Creating Links That Offer The Best User Experience

We focus a lot on where we our links should go. We analyze Domain Authority and social metrics until we can spew back a site’s numbers faster than our own phone number. We nit-pick sidebars, in-content and author box placements until we’re blue in the face.

But we don’t put nearly enough time on how our links should look.

Links build rank, but don’t forget the real reason links were created in the first place: to drive traffic. Before algorithms, people linked to something to encourage other people to go there. That should always be your focus when building links. More often than not, the traffic one link can bring is more valuable than the slim weight it bears on your overall rankings. Here’s how to make sure your links are providing the best user experience.


Ten years ago, there was really only one way to do a link: a basic blue underline. Now, people have gotten fancy. There are different colors, hover effects and pop-up boxes. There are even some who don’t add any formatting to a link.

You and me both, Julie.

You and me both, Julie.

Even with all the bells and whistles, studies have shown that users like things simple. It’s been ingrained into users’ minds that blue underlined text in a paragraph is what a link should look like; so, it’s no surprise that this formatting is what works the best.

The same principle works conversely: don’t format non-link text that looks like a link. Users will assume it should take them somewhere and will get frustrated if that’s not the case.

That said, users’ minds are highly adaptable to the formatting and branding of the site they’re currently on, so if you want to go a different route than the basic blue, keep your links consistently styled so there’s no confusion about what’s clickable and what’s not.

Baymard Institute showed this example where it's impossible to determine what's a link.

Baymard Institute showed this example where it’s impossible to determine what’s a link.

Finally, users are whole-heartily obsessed with the back button; in fact, it’s the second most-used navigation feature, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen. It’s how they keep track of where they’ve been. If your links take users to a new browser window, there’s no way for them to go back and that browsing history is lost. Make sure your links open in the same browser window.

For the best user experience, links should be:

  • Underlined
  • Colored; preferably blue, or a color that stands in sharp contrast to black text
  • Consistently styled
  • Opened in the existing browser window

User Research

The best links are built by knowing your users really well. That way, you build links that are right for them and that they actually want. Links that give users a good experience increase the chance they’ll click on them and fall right into your marketing funnel. How do you do that?

Surveys and interviews are your best tools here. They give you an idea of why and when your users use something and where they buy it. You should also ask things like what publications they read online, how to they find out about brands, and what influences their buying decision — all things you can incorporate into a link building strategy.

What are some other ways your links can give your users the best experience?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building | Link Building: General | Link Week Column


About The Author: is an experienced digital strategist, content developer and search marketer. She's currently the SEO Manager for The Home Depot and has previously worked agency-side for mid-sized business and Fortune 500 companies. She speaks regularly on digital strategy, content development and inbound marketing at conferences nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @erinever.

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  • JustConsumer

    “If your links take users to a new browser window, there’s no way for them to go back and that browsing history is lost. Make sure your links open in the same browser window.”

    I believe this statement is inaccurate.
    First of all, there is no reason to go back when link is opened in new window. Previous window is still opened.
    Secondly, browsing history can’t be lost anyway, since modern browsers have easy accessible history list.
    Thirdly, the main goal should be the best user experience. It depends and only AB testing can provide exact answer – should it be the same window or the new one.

  • joe jacobs

    Anyone good at getting links, or know a good strategy

  • Mark Traphagen

    I agree. When I send a user out via a link, my thinking is that they want to explore that further reference, but still want to read the rest of my article. To have the article they were originally reading disappear, and to have to click a back button (perhaps more than once) to get back to it, seems to me like bad user experience.

    Perhaps the reason people use the back button so much is not because they “like” it, as this author assumes, but because they are forced to because of links that open in the same tab, obliterating what they were reading.

    I compare it to reading a non-fiction book in a library. The book makes reference to another source. I want to check that source, so I go get it from the library shelf. I lay the new book beside the original book so I can go back and forth to compare the two. If I were forced to close the first book and put it back on the shelf before I could get the second book, that would be annoying.

    The rest of the tips here are very good.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    I think hyperlinking more than one word also gives your users a better idea of where they are going. One word could mean anything, but if you put that phrase in context it tells users what exactly they are clicking on. Plus, it keeps you safe from exact match anchor text.

  • JustConsumer

    “Perhaps the reason people use the back button…”

    Agree. It started when pop-ups were all around.
    People made their browsers not to open new windows –> developers were afraid to put target=”_blank” because of that –> people had to use back button a lot.

    When pop-up is very rare thing and browsers are more intelligent, then behaviors are different.

  • Mary Kay Lofurno

    Whether or not links should open in a new window or go directly to that page is more a business question. I do think users prefer to go exactly where they click but in the case of content sites/online publishers, it is certainly not a deal breaker by any means.

    One thing to remember is that depending upon how your analytics are configured, opening up content that is on your site in a new window can create a ‘self-referrer’ type of situation when you look at your analytics referrals reports.

  • krusemeijer

    I agree. Whenever possible it is good practice to use (part of) phrases when linking to another page. On top of that you should always use a good descriptive text in the link tag. Helpful for both handicapped people using special reading software and Google’s indexing crawlers.

  • Jenny Halasz

    I could be wrong, but I think what Erin was referring to were links within a site. My general rule of thumb is to have internal links open in the same browser window and external links open in a new window. Right or wrong, that seems to work for us! I agree with JustConsumer that the only way to know for sure is to test.

  • JustConsumer

    Yup, it’s very dependable. Even with internal links.
    Couple of months ago, when I built I had dilemma with the internal links. The main content is presented in the endless window, means the user has to start from the beginning of the scroll, if s/he opens new page in the same window and then returns to the main page.
    I had two ways – more coding, means heavier page, means less mobile friendly or open new window. Sure I selected the new window.

    With modern technologies in browsers and coding, nothing is obvious.

  • Jenny Halasz

    I’m +1ing this comment just because I don’t know why anyone would -1 it – it’s completely correct.

  • Mary Kay Lofurno

    You get a self-referrer situation when you open up content in a new window and in cross domain tracking analytics configurations


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