From Case to Colby in 8 jumps: The value and vagaries of external links

gravitysm.jpg
Oddly enough I took this picture of
the gravity rock when I was in
Maine last month!

Sometimes I like to wander the Web while eating lunch. Today I began this endeavor with a trip to Planet Case, beginning with James Chang's "Riot at Columbia University" entry. James—like many of our more active Case bloggers—is usually pretty good about including links to additional information or original sources in his documents. This is both helpful to readers like me who want to know more about something discussed, and helpful to the writer, who can cite an original or secondary source rather than trying to paraphrase, simplify or even misinterpret a particular concept or idea. (On a related note, Mano Singham wrote a good series of articles on writing, plagiarism and the need for citations.)

While reading the entry I quickly came to a place where I wanted more information. As James had provided the link, I followed it. The page I landed on included links to more things of interest, so I followed one of those, and continued the process until 8 steps later I found myself looking at a blog entry incorporating a photograph of the Gravity Monument at my alma mater, Colby College. As it turns out, I recognized the name of the author. He was a friend of my classmate Lauren whose sister Alison moved to Cleveland some years back and is now one of my best friends. I immediately sent the link to Lauren as yet another example of how closely we (humans) are all connected socially. (Mano has also recently been writing about how we are also all related to one another.)

While I've often found it amusing to wander through a vortex of links, this quality of connectedness is really what makes the Web the Web. It's not merely that we can launch things into cyberspace for others to view, but that they can be found and seen—because someone somewhere, whether an individual or a search engine, has created a link that you or I can follow.

External links enrich and add value to your content

As I mentioned above, most good bloggers and Web developers will add links to their pages, either to offer additional information or to corroborate their own ideas or opinions. I've done so myself in this entry. Rather than taking the time to explain the gravity rock, wax forth on the wonders of Colby, or attempt to explain the ideas of James Chang and Mano Singham, I've simply linked to the relevant sites.

Such links (I hope) add value to your reading experience because they keep me (to a degree) on topic. Rather than spending the time to more thoroughly explain those ideas, I can remain focused on this narrative, while still allowing you to learn more. And while I could probably find a way to integrate a summary of their ideas, these summaries would not provide the depth of the original pages. Including links also helps to ensure accuracy and to prove legitimacy.

There was a blogger on campus last year who made grand decisive political statements. But he didn't include links, so I never understood what inspired the statement, why he felt the way he did and whether his opinion stemmed from any factual information. I could have (and sometimes did) pursue my own research on the topic, but usually I didn't have time, especially given the paucity of information he had posted. Commenters often chastised him about this. Similarly, if I hadn't included a link in the second paragraph, I could have described the gravity rock as a tribute to Newton or even a symbol of the seriousness of academia and you wouldn't know if my descriptions were accurate—fyi, they weren't, it's actually about conquering gravity.

How can I keep people on my site if I provide links to other sites?

I've had people tell me they don't want to include links on their site because they don't want their visitors to leave. I don't really worry about that. It doesn't matter how much time a visitor spends on your site. What matters is whether or not your (and their) goals are achieved by their visit. If a user can come to your site, acquire the knowledge you are sharing, or make some sort of actionable decision in ten minutes, then your goal is achieved. It doesn't matter how long he or she stays there. If you provide worthwhile content and continue to add new information (as necessary or relevant) users will stay as long as they need and return again in the future. Your external links may very well be part of the content that keeps them coming back for more.

What you and your colleagues write is important, but you don't have to do it all yourself. If there is another site that offers deeper insight into an issue, go ahead and link to it. In most cases, your readers will be glad you did.

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3 Comments »
  1. If you are worried about visitors leaving your site due to clicking on a link, simply configure the link to open in a new page. Most software can do this for you (usually coded as _blank.) This will allow the visitor to review the source, then close that page and return to your page. While links are important, they can also be frustrating. Don't link to temporary pages (yahoo news for example) or pages that require a subscription (economist, wall street journal) as your reader will reach a dead end. That looks bad on you. Instead you can simply mention the source and if you do provide a link say 'Subscription Required.' Finally, do more than just link to a story. Have a few words about your impression/reaction/opinion of what you are linking to. There is nothing I dislike more than visiting a webpage that is all links and no content. My RSS reader does that just fine.

    Comment by dave — October 6, 2006 @11:19 am

  2. Dave has made some important points here. The idea of including links is to add value to whatever thought you are trying to convey. Links alone, without your input, fail to communicate your position. Instead incorporate them in context, so that they may add to whatever it is that you are already saying. Personally I prefer links that open in the same window (or tab) rather than a new one because it gives me more control on my browsing experience and is less confusing to disabled users who are relying on non-visual clues for navigation and expect to be able to use the back button. That said, there isn't universal agreement on the issue. JuicyStudio offers a good overview—along with reader discussion—of the open new window debate.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — October 9, 2006 @11:43 am

  3. Thanks for the mention. I feel that it is very important to include links and data to support my arguments in order to show the reasoning is credible. If there is information that refutes my argument, I will gladly post it. I don't mind people moving away from my blog. My job I think is to point people in the right direction.

    Comment by James Chang — December 15, 2006 @10:18 am

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