Standing at the hyperlink crossroads

Standing at the hyperlink crossroads

Linked armsNow here’s a rant I never thought I’d need to make! Who would think we would end up with a debate on the wisdom of using embedded hyperlinks in copy?

Nicholas Carr unleashed a blog post last week positing that the wisdom of embedding hyperlinks within copy should be re-examined in light of research that seems to show that they reduce reading comprehension.

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

Sure, that all makes sense. But does that mean anything needs to change? Is this not merely the simple pay-off for this medium. After all, every medium has some built-in ‘speed bumps’ to comprehension that are made necessary by the form. A television ad break interrupts the flow of a story, but without them, the model doesn’t exist to pay for much of the content. Listening to a live band or a lecture or a comedian surrounds us with numerous speed bumps in the form of all the people around us doing what other people do – distracting us. Even the turning of a page in a book interrupts the flow of a sentence and would, I’m sure, show a similar blip in comprehension as the brain multi-tasks for that brief moment. There is not a single form of content that – in its delivery – doesn’t come packaged with some form of trade-off that can place a little extra ‘cognitive load’ on us, as Carr puts it.

I am not the only one to react in horror at the suggestion of changing how we use hyperlinks. Mark Pesce (Twitter), futurist and fellow NETT Magazine columnist was extremely vocal on Twitter upon seeing the article via Barry Saunders (Twitter).

The hyperlink isn’t part of the thing. It’s the whole of the thing. Strike at the root and kill the tree.

True. Being the central premise of the web, it should be the unassailable assumption around which everything else must compromise.

Hyperlinks aren’t the problem, they’re often the solution!

I would argue (bearing in mind I haven’t conducted any experiments on this) that the absence of hyperlinks can similarly interrupt comprehension. If a blog post refers to a study or article or some other piece of information with which I am not familiar, I would have the same distraction by wondering whether I should locate that item first or attempt to decipher the remaining text without the full context. That’s right – content comes with its own in-built speed bumps that are deeply entwined within the entire process of comprehension.

Consider the above. When I referenced Carr’s blog post, you may feel tempted to read everything he has to say before ploughing through my rebuttal, which would be fair enough and expected – hence my inclusion of the link. The hyperlink isn’t the problem – it’s the dilemma of whether we need additional information or not. This dilemma is most commonly solved by providing a hyperlink at what would seem a slight penalty in cognition. But I would suggest there is probably still a penalty being paid in comprehension if the hyperlink were left out as well! Now that’s an experiment I’d like to see.

Let’s break this down into the four possible scenarios when there is a ‘crossroads’ in the copy. By ‘crossroads’, I mean a point in your copy that requires a decision on the part of the reader. Neatly tying into the analogy, there are four possible scenarios or paths when the reader reaches this point – two of which would be present in any situation. Using the above scenario of my linking to Carr’s post as an illustration, here are the four possible outcomes.

Scenario 1 – There is no hyperlink. You decide it isn’t necessary to visit Carr’s post before hearing my argument and continue reading.

Scenario 2 – There is a hyperlink. You decide that, although the link is offered, it isn’t necessary to visit Carr’s post before hearing my argument and keep reading.

Scenario 3 – There is no hyperlink. You are interested to read Carr’s post before my rebuttal. This then requires you to open another window and search for it – a bigger interruption to your reading comprehension.

Scenario 4 – There is a hyperlink. You are interested to read Carr’s post before my rebuttal and decide to click on the link, planning to return later.

Whether there is a hyperlink or not, a decision needs to be made by the reader, whether they are aware of that minute piece of cognition or not. In fact, that decision is motivated entirely by the need for comprehension, so arguing that it somehow impacts on comprehension is slightly odd.

Carr’s approach doesn’t recognise these four different scenarios and the likely effect each has on our grey matter. But that is because, I believe, he has failed to take into account the different ways in which people read and comprehend online content as compared to offline or traditional forms of content. And yes, there is a major difference. And no, that doesn’t mean somehow that online content isn’t working correctly.

Carr suggests only offers two options – threaded within the copy as we do now, with the minimal cognitive penalty, or listed as a block at the bottom of the copy. How the second option is supposed to lessen this impact on comprehension, I’m not sure. When you come to the crossroads in the copy, should your first instinct be to scroll to the bottom to see if there is a supporting hyperlink, should you need one? Isn’t that an even greater interruption? Even following the Wikipedia method of footnoting their hyperlinks is really no different from anchoring a link as usual – it still offers a choice to the reader that requires a (small) amount of brain power to process.

There is, of course, an aspect to hyperlinking that isn’t covered by the above scenarios. Hyperlinks aren’t always used at a ‘crossroads’. Some people liberally sprinkle hyperlinks regardless of whether the situation requires it – often to promote, often purely for SEO benefits. I would argue that the hyperlink again isn’t at fault, but that content producers need to understand when and where hyperlinks are most appropriate. Also, what may be a crossroad to one reader may not be to another. In a recent post on my other blog, I made reference to my recent eBay auctions and, naturally, hyperlinked it. Some readers who like buying on eBay or are interested in the sort of items I said I had for sale would have hit a crossroads at the mention in the article. Those who would not be interested, would not necessarily have experienced the same dilemma. Crossroads can be a personal thing for the reader and this means a writer needs to consider how he wishes to deal with different points.

Crossroads don’t only appear in online copy, of course. We meet similar scenarios in every piece of content we consume, but without the possibility of the hyperlink to allow different solutions to the problem. If I’m reading a newspaper and an item refers to a piece of news published the day before, there is a definite crossroads but one that offers me fewer choices.

A different yardstick

Studies have shown that 80% of users merely scan online copy, instead of reading every line word for word (I wish I could find a link – anyone got one?). Part of the reason for this is that online copy is a very different beast. Online copy most commonly is a step on a journey. You read one page because you want to find more information that leads you to another page and so forth. Online content does not exist in isolation like so much traditional content does – and unless Carr is arguing that online content should be isolated, then the hyperlink argument should fall down at this point alone. Whether we hyperlink our content or not, the reader is always reading our articles, blog posts and more as part of an ever-changing journey. There was a page before our content – most likely that led them to it – and there will be another page afterwards.

Online content exists in consort with everything else around it. Context, comprehension and more will be entirely different beasts in a world where content is, by its very nature, going to be consumed differently.

The fact that the majority of people scan online copy or flit around from page to page on a continual restless journey for more knowledge, more insight, more content should not ever be seen as a criticism or failing of the world wide web. Even if some of that behavioural conditioning has been shown to have an impact on offline reading, we cannot place blame on the shoulders of the innocent hyperlink. Similar criticisms of an erosion of comprehension have been made against the arrival of virtually every new content form – radio, television, comics etc. Each time people claimed that the ability to read long-form content was being damaged by the new forms with their unique ‘speed bumps’.

The hyperlink isn’t the problem! Instead of trying to fix something that ain’t broke, content producers need to refine how they structure their online copy to extract the best from online reading trends instead of fighting against them.