the secret lives of links

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Links are the molecular bonds of our web sites, holding all the pages together. They are the essence of a web site. Yet, what do we really know about them? If you create great links, your users easily find everything they need on your site. If you do a poor job, your users will find your site impossible or frustrating. We never discuss what truly makes a good link good. Until now. Jared will show you the latest thinking behind the art and science of making great links. Join him for this entertaining and amusing look at the secret lives of our site’s links.


Let’s talk science! We’ve all been putting links on pages, but do we know how to design them well? After studying clickstreams, only 42% of users find the content they are looking for on average websites.

Predicting failure

  • Use of the back button (“the button of doom”)
    Clickstreams that have a single back button usage: 18% success; two back button usages: 2% success. An example of when the scent gets lost, and the users go back to where the scent was strong.
  • Pogosticking
    When the clickstream shows the user bouncing between levels of the information hierarchy (e.g., between the gallery and a piece of content): 11% success (vs 55% success when there was no pogosticking).
  • Using search
    When the clickstream shows the user using site search (one of three ways you can find target content: site search, category/hierarchy, featured content). When users cannot find a trigger word they need by scanning for keywords, they use the search to enter the trigger keyword. BYOL (bring your own link). Look at the search logs to find trigger words. Only search on the homepage 7% of the time? They search from the page they lost scent on (put trigger word on page before that in the clickstream).

It’s not about having links on a page, it’s about having links that talk about what you get when you click the link. When you study links, they secretly live to deliver their user to the user’s desired objective. The current “important story” doesn’t change, even though the structure, design, layout changes. Links communicate what you need to do to get you to the correct story/artifact. How well do your links help users get to what they need?

The Scent of Information

How links pull the user through to the content. The way people navigate large information spaces, if modeled mathematically, looks identical to the same way that a bee searches for honey or a fox chases a rabbit.

Do your links assume your users already know a lot of things, or not? The design of the links therefore have to do with the mission of your organization.

Examine the traffic patterns (what people click on) and compare to the amount real estate given to encouraging people to use those items. (Fitt’s Law: What are the things that are big and close? Are those the things that user’s want to “hit”, or what the marketing people want?). Are you hiding the useful links in order to capitalize on the user’s desire to sell your shit? Then you are killing puppies.

Link copy needs to communicate what the user will get, take the users where they want to go. Links also need to emit the right scent.

Trigger words: A word or phrase that gets the user to act by matching the user’s goals and by signaling how to act (click).

7-Eleven Milk Experiment

(battery died, more notes to follow)