To Link or Not to Link?

Last month, the BBC News released new guidelines for the use of hyperlinking on their website. Thank goodness somebody gets it!

Even before I began writing my own blog, I recognized two essential criteria for blogging, Web 2.0 or social media–call it what you like, if you don’t have these two features on your website you’re stuck in early Netscape days. (Not that I have anything against Netscape; it launched the World Wide Web. But the online world has changed since 1994.) Those two criteria are frequent use of hyperlinks and the ability of readers to comment. But that isn’t true only for blogs: as news reporting increasingly moves online, all articles can and should make use of links to source material and related information.

Now the BBC puts into words (and, we hope, into practice) the interactive nature of writing for the Web. The very first bullet point in their guide states: “Links essential to online journalism.” (The bold/underline emphasis is theirs. I told you they get it.) The next slide explains how they plan to make it happen:

  • Avoid [internal links to] news stories and link to useful stuff – analysis, explainers, Q&A, pic galleries etc
  • On external websites look beyond homepage to pages of specific relevance
  • Inline linking to news stories is OK when it’s to a primary source

The idea is to link to sources, in the same way that I learned to footnote school reports back in the “bad old days” when there was no Internet. Of course, BBC reporters often are primary sources and their real-world research may not connect to anything; but when it does, live links should be available for the convenience of readers.

One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had online has been to read an interesting article or blog post that makes reference to a study or report, but doesn’t provide a link. Even if the entire report isn’t available online (or requires registration, payment, subscription, etc.) I like to see the website–or better still the exact page–that contains an abstract, executive summary, or just an opportunity to purchase access to the report. What it comes down to is, I just want to know. Can’t read it online unless I’m a member of some obscure (or expensive) professional society? Fine, I won’t waste time searching.

I wish that other websites, especially news sites, would adopt similar policies. One of the biggest benefits of the Internet is the ability to link one thing to another–to share information, expand on it, comment on it, and ideally to create a conversation among people and among sites that enhances all.

Do you know a website that gets it? Share a link to a news site that is using hyperlinks well by leaving a comment.

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