Links are broken. These three alternatives have improved our users’ reading experience.
It’s all about focus, relevance and context
At De Correspondent, a Dutch journalism platform with 35,000 paying subscribers (at €60 a year), we're all about providing context to the world in a thoughtful and in-depth way. This requires considerable effort, both from our writers and our readers. But, after years of being bombarded with ever-more-simplified content, how do you get readers to take the time to read longer publications online?
One of the most distracting phenomenons while reading is the hyperlink. Links point us in directions that may very well prove worthwhile, but at the same time they force us to make a decision: to click or not to click.
Links form the backbone of the internet. And yet no improvements have made to this quintessential part of the web for decades. We took up the challenge. Here’s how.
Three things we did to improve the link experience at De Correspondent
Being a highly unfocused and distractible reader myself when it comes to online content, I find that many interesting and worthwhile publications manage to escape my attention. My thinking about why this happens boils down to a rather simple conclusion: nearly everything on the internet is designed to distract. Everything is carefully constructed to grab your attention at any moment, no matter if you are just looking around, or worse case, if you are actually consuming the content offered to you.
Menu items lead you away to other interesting sections, links to related items tantalize you with similar content you might like, and ads try to lure you into buying something, often on some other website. (We solved this last issue by deliberately creating an ad-free publication, but that’s another story.)
And then there are links.
Flawed by design
Links are great for connecting content, topics and viewpoints. All you have to do as a user is click on one to start another endless journey into a world of knowledge, entertainment, or utter nonsense. That said, links also have a number of major drawbacks. They provide little or no context for the journey ahead, they distract the reader and they litter articles with countless blind spots, asking you to trust that your click will be rewarded with something worthwhile.
For a publication that aims to provide readers with insightful longreads, these are huge flaws.
After all, links offer your readers reasons to leave. For example: if you put a link in the first sentence of your piece, you're basically saying “The rest of this text isn't worth your time anyway. Just click here. It will explain everything!”. And as a reader of course, I often don’t return. After a brief clicking frenzy, I soon lose track of where I started in the first place. And how could I remember? I didn't even get the chance to get immersed in the original article yet.
Also, reading is passive. Clicking, on the other hand, feels active. Instant gratification. “I did something. Yay!” It’s effortless and quick, whereas reading the whole article can at time be much more work. The fact that I clear my schedule every now and then to catch up on reading all my open browser tabs is a direct consequence of this behaviour.
A new kind of linking
At De Correspondent, the Dutch journalism startup we founded in late 2013, we wanted to face these issues head on. As a result, our publications don’t contain any traditional in-text links. This clears a lot of the visual clutter and eliminates the reasons to leave found in most articles. When we tell you a story, we'd like you to keep listening — from start to finish. There is a flow we would like you to get into. We introduce you to a topic, elaborate on our findings, and come to some kind of conclusion. Providing our readers with too many distracting reasons to leave the article before finishing it, would keep us from being able to convey whatever it is we'd like to convey.
To enforce this principle, our editing platform Respondens, doesn't allow authors to add common links to their stories. However, we offer them three more effective alternatives: an info card, a side note and a featured link. I will explain the purpose of each and the reasoning behind this approach.
1. Info cards
One of the issues we wanted to address is the reader’s potential knowledge gap. If you don't know enough about a person, company or topic mentioned in a story, an article becomes hard to follow. Chances are, you will stop reading altogether. At best, you will have to pause temporarily to search for the information you need to fully understand this specific part of the story. For this reason authors often add the required background to make sure everybody is sufficiently able to read the story. But for readers who do have enough background knowledge, these unnecessary additions can be annoying and can even be perceived as a slight to their intelligence. “Yeah, yeah, I know all this. Why are you wasting my time with the obvious?”
We solved this problem by introducing something we call the info card. This piece of additional content is only presented when you have a need for it. You consult an info card by clicking on the indicator next to a name or term in the story. Info cards are closed by default, so you can easily skip over them if you already have the required background knowledge. Opening an info card simply inserts explanatory information into the text itself. Your eyes will never have to leave the main story, or even to move to another part of the page. There’s no need to search; the information you need comes right to you. You simply continue reading as if this addition were part of the article in the first place.
2. Side notes
At De Correspondent we are all about providing context. We don't simply report the news. Instead, we explain why something is news, or why it should be news. We try to contextualize the world around us, and we feel that the way we present our stories should reflect this same philosophy.
The main purpose of most links is to provide an additional layer of information, a more in-depth view, or simply to share sources. However, links generally offer little or no information about what users will see once they click. Readers have to glean this information from the context of the link. Sometimes the linked word or phrase gives you some idea where the link will take you, other times the surrounding paragraph could provide an indication.
We wanted to do more. An external link can be a valuable addition to an article, especially if it provides background information of interest to the user. It would be very useful, however, if it weren’t left up to the user to figure out why the author added the link in the first place. To achieve this we introduced something we call a side note. It functions just like a regular hyperlink, but appears in a separate column, next to the paragraph concerned, like in an annotated text. Each side note has an icon indicating the type of content you are about to see, like a video, audio fragment or report. And next to the icon, a brief description of the content being linked to. Side notes make it clear whether a link is relevant for you.
In addition to clearing the main text of links, the added benefit of presenting our links in the bar next to the article, is that it functions as sort of a checklist. No need to remember the exact location of an interesting link for later consumption. Just quickly scroll down the page for an overview of all the relevant additional information that might interest you.
3. Featured links
And then there is a third distraction we wanted to get rid of: the premature link. I've always found it quite strange when authors link to a page, tool or whatever, the first time they mention it, while you as a reader haven't even had a chance to read why the author has added the link.
Take an article recommending a music festival, for instance. In many cases the first section of such an article will contain a link to the festival website. The problem is not so much that the link is there, it’s just that the author hasn't gotten round to explaining yet why it would be such a great festival to go to. A reader who clicks on the link as soon as it appears will go to that website under-informed (at least in the eyes of the author who had something to say about it). Why would you want to send your readers off somewhere else to do the exact same investigation that you've already done?
On our platform, such important links — which we refer to as featured links — are placed underneath the article. Placing them at the bottom ensures the reader’s attention and focus will stay with the main story. As an added bonus for finishing, readers receive links to other stories — but now as welcome supplements instead of distractions. Consistently placing important links at the end means soon all your readers will know where to find them.
Read more about our world record in journalism crowdfunding
True to our philosophy on the presentation of links, here are a few items related to this article:
Example publications — Why we should give free money to everyone — 6 secret traits that make Louis van Gaal the humble genius he is and mainstream media fail to see — The Critics of Alain de Botton got it all wrong. Here’s why
Our website — decorrespondent.nl (Currently Dutch only. We are looking into expanding it with an English version.)
Features by others — Inside De Correspondent (Fast Company) — A Successful Paywall Around Your News (Gigaom) — Three things traditional media could learn from a crowdfunded Dutch news site (Gigaom)
Thank you for reading! I’ll keep you posted on our next steps by writing stories on Medium. You can also like our international Facebook page, where we’ll share translated articles.