If you edit for digital media, you likely encounter links in copy. If your writers and editors are like most, those links aren’t well thought out.
Unfortunately for readers, that means most links are an afterthought jammed into copy with little consideration of how they affect engagement. Readers often can’t tell what value a link adds and don’t realize when clicking that it may lead them away from your site—so they’re left guessing, distracted from your content.
To give your readers the best experience, follow these simple rules whenever you link away from your site.
Limit your links
If a reader needs more information than you can fit in the current piece, links to related articles and resources can fill in the blanks. This is common for niche sites or service journalism—you can’t cover a whole topic in one piece. In news coverage, links can also add context to a story.
Resist the temptation to link to every tangentially related piece you can think of, a relic of our early forays into writing for digital media. Link loading clutters your copy and begs distraction in the reader.
Ask yourself this: What are the one or two biggest questions you can’t economically answer in a coherent article? Link to content that will answer those questions to give the reader a comprehensive package of information.
Check your site first before linking externally
Your current writers might not know everything you’ve covered in the past, especially if your site has a vast archive. Writers’ first instinct is to Google a topic and link to the most relevant result—they don’t think to first search the site they’re writing for.
Editors can be a check on this habit. Once you’ve determined additional information is necessary, search your site to see whether you’ve covered it. It’s easy: Type “site:[www.example.com] [search term]” into Google to restrict a search only to your site’s content.
Let the reader know why the link is there
Any link can put an unfair cognitive load on the reader. From the anchor text, they have to determine what purpose the link serves and whether it’s worth their time to click away from the current article. Think about how that can stilt the reading experience!
Choose your anchor text carefully to make a link’s purpose crystal clear. For example, “I’ve laid out four good reasons to add a link”; not “let’s talk about linking.”
Let the reader know where the link is taking them
Similar to the why, anchor text should tell your reader the where, especially when you link outside your site. It can improve their experience—they’re not bounced around the internet without notice—and keep them engaged with your site.
For example, “Editor Adrienne Montgomerie recently wrote about how to link for ACES”; not “Editor Adrienne Montgomerie knows a thing or two about how to link.”
Cite your digital sources
Citing a source of information is the most common (and justified) reason you’ll link away from your site. It’s also the one I see done badly most often, both in terms of reader experience and SEO.
Say you mention an op-ed in The New York Times and want to cite the original article for reference. In print, you’d likely write something like, “as Jane Doe wrote in a New York Times editorial about the recent legislation.”
Bad habits in digital, however, have led to a spectrum of citation methods that misdirect readers. The worst is something like this: “the common response to recent legislation” with the italicized text linked and with no reference to the cited source.
To cite and link to a source outside your site, follow the same rules as linking for information: Let the reader know why the link is there and where it’s taking them.
For citation, add one more rule: Make every effort to keep the reader on your site.
Unlike those links for information, a reader shouldn’t need to click on a citation link to fulfill its purpose. It’s there to inspire trust and let them check your work if they want, but they should be able to get the full value of your article without clicking away.
Here’s how to ensure that:
Dana Sitar has been writing and editing for online audiences since 2011, including bylines at Slate, The New York Times, and HuffPost. This is an excerpt from her presentation, “Beyond SEO: How to Use Links for Style and Clarity,” at ACES 2019. Read her tips on the craft of writing for digital media and download her free ebook at danasitar.com.
How to Effectively Link to an External Site was originally published in Tracking Changes (Fall 2019 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.