LINKS make the Internet work. Get them right and your site’s in business. Get them wrong and you risk putting people off for good.
Recently, we’ve observed a rising number of issues with how companies format links on their corporate sites. These make it harder to identify links and, in some instances, actually confuse users.
Sites with link problems are harder to use because they make you think about navigating rather than the navigation being intuitive. Repeated surveys show that people rate ease of use as a main reason they prefer certain websites over others.
If your site’s hard to use, people will use it less. This in turn limits your opportunities to use low-cost, high-impact electronic communications in your company’s IR program.
You can screw up your links in many ways. I’m only going to mention the most important ones that we’ve been seeing recently. Earlier articles have chronicled the importance of avoiding broken links, but here we’ll focus on how to format your links properly.
Designers have wide latitude to override Web’s default link settings
All links on the Internet have the ability to tell you what pages you’ve seen and what links you haven’t followed yet. This is communicated through color and by underlining words that act as links.
The default Web settings for link colors are:
Blue for links that have not yet been followed.
Purple for links you’ve already visited
Designers can also attach a hover effect to text links. This changes the color, underline, size or face of the link when people place their cursor on it.
Site designers have wide latitude to change the color and other variables on text links. They often do so for design purposes, choosing colors that compliment the color pallet of the site itself.
This is fine when it is done with some forethought, but too often site designers make choices that make no sense for the user and can make a site extremely difficult to navigate.
Similar colors for visited and unvisited links slow navigation
Problems occur when designers use similar or the same colors for visited and unvisited links. This makes it hard or impossible for people to tell which pages they’ve been to, raising the likelihood of them visiting the wrong pages repeatedly and so wasting precious seconds in their average three-minute site visit.
Poor link color choices force people to think about navigating a site, rather than giving their full attention to the information the company wants them to see. For you, this deflected attention and wasted time is a missed opportunity to communicate valuable or important information to your investors.
The solution may be to use either the default colors blue and purple or to use one of them as it’s meant to be applied. For example, some corporate websites use black for unvisited links and purple for visited ones.
Another alternative is to make visited links a much lighter shade of a dark color, like grey for black. Whatever you do, don’t contradict convention, like using blue for visited links. Also never use the same color for visited and unvisited links (see below).
Links with no underline can be harder to see
The default setting for the Web is to underline links. This makes links highly visible from the surrounding text even if the link color and the text color are the same.
It’s common now for designers to kill the underline on links and rely on color alone to indicate text links on a page. This is particularly problematic when the link color is very similar to the text color.
To confirm that something is a link when it’s not underlined, users have to mouse over it. Underlined links are easy to see and don’t require users to think.
Don’t underline non-links
Underlining non-links is often the result of putting printed documents online without adapting them for the conventions of the Web. Lawyers particularly like underlining important text or headings in their documents. However, unless they are links, the underline should be be removed before the document is put online.
When you underline something that’s not a link, you undermine users’ confidence in your site and waste their time. This is because they will presume anything underlined to be a link. They will be disappointed and a little frustrated to find that your underlined text is a heading or an attempt to add emphasis to your document.
Don’t go against the flow
As Rob Adler, president of IR website vendor CCBN likes to point out, the cookie-cutter structure of services like his has the benefit of bringing some standardization to IR Websites. Visit one CCBN or Shareholder.com site and you pretty much will know how the next one works.
This is because they commonly use similar terms to describe the links to different pages on their sites. For example, frequent users of IR websites know what they will find if they click a link to “fundamentals.”
Your link labels shouldn’t contradict these conventions. Don’t make a link to fundamentals, for instance, take users to a page describing your company’s products. Don’t use terms like From the Trading Floor for something that most companies simply call Stock Quotes. You will confuse users and make them lose confidence in their ability to use your site efficiently.
Two ways to improve your link labels are:
1. Use link tips.
Link tips are coded into hypertext links and cause a yellow tip box to appear next to users’ cursors. If you’re using Internet Explorer or a more recent version of Navigator, then you should be able to see a tip box by placing your cursor over these words. The description in the tip box should tell the user what they will find when they follow the link.
2. Don’t overwrite them.
When links are clearly distinguishable, you don’t need to tell people they’re links. They know already without thinking. So you can lose the instruction to “click here” in almost all your links.
Click here to read the Q1 2004 earnings release
or better still
Avoid using default link colors for non-links
With the rise of non-underlined links, this problem has become almost as bad as underlining non-links. Coloring text in bright blue suggests that the text is clickable. Again this can result in reduced confidence and more wasted time for your site’s users. See Conoco example below.
Don’t use more than one link color scheme
Just when you thought it couldn’t get more complicated, imagine the confusion on sites that use more than one color scheme to indicate links. These sites should come with an instruction manual. See Conoco example below.
Ironically, links aren’t used often enough
Despite all the things that can go wrong with them, links are nonetheless one of the modern business communicator’s most powerful tools. They allow you to broaden the online experience of users and provide value by linking to related information.
Links let you strengthen investors’ understanding and their ability to interpret events by providing them with easy access to collateral background information.
As we explain in Preparing earnings releases for the Web, this allows you to communicate your key points in a shorter time while giving users the option to obtain details on other pages.