If Only Links Lived Up To Their Promise

In which I compare links on the Web to their physical counterparts, which seem to be much more trustworthy.

Every link on the web is a promise. A promise made to the user that when they click on the link they will be taken to the place they expect. What sets this expectation? The link itself sets this expectation. It’s like a door with a label on it. If the label says, “broom closet”, we take that as a promise: we expect that if we open the door, a broom closet will be there.

Most physical signage does keep its promise. Most exit signs on a roadway correctly describe where they lead. Imagine if they didn’t live up to their promise! You’d get lost every time you took the exit, and everyone else who took the exit would get lost, too. The highway department would get calls, and the sign would get fixed.

On the web, this rarely happens. Most links don’t keep their promise. They don’t accurately reflect what they lead to. Oh yes, they take us somewhere, but is it usually what was promised?

Because of the frequency with which we click on links and the small amount of time that each click takes, we don’t always realize when a link has failed us. It’s certainly not like getting lost on a roadway.

As a result, we aren’t about to make formal complaints about each link that fails on its promise. It’s easier to stubbornly continue looking than to get angry and complain. And sometimes it�s even hard to know where to complain: some web sites don’t even have a way to contact them!

As a Webmaster I’ve occasionally received emails from users frustrated on a site. All users who get frustrated don’t send complaints, of course, only a small percentage take the time to let me know about it. Their complaint is often the same: “I can’t find… something that I KNOW is on your site.” They never say: “I clicked on this link and it failed to keep its promise to me”, even though that was the case. Some link on the website, or the cumulative failure of many links, ultimately foiled them.

It may be that users never see anything worth clicking on, even though the information they want is on the web site. This is the same problem: the links misrepresent what lies behind them. A good link will reveal that the information the user is looking for is available on the site.

Imagine if links were foolproof: the words of the links described exactly where they went. There would be no confusion – users could be completely confident that when they click on a link they get exactly what they expect. Is this too much to ask?

It would be Nirvana. Users would never get lost. The frustration that we’ve all felt at times, that of not finding what we are looking for, would be gone. Users would succeed 100% of the time.

If only links lived up to their promise.

Published: October 7th, 2004