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Should text links always be text or are there cases when it makes more sense to simply link the URL?

Examples

Arguments collected so far:

Pro text link:

  • Readability: It's just easier to read without dashes
  • SEO: The linked page will get a better ranking for the link text
  • Cryptic URLs (e.g. ide-smith.co.uk/?p=817) are becoming readable
  • The full URL is shown by the browser on mouse over

Pro URL link:

  • More information is visible: In the example above you can tell the publisher (Smashing Magazine) and the Date (22.7.2011) from the URL
  • You can most likely tell if you already know the linked article/page

This question is inspired by the discussion in the comments on this answer.

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8 Answers 8

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Wikipedia is, I suppose, the ultimate in hyperlink use and has quite a strict linking style guideline for the ways in which URLs and hyperlinks are used within the text. Editors who don't conform to the style are quickly picked up - especially on more popular articles.

I have to say it really does make for a pretty consistent reading experience from one page to the next, despite so many articles being written by so many different people.

Wikipedia does manage the process carefully - but they do tend to have hyperlinks leading to other Wikipedia articles and external links saved to the end of the article where they are categorized as such, as external related pages or references.

The lazy way is of course to include the link URL in the text, and I'm victim of doing that myself quite often, but if really considering the structure of the content, it's much nicer for the reader to use hyperlinks and build the information into the text which can otherwise be gleaned from the URL.

A restructuring of the example in the question would be:

Smashing Magazine did a report in July 2011 on Responsive Web Design in which they round up a collection of resources, strategies and tutorials.

So I'd much rather read that than have to decode the URL, even though the URL tells me basically the same thing.

So when does Wikipedia use URLs? Where Wikipedia allows the URL to be included, then they cite it as needing it to have intrinsically valuable information. So that's open for debate then, but what valuable information cannot be gleaned from the example above?

Here's a quote from the secton on Link titles in the same Wikipedia guidelines:

Generally, URLs are ugly and uninformative; it is better for a meaningful title to be displayed rather than the URL itself. For example, European Space Agency website is much more reader-friendly than http://www.esa.int/export/esaCP/index.html. There may be exceptions where the URL is well known or is the company name. In this case, putting both the URL and a valid title will be more informative: for example, European Space Agency website, www.esa.int.

If the URL is displayed, make it as simple as possible; for example, if the index.html is superfluous, remove it (but be sure to check in preview mode first).

But then what they add is this:

The "printable version" of a page displays all URLs in full, including those given a title, so no information is lost.

And that is a very good point! A good time to use a URL is when the article is likely to be printed. And to have a separate 'printer friendly' version of an article is a good way to achieve this whilst keeping the 'normal' version more readable and SEO friendly.

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2  
+1 for printable version. Too few people know that this is simple to do with CSS. –  l0b0 Jul 22 '11 at 13:36
11  
quick tip about print version containing urls: a:link:after { content: " » " attr(href) ; } –  Jin Jul 22 '11 at 15:05
    
@Jin Thanks for that, I was just wondering how one would do that! –  Ben Brocka Sep 29 '11 at 23:14

Text link is more user friendly and also SEO beneficial (Anchor Text). You can define your text links with more specific information as same as you can do on URL address.

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Proper Url text links serves two purposes, one is easy usability of the user in browsing through content, and second is the search engine side, ie to make a page relevant for a particular keyword link building based on that specific anchor tag text is done. By specifying an anchor tag in the url, the search engine crawlers comes to know what this page is pointing to. From my personal experience i have solved the issue of non indexed pages in my kerala photo blog by interlinking inner pages through relevant text content in pages, and the search indexing got better.

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From the author's point of view, text links are better. They encode the association between the URL and the text.

 <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypertext">Hypertext</a> is cool.

(Of course, authors don't need to worry about the intricacies of HTML. The above code can be produced through a WYSIWYG editor, Markdown, etc.)

How to present the URL can then be left to the reader's browser. For example, here are but a few ways the above markup could be presented.

  1. Hypertext is cool.
  2. Hypertext[1] is cool.
  3. Hypertext (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypertext) is cool.
  4. Hypertext (see Wikipedia) is cool.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypertext

How the browser should present the link varies depending on the context. For example, it makes sense for a mouse-driven device to reveal the URL on hover. A touch-based device could perhaps display part of the URL and reveal the rest with a tap. When the page is printed, it makes sense to show the full URL, either inline, or as a footnote at the bottom of the same page.

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You should only think of it text links as being the only type of HTML link. It just so happens that in rare occasions that the text happens to be the same as the URL being linked to.

Examples:

  • You wrote a blog post where the name of the website needs to be said; e.g.,

http://www.speedofart.com isn't about speedo farts.

  • Notices that is talking about URLs.

We our pleased to announced that our Example software package has moved from sourceforge to its own domain name www.example.com

Attention developers do not use www.example.com/live_project for testing new features. Please test new features only on www.example.com/test_project

Also note in most of these situations, the http:// is unnecessary and probably shouldn't be included in the link text.

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In most situations I would prefer link text. I cant think of many situations where you would want to put the actual url.

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This is really quite similar to using "click here". The reason to use a textual description for a link is so users can understand what they are clicking on without having to read any surrounding text. Yes, the link example you provide does have the name of the article in it, but it is also more difficult to read - spaces and capital letters help readability far more than hyphens do.

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Definitely text link. The main reason being that you can see all of the information that would see in a URL link when you hover over the text link. The only exception I can think of is when using a mobile device, this information would not be available.

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I'm not sure about other mobile browsers, but Safari in iOS allows you to tap-and-hold a link for a few seconds at which point it will bring up a context menu asking if you want to open in a new window, bookmark, etc. In this menu the full link is displayed and you can swipe it left to right to read the whole thing. –  Soviut Jul 25 '11 at 8:24

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