As online visitors often jump from one link to another, you should treat your links like headlines. They should deliver your primary message in as few words as possible.
In fact, a recent study by Jakob Nielsen suggests the first couple of words in your links are imperative.
Nielsen reports: “Online reading is often dominated by the F-pattern. That is, people read the first few listed items somewhat thoroughly — thus the cross-bars of the ‘F’ — but read less and less as they continue down the list, eventually passing their eyes down the text’s left side in a fairly straight line. At this point, users see only the very beginning of the items in a list.”
As a result, users typically see about two words (or approximately 11 characters) for most list items; they’ll see a little more if the lead words are short, and only the first word if they’re long.
Nielsen’s study included 20 different links from 20 different sites, and 80 people broadly distributed across age groups, gender and education.
The two winning links also showcased principles for effective web content:
- Use plain language
- Use specific terminology
- Follow conventions for naming common features
- Front-load user- and action-oriented terms
Nielsen also reported there were a lot of bad links. In fact, for 35 per cent of the links, users who saw only the first 11 characters hadn’t the faintest idea of where the links would lead.
The bad links comprised traits that cause bad content usability:
- Bland, generic words
- Made-up words or terms
- Starting with blah-blah and deferring the information-carrying text to the end
“Users don’t need to predict a link’s destination with 100 per cent accuracy based solely on its 11 leading characters,” noted Nielsen. “In real life, links aren’t truncated on the page. Even if users see only the first two words or so during their initial scan, they can immediately read more if their eyes stop on the link.”
Consequently, only the full link text needs to provide the full information ‘scent’:
- Allow users to confidently predict what they’ll get if they click
- Be clearly differentiated from the other links
- Not be misleading or promise too much
The first bit of the link, says Nielsen, just needs to be good enough that users will “sniff the most promising links in full.”