Good links are promises and paths – or they are pests

A link is a promise

Gerry McGovern says “a link is a promise, and if websites were marriages, many would end in divorce”. Links need to keep their promise or people are frustrated. Designing links is the fundamental skill of the web. Links connect the steps of a user experience, and help users complete tasks. Links create expectations. People scan them and quickly build a sense of what to expect once they click them. If their expectations are not matched, they are disappointed when the page loads. They may hit “back” too soon, or leave the site altogether. Good links match user expectations. They fulfill their promise. Your links help you build trust.

Tip: “Lead with the need”; keep link labels brief, specific,
well-matched to the title or header of the page they load.

A link is a step in a path

The ideal link leads the user down a path that helps them complete their task. The ideal link is thus part of an overall experience. That path may not load many pages, but it may involve multiple choices or selections. A link or button may lead to another page, where a user scans for what to do next. Or with Web 2.0 a link or button may cause more information to appear on the same page, so a task path occurs without a page load. You might also hear these paths referred to in terms of steps, screens, journeys, etc. Whichever, the path needs to be optimized to help the user finish the task.

Tip: Reduce the number of steps to accomplish top tasks,
and keep users from being diverted by many alternate routes or pages to try.
Teach people who write for the web to think of the path created by their links.

A link can be a pest

Links sometimes sneak in where they don’t belong. Links that don’t belong distract users from a task, make extra work for web authors, or breed other links. Pests creep into a well-cared-for space and try to make a home. Links can too – when they creep onto a well-designed navigational menu or page. Pests that users cannot ignore can ruin a great visit. Same with links that distract users from the reason they visited. Furthermore, pests require maintenance – as all links require maintenance. Links have to be checked, repaired, managed on the page, and tracked in analytics. Links that are pests create unnecessary work for everybody. How do you get rid of links that are pests?


  • Optimize for search and sweep out pests
    Some links are long-tail – important but too low-volume to merit space in a navigational menu, home page, etc. For those low-volume links, optimize those pages for search engines to find them, using words people are scanning for in page titles, headers, links, etc. Then sweep the low-volume long-tail pests off the main page.
  • Transplant pests
    Find out where the links REALLY belong, and transplant them. Well-meaning web authors sometimes put related links on a page. But users are scanning for links to accomplish the main task they come to that page to do, and sometimes click those related links – or leave – before they see the links or content they came for. Transplant related links where they will thrive, in places where the user most needs them to do a task.
  • Build a place for pests to live somewhere else
    Some links are important, but just not important enough to keep in global navigation or top-level pages. These links may not be pests once they are in their proper place. Give these links a home of their own. These links might belong on a sub-site or in contextual navigation deeper in the site. If they are important, users will appreciate the fact that they are on a page that is optimized to a task.


If you have links that are pests, sweep them out, transplant them where they can thrive, or build them a new home.

Tip: Keep links visible in the primary scanning area, not below the fold,
easy to discriminate from each other
so users aren’t tempted to compare too many choices.

Manage your user experience by building good links. Links are fundamental to your user experience. Get rid of pests and make good promises and paths. Give us a call at 613 271-3001.

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