For a more in-depth reading of Carr's argument, see Carr's article in Wired, "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains." In that Wired article, Carr explains,

By the end of the decade, the enthusiasm [for hyperlinked text on the web] was turning to skepticism. Research was painting a fuller, very different picture of the cognitive effects of hypertext. Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read.”

To paraphrase, because of over-linked text on the web, our reading habits have become more shallow. When reading online, we skip and skim. We read a bit and click a link, and read some more and click a link. This surfing and browsing results in a shallow reading experience.

The decline in comprehension presents one of the paradoxes of the Internet: Although the Internet presents us with vast amounts of useful, enriching information, at the same time it also shortens our attention span, reduces our comprehension abilities, converts us into shallow readers, and weakens the intelligence we have cultivated.

Since the STC Summit in Dallas, I've had heated discussions on this site about inline links, and Whitney Quesenbery and Caroline Jarrett have tried to help me see things another way. But it wasn't until reading Hampton's post, which omits inline links, that I started to see the improvement in readability that results when you remove the inline links. Stripping away all those inline links really did help me focus on the content.

Though I was adamantly opposed to the denunciation of hyperlinking on the web, and I fought against the abrupt and unargued dismissal of inline links during Kathyryn Summers' and Ginny Redish's Summit presentations, I am now coming around to a new point of view.

My only issue is in finding the best way to correlate the endnote links with the reference points the post. It's confusing to guess how the references match up with the sentences in the post. For example, in Hampton's post, my video interview of Quesenbery and Jarrett is listed at the end, but I'm not mentioned by name in the post. So is the list of links at the end a bibliography of suggested reading? Am I one of the "some bloggers" reference in the penultimate paragraph? Or are the endnote links more like related posts?

It's not that difficult to correlate the endnote links with the post content. Having taught composition in college for four years, I know how to make a general References list -- you just match up the author's last names in the References list with last names in your sentences. But I'm guessing that doing it in a consistent and detailed way will be more tedious and require more effort than most people are willing to exert. Still, I'm going to give it a try in my posts for a while.

References Cited

Carr, Nicholas. "Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains." Wired. May 24, 2010.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.

Hampton, Adriel. "Usability: Are Your Hyperlinks Destroying Your Readers' Brains?Gov 2.0 Radio. June 16, 2010.

Quesenbery, Whitney, and Jarrett, Caroline. "Embedded Links and Online Reading Accessibility: Whitney Quesenbery and Caroline Jarrett, #stc10."  May 7, 2010.

Photo by nozoomii on Flickr.

Author Home Pages

Not cited, but useful for reading more about the authors cited in this post:

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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