On links and confidence: the web, and the corporate web

You are writing a web site.

Maybe it’s a blog about your cat’s daily poo. Maybe it’s the web site of a major goverment agency, or a Fortune 100 company. It doesn’t matter really. Both the poo documenter and the F100 website have, at their heart, the same goal. They both try to be interesting to users. They attempt to capture their attention with riveting content, with flawless style, with wit and sometimes humor. And maybe it works.

Maybe it doesn’t.

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that both of these web sites, and everything in between, use a little known feature of the web known as “links”. Even if you have lived under a rock for the last twenty years, you know what links are. What you might not know, especially if you enjoyed the rock living for the past five years especially, is that links are carefully distinguished. There are the hallowed “internal links”, and the second class, dirty, poor, “external links”. A web site would not be the same if it did not have a rich interlinking strategy (wikis were founded on that principle, but you can pretty much count on the cat-poo and corporate-poo web sites to both have them in abundance — helping users navigate is crucial). Both the sites will also have links outside. The cat-poo site might link to interesting web sites selling cat-related products, covering them and perhaps to other cat web sites. The corporate-poo web site will link to partners, press releases and so forth.

We all enjoy attention. We want it, we crave it, and yes, we write for it. We want the user fascinated by our web site. We want her clicking link after link, in wide-eyed fascination. We need him to read over every word we written, every turn of phrase, every pun. We link to the pages we think are especially cool. We make automated systems to link up the interesting, or new, pages. We ask our friends to link to our sites. And we link outside. Are we confident enough to do so?

It’s a free-form web, after all. If a user clicks on a link to a partner, if they get riveted by our link to lolcats, we have lost a reader. They will now waste their time on another’s site. Their precious eyeballs will no longer grace our ads. Our carefully crafted branding campaign will have less chances to brain wash them. We have lost the war.

And so, came the solution. The fix to all our ailments. It is called the “open in new window”. Now, the user can browse the external site to their heart’s content — but they will be in a different browser window, with their main browser window, the one we have reached by guile or by force, still open, still displaying our wonderous content.

It’s admitting defeat. It’s admitting that your web site is so boring, that the only think the user wants is to be away from it, and damn be you if you’re going to help him. Here is where the schism between the cat-poo site and the corporate-poo site shines. The cat poo documenter will have respect for the user. Sure, they might not be paying customers, but they are his friends, his colleagues, his fellow poo documenters. He wants them to have fun with his site, and so he will let them “click away”. Not so the corporate-poo site, with its rigid marketing policies. “The user is ours,” comes the cry, “never to be given away.” Every link is opening in a different window (or on properly configured browser, new tab) not giving decent back-button and forcing you to close tabs, garbage collecting like a lisp system on steroids.

Have confidence. Have respect for the web. And when you use a link, unless you have a good reason, and made it obvious in the text, please open it in the same window. It’s just an a-href away.

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One Response to On links and confidence: the web, and the corporate web

  1. Adi Stav says:

    I disagree.

    It is not (mainly) a marketing thing. It’s a user interface choice. I know users who are annoyed by a link opening in the current window rather than in a new one, because managing a history list is unnatural for this sort of browsing. They really do want to return to the original web site; they really do want a new window opened. Sure, they could use a middle-button, or whatever, but not many know that. Many web sites nowadays offer a small link next to every external link: “in a new window”. It’s just as horrible, but it’s user-driven. And now that users *expect* external links to open in a new window, a web site that offers only in-window links is doubly annoying to them.

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