5 ways news sites can improve their use of links

A person using a website — an “infovore,” to use researcher Jared Spool’s term — navigates the Web much like an animal hunting prey.

This means Web designers need to ensure that users don’t lose the “scent” of the information they’re hunting, Spool said during his South by Southwest Interactive talk, “The Secret Lives of Links.” Spool, who is CEO and founding principal of User Interface Engineering, said links — especially on news websites — tell stories. And the way websites use them can make or break a site.

Here are five main takeaways from his talk:

The more important something is, the more page real estate it should occupy. Users shouldn’t have to work to find the information they’re looking for. Spool summarized Fitt’s law, saying, “If the sucker is big and close, it’s easier to hit.”

Provide ample information on home pages, section pages, gallery pages, etc. Spool said designers have a tendency to strip typography from pages to avoid clutter. But he said clutter, to a user, has nothing to do with the amount of type on a page and everything to do with the amount of irrelevant type on a page. With that in mind, Spool encourages designers to provide enough information on landing pages to allow users to decide whether they want to click through to a story. Not doing so results in users bouncing back and forth from content pages to navigation pages, a phenomenon called “pogo-sticking.” This inevitably results in unsatisfied users, according to Spool’s research.

Links should look like links. A site should have a consistent “visual language” that includes common treatments for hyperlinks. That may mean common colors or consistent use of underlines and font weight. Links should also be loaded with “trigger words” that users may be looking for when searching a particular page on a site, as opposed to  phrases such as “click here” or “learn more.”

Search logs provide good feedback. Spool, who has been analyzing the way people use websites since 1995, said his research shows that users who turn to search are much less likely to find what they’re looking for than those who don’t. That’s because users who can’t find what they’re looking for on a page often use search as a last result. Analyzing search logs, Spool says, can therefore provide useful information about what site users are having a difficult time finding. Most site analytic tools, including Google Analytics, include this functionality.

Links shouldn’t distract users from the main content on the page. Automatically-generated tags (“computer-generated crap,” as Spool called it), text link ads, and other inline elements are bad for readability and shouldn’t be used within content blocks, he said. These cluttered designs, he noted, have created an even greater need for tools such as Instapaper and Readability, which attempt to parse out content from pages and allow users to read in a clean, ad- and link-free environment.

All five of Spool’s points relate back to the central idea of his talk: Never let your audience lose the scent of information. Design, he said, should be user-driven and focus on getting users where they want to go with the least amount of work. For news sites, that involves more than just design. It requires everything from making sure reporters and copy editors write engaging headlines with the best trigger words, to ensuring that analytics are monitored for navigation failures, to adopting a reader-first design approach.

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