Using links in ‘how-to’ content

When should you use a link in copy? How many links should you use on a page? What happens when a user sees a link?

We know lots about the technical aspects of using links on websites. But it’s hard to find solid advice for copywriters about when to use a link and where to put it.

Links work differently in different kinds of content

In commercial content, the end goal is to sell something. You’re trying to hang on to readers, using links to lure them deeper into a site and entice them back to your core proposition.

But we’re thinking about ‘how-to’, instructional or information content, like government guidance. Here, the goal is for people to get what they need and leave as quickly as possible. We’ve got to use links in a different way.

What happens when a user sees a link?

Links are visually distinctive. They act a bit like subheadings. People use them to help them scan the content on a webpage.

So the first thing someone will do with your links is use them to see if they are in the right place – on the right web page, or in the right section of a page.

That means you should only use links that are are salient and relevant to the content on the page. Links that look random will confuse people.

It also means that clicking on a link is really a secondary thing for users. First, you have to convince people to read; then they might actually click on a link.

Make links relevant to your users

So, how do you make links relevant to your users? In instructional content, only use a link that supports the user journey at that point. That usually means:

  • giving users something they need to complete a task
  • linking to supporting information
  • triaging people who should be somewhere else

Give users something they need to complete a task

From the MOT testing content on GOV.UK, here’s a great example of giving users something they need to complete a task:

(They should call it something like the ‘MOT appeal form’, though.)

Here’s another good example of helping users complete a task – linking to contact information:

Link to supporting information

Linking to supporting information is trickier because it’s tempting to chuck a whole load of these links in. So only link to supporting information if:

  • people need it to understand what you’re saying on this page
  • it offers a level of detail that some users will need

This is a good example of when to offer extra detail.

And here’s a link for people who can’t understand your page without reading something else – what’s an enforcement notice?

Help people who are in the wrong place

It’s fine to triage people who may be in the wrong place – for example, breadcrumb links can be used to help your users to immediately understand where they are on your site. If they’re in the wrong place they can then make a choice about where to go next.

Click here!

There’s plenty of advice about how to write good anchor text. (And yet, so many otherwise good writers seem to ignore it.)

Here are a few rules that aren’t often spelled out:

  • don’t ever, ever, ever use ‘click here’
  • frontload – people only read the first 2 words
  • to strengthen a call to action, use commands to tell people what to do (like ‘read’)
  • don’t hyperlink too many words or a whole sentence – it’s hard to read
  • say exactly where the link goes
  • if in doubt, hyperlink the nouns

Where to put links

Write links in running copy (‘inline links’). That means users will find them as they need them. They also help people scan a webpage, acting as little signposts to explain what the paragraph around them is about.

Inline links work well in mobile content. They help people navigate without having to use dynamic page elements (like buttons) that eat up bandwidth.

Don’t add a list of links to the end of a page or a section – people probably won’t read that far.

How to use links to fill people with rage

There are some things you should never do with links, or you will seriously annoy your readers.

Never say one thing and link to something else.

Don’t keep linking to the same thing in one piece of content.

Don’t link to anything people can’t get directly to (like anything behind a password-protected firewall.)

Check it works!

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