Links that stink on news sites.

Media criticism.
April 3 2008 6:25 PM

Links That Stink

Grumbling about the misuse of hyperlinks on news sites.

washingtonpost.com. Click image to expand.

When Vannevar Bush first dreamt of hyperlinks back in the 1940s, surely he envisioned something tidier than the link riots that erupt on many of today's Web pages. The extraneous links etched into most Washingtonpost.com stories, for example, make it look as though an insect rode a unicycle dipped in blue ink through the copy before you got there.

Almost any Washingtonpost.com or Nytimes.com news story demonstrates the sites' link-happy tendencies. A good example of the Washingtonpost.com's overkill is this Page One story from Monday about the alleged budget crunch faced by some states. In the first 95 words, the story links Illinois, Cook County, Michigan, New Jersey, California, and San Fernando Valley to Washingtonpost.com landing pages containing general news, video, and audio about those places. No thinking human would ever add these links—obviously, a human has programmed a computer to automatically insert them.

Of what use are such landing pages? For the reader, little. They exist for the publisher to serve another page of ads and to optimize search engine results.

I don't oppose sites serving ads or optimizing pages to improve search results—as long as the strategies don't waste readers' time. But that's what many of the landing pages do. The real sin here is how extraneous links induce link shyness: When the time comes that the reader will benefit from clicking on a link, he'll not bother because the site has taught him its links are worthless.

Next up on my hate list are links that come alive when you mouse over them. On many business sites, a pop-over bullies its way onto the page when your cursor lands on a keyword or phrase, offering to fetch you a stock quote or company news, conduct a search, or impose a frigging ad on you. These pop-overs really suck when they obscure the copy I want to read. See this Bloomberg.com page for a modest example of this practice and Yahoo News and Breitbart.com for really obnoxious ones. (Ryan Block of Engadget has declared war on keyword pop-over ads.)

I despise sites like the Nytimes.com that think double-clicks of a word should automatically open a new window and fill it with the word's definition. Please show me where I can turn this "feature" off! I've reserved a superscalding hypercircle of hell for Yahoo News, which thinks double-clicking a word means I want a billboard of additional news and search options to spring from the page. Don't bother telling me how to turn this feature off. I'll just avoid Yahoo News altogether. (And every page tainted with Snap Shots.)

Only slightly less maddening are the sites and writers that think a links package that reads "click here, here, here, and here for more" is an inducement to visit additional pages. If a writer is too lazy to indicate where the link is going to take me, I'm too busy to click. (Along those lines, I could do without the overdone links that make an entire paragraph linkable.)

Gawker's mixed-link philosophy also grates on me. Some links in its copy lead to Gawker landing pages. That's bad. Others lead to specific Gawker stories or to outside stories, which are also relevant. That's good. I wish the site didn't force me to inspect the status line of my browser to see where a text link is about to take me. Mr. Denton, remove those landing-page links from inside your stories!

Here's my last bitch: Why doesn't every newspaper Web site routinely link directly to the competition's work? If a competitor's story is good enough to cite in the copy, it's good enough to link to. Examples: A recent Washingtonpost.com story cited an Nytimes.com story but linked to a generic page about the Times. The Nytimes.com does no better, citing a news-breaking Washington Post story in a recent article but not linking to it. (I can't even locate a landing page for the Washington Post on Nytimes.com. Subtle slap or oversight?)

There is, I'm happy to report, one old-school print journalist whose stories point to the greater Web when they're put online. His name is Frank Rich, and unlike so many of his newspaper peers, he links to the competition, the out-of-town newspapers, the blogs, the candidates' Web sites, TV transcripts, YouTube, survey results, and his own publication's copy.

It's the way it should be done, and I'm not saying that just because it's the way nearly all Slate writers do it.

******

Ryan Block suggests remedies (Firefox add-ons, etc.) for the most obtrusive ads but hopes you won't modify your browser to block all ads because then he (and I) would be thrown out of work. What links peeve you the most? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.