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Only connect…

I had a note yesterday from a client which set me thinking about links.

I had updated the web site of Nicholas Rhea (the author of the Constable books, on which the long-running Heartbeat TV series was based – real name Peter N. Walker) with a news item which had been sent to me by Peter’s wife, Rhoda: a report in the Times Business News quoted UBS, the Swiss bank which acts as ITV’s broker, as warning that cutting popular series like Heartbeat was weakening the company – and I’d added a link to the original report.

Rhoda very kindly thanked me for doing this, and added:

…thanks for putting in the links. So much better than cluttering up the page with too much stuff. I like the way links are highlighted so you can click straight through if you want the full story…

My immediate reaction was: "Me too!" – not so much about how I’d chosen to display the links on the site, although that’s something I think about in every site design: I want links to be obvious enough that the visitor will know they are links, but I don’t want them to be a distraction to someone who wants to read straight through the page.

But what really struck a chord for me was just how useful links are. Mostly I take this for granted, but when I stop and think about it, the ability to link to further information – whether within or outside the site – is one of the things I most value. I love the richness that comes from being able to footnote any point with an unlimited amount of further information for those who want it, the ease of directing others to resources I have found interesting (or illuminating, or just entertaining), the flexibility of constructing sites so that information can be found easily and put into as many different contexts as I like.

The ability to hyperlink is so valuable that I am saddened when people avoid using it (because they don’t want to encourage their hard-won visitors to leave the site) or treat it as currency, something to be exchanged ("I’ll link to your site if you’ll link to mine"). Ultimately, these are strategic decisions that each of us must make for ourself, and it’s up to the client whether the site is generous or frugal with external links. But if it’s my choice, I’d rather build a site that is so rich in information that people will want to return to it.

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