Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The art of linking

For some reason I find it really irritating when I'm reading a blog post on some interesting topic, and every third word is a link. Especially when some of them are duplicates* or semi-duplicates (e.g. linking to Foo and also to the blog post that brought Foo to your attention, or to several other people's commentaries on Foo and on each other's commentaries!).

I am generally in favor of Wikipedia-style linkage as a means of optionally explaining terms that may need explaining. Nice and inline. They don't interrupt the flow unless the reader needs them to. (This is less generally true of blog links. On Wikipedia, you know any blue link will take you to a factual description of X. A blog link could point to anything, and you can't always tell from the URL.) Surgeonsblog is very good at this, with links to informative pages that explain various jargon terms.

An alternative strategy is to write easier and harder versions of your post, and let the audience choose -- but I've only seen this well implemented once, in Tailsteak's retelling of a poignant D&D story. Since the story is about D&D, the options to offer the audience are fairly clear: "Never heard of it", "Some familiarity", and "Know it like the back of my hand". Whereas people's understanding of some complicated science thing may not divide itself so neatly into levels**. And it only gets worse if you're discussing two or more topics interweavedly. What are you supposed to do then, write a separate blog post for each permutation?
(You'll notice, by the way, that the main difference between the three versions of Tailsteak's story is that the "Never heard of D&D" variant begins with a paragraph describing RPGs in general; the bodies of the three versions are basically identical. A simple link to Wikipedia might have sufficed, but I rather like the three-versions trick.)

* Some kinds of link-duplicating are good. Mind Hacks is in the habit of duplicating all the links in a post into a little pile at the bottom of the post. This can also be a subtle way to suggest reading the links in a certain order, possibly a different order from how they were presented in the post proper.

** I have another post brewing about being stuck between the level of popular-science writing and the level of professional scientists.


I strive to clarify what all my links are, in the text of the post.

Good: I recently read Lewis Thomas' essay Autonomy, which I thought was a really interesting take on the way our bodies operate independently of conscious control.
Bad: Here is a link to a really interesting essay I read, about the way our bodies operate independently of conscious control.

Notice also the use of Google-friendly link text -- helping Google index things properly. Googling things like "here", "this", "this page", etc. is an interesting exercise.


Here's a more coherent listing of the irritating links from the beginning of this post. They're a selection of random interesting things I've run across in the past week or so.

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