I've been blogging for several years and have always delighted in sprinkling links throughout the text to give more context. In fact, a couple years ago I specifically increased the number of links I provided in many of my posts, believing that I was doing a service to the reader. I'm now considering reversing that trend everywhere that I post as I believe the style may actually be interfering with my ability to communicate.
In Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows1, there's a review of several studies indicating that articles containing embedded links actually decrease reading comprehension. From the book:
The test subjects who read the pages linearly actually scored considerably higher on a subsequent comprehension test than those who clicked back and forth between the pages. The links got in the way of learning, the researchers concluded.
These results were found in a number of other studies as well. In each study, participants were given the same material to read with and without links, and those who read the material without links always tested higher on comprehension exams later. This immediately made me think that I was doing my readers a disservice by including links directly in the text.
A former colleague once said of my blog posts, "judging by your posts, you don't seem to believe in the philosophy that Internet writing should be short and scannable." He was correct. Most of my posts are lengthy examinations or explanations of technologies and techniques. My intent is for the reader to learn something or, at the very least, understand my perspective on something. I hope that people print out my writing and refer to it later. I've always written more for that use case than the quick-scan to pick up some junk knowledge.
With this new information about how embedded links affect reading comprehension, I'm looking at changing how I make references in my online writing. My first thought was to simply not include any links at all, leaving them off completely and allowing the reader to explore the Internet for more information. But that seemed counter to the advantages that online reading offers. Links are something that cannot be duplicated in print, so just dropping them completely seems like the wrong approach.
The next idea that occurred to me is to use the old footnote/endnote paradigm that we were all taught in school. Instead of embedding a link in a paragraph, I would include a superscript number indicating that there is more information about this sentence. Then, I would include a list of references at the end of the post. You'll note that this post is written in such a manner.
I'm not sure if this is the approach I'll go with long term, but at least initially it seems like a good compromise. Numbered references at the end of a post still allow easy access to additional resources without disrupting the linear flow of the article text. I just want to give the readers of my online writing the best opportunity to learn as much as possible without distraction and I'm hoping that this will help.
- The Shallows by Nicholas Carr