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From a user point of view, I think it is a reasonable idea to distinguish internal and external links. By internal links, I mean links that have the same domain name than the website displaying the link, and by external links, links that goes elsewhere.

To take an example, wikipedia distinguished external links with this small icon after the link: link icon

I have the following questions: is it considered a good practice to make this distinction ? And what are the more common ways to do it ?

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Dec 10 '11 at 2:23

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I've seen many non-wikipedia wikis do this by simply changing the color of the link text and adding that very icon; it's nice but you really only get the hang of it after trying a link or two and making the realization. –  Ben Brocka Dec 11 '11 at 4:33
    
Possible duplicate of ux.stackexchange.com/questions/4636/… –  Volker E. May 21 at 12:28
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3 Answers 3

You have several objectives to maintain:

  • You don't really want to send visitors away from your site until they are 'done'
  • You don't want to confuse your users by having a bunch of internal links and then suddenly a link sends them off site
  • You don't want to clutter the content by including icons with every external link
  • You don't want the user to wonder why some links are displayed differently to others

So you need to provide clarity without clutter, and there's a couple of approaches you can take.

1) Separate external links from content

One of the best ways to do this is in a similar way that Wikipedia do it, which is as follows:

  • Keep links in the content internal
  • Separate external links as a separate section below the content
  • Label the list of external links as such

In this way your readers can navigate the content links whilst staying on site, but they can also choose browse your external links as a standalone resource. It also acts as a kind of summary or recap.

Here's a quote from wikipedia's manual of style section on links (but see also their comprehensive page on External Links)

Do not use external links in the body of an article. Articles can include an external links section at the end, pointing to further information outside Wikipedia as distinct from citing sources. The standard format is a primary heading [...] followed by a bulleted list of links. Identify the link and briefly indicate its relevance to the article.

2) Clarify the copy

Separating all external links however, can seem a bit unnecessary in some cases, so an exception to this would be where a link in the content clearly labels an external resource such as a url or website in which case the fact that it is an external link is implicit and no internal link makes sense.

For example, if I were to reference apple.com as the subject of a sentence - or to talk about Apple's website as the topic of conversation. This being different to perhaps recommendations for reading our article about Apple's website.

As you can see, the link text and the surrounding text makes it clear that a link is internal or external without any other visual cues. The user doesn't even have to think about it, and there's no surprises.

This may be a much preferred approach for informal sites where separating out a list of external websites as a separate resource may well come across as a bit formal and stiff.

It's worth saying, that the copy should always make the distinction clear and remove doubt anyway - even if all the links are internal. Perhaps if more attention was paid to the copy - ie the link text, the surrounding text, and the phraseology, then the problem might just disappear?

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Interesting idea, but I think a limitation would be if you have user generated content. If you allow users to write content with links (as in stackoverflow, for example), then it is hard to make them follow this kind of rule, and a visual distinction might be usefull. –  pinouchon Dec 10 '11 at 14:41
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@pinouchon is some of your content user generated? You should clarify that in the question. What is the nature of the site? –  Patrick McElhaney Dec 11 '11 at 1:42
    
@PatrickMcElhaney I am asking this question in a general way. I do not have any specific website in mind. I would add also the case where you are the designer of a website or a CMS, and the content is edited by other persons than you. I think in this case too it is hard to stick with the convention mentioned. –  pinouchon Dec 11 '11 at 19:45
    
@pinouchon See the FAQ: "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face." –  Patrick McElhaney Dec 11 '11 at 22:22
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I think it depends on the site.

On a site with a lot of hyperlinks, it may be useful for the user if you distinguish between

  1. internal links
  2. external links
  3. pdfs
  4. Word docs
  5. images

In the case where you do distinguish, I think it is best to use words (such as PDF or external) as these are the most straightforward and easiest to understand.

However, if you were to use icons, then I would use those that are well established, such as the one you included in your question. To get the most common icons, I would search Google Images under external link icons.

An icon that no one knows or understands is useless.

Another option is the use of hyperlinks to link to footnotes at the bottom of the page, where the URL is written out and linked to.

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Good points. But in the case of the icon, I am interested by what icons are well established. How do I know ? Where can I find that ? –  pinouchon Dec 10 '11 at 2:08
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@pinouchon, I would search Google Images. Type in external link icon. I will add this to the original question. –  Jason Gennaro Dec 10 '11 at 2:13
    
I would suggest that if an icon was established enough to be really useful, you would already know what it is. –  Beejamin Dec 10 '11 at 2:19
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This really depends on your audience. I will give an opinion from an e-commerce perspective.

It's definitely a good idea to let your customer know when you are sending them away from your site. In many cases, it's recommended you pop a message informing them they are about to leave your site (or open another window), and allow them the option to cancel.

The idea is that if you are redirecting them away from your content, you are redirecting their interest away from your product or site, and that is a big penalty.

Now in the context of a blog where this happens a lot more often (or a wiki page), I still think it's a nice courtesy to let people know you are sending them away. Readers / customers don't like surprises like that because they feel misled.

That's my opinion of course. There are lots of ways to look at it. The UX has to fit the situation, and there are several that can be interpreted by your request.

Excellent question.

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Popping a dialog to 'warn' the user that they're leaving (and so, trying to retain them longer by making it slightly harder to leave) really only serves the owner of the site, and not the user. Links are links - the context of the link should give the user an idea where they're headed. The web thrives on visitors coming and going freely - don't make your bit of the web harder or more annoying! –  Beejamin Dec 10 '11 at 2:12
    
I HATE websites that open links for me in a new window. Detest them. I'd -1 this answer for that alone, but the reputation ding would be pretty painful when you're this new here.... so. :) –  sarnold Dec 10 '11 at 2:14
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There are some cases where warning popups are useful tough. For example, in the case where you are editing content without having saved information and leave. –  pinouchon Dec 10 '11 at 2:20
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@pinouchon: I'd disagree on the music-playing-tab -- I'd be as likely to kill the tab because of the music :) -- but a warning when navigating away from unsaved edited content seems reasonable. But alerting or making a new window when navigating away without any real consequences to the user's work is just annoying. –  sarnold Dec 10 '11 at 2:23
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