7 Keys to the Discipline of Linking

Following my recent STC Webinar on Every Page is Page One, an attendee wrote to ask about the discipline of linking. Unfortunately, that email mysteriously vanished from my inbox before I could answer personally, so, whoever asked, I hope you see the answer here.

Linking is important to Every Page is Page One and to a bottom-up information architecture. When readers can enter your content at any individual page, links are what orient them in the larger content set and what keep them in your content rather than sending them back to their search engine.

But linking is also expensive to create and maintain in most content authoring tools — mostly because most of them were built for top-down information architectures in which linking is an afterthought at best. I am developing the SPFE architecture (see SPFE.info) to provide a much easier way to create and manage links, but for many people changing tools is not an option. My correspondent is in a Word/SharePoint environment with no option to change. They therefore wanted to know how to get the biggest value out of their investment in linking, given that linking is costly in that environment.

And, of course, whether linking is expensive or cheap in your environment, you still want to make sure that you are creating valuable links. You want a disciplined approach to linking that focuses on delivering value to readers. So here are some notes on the discipline of linking.

1. Linking is part of the overall information design

Don’t write the document and then go back and scan through for places to link. As a writer, you are flattening a complex reality down to a single stream of text. The subjects you are describing are related in multiple ways, but you can only express one relationship at a time. One way to express a relationship between subjects is to juxtapose them in your text. But you can only do that for one relationship. The rest of the relationships must either be ignored, postponed, or expressed through links. At every point as you write, you are making choices between these four options — each of which as its proper place in your information design.

2. Links help orient the reader.

A good Every Page is Page One topic orients the reader to the subject matter. This helps the reader to determine if they are in the right place, and to get to the right place if they are not. It also helps the reader to recognize any gaps in their knowledge that might keep them from understanding the topic. Links clarify the words used to establish context by linking to topics that describe them fully. They allow the author to establish context quickly while allowing the reader who does not understand the context fully to get oriented successfully.

When you are writing your context setting material, therefore, think explicitly about what links are required to enable the reader to fully orient themselves, or, if necessary, qualify themselves, for what it to follow. And if the reader might need a related topic rather than this one, help them get there.

3. Links help the content stay on one level

A good Every Page is Page One topic stays on one level and allows the user to choose when they want more general or more specific material. This allows the reader to adapt their reading to their learning style and their immediate needs. To facilitate this choice, you should link a reference to a higher level concept to a topic on that concept, and explicitly mention and link to more specific examples of a concept or procedure you are describing.

4. Links help content focus on the qualified reader

A good Every Page is Page One topic should be written for a qualified reader. Otherwise, topics tend to get bloated with extra background material that only a small percentage of readers need, but which bogs down everybody else — and makes the article look dauntingly long for beginners to tackle. At many points in an article, you will face a choice about whether to simply mention a concept and assume the reader understands it, or to explain that concept in greater or lesser depth. In paper days, we often opted to explain inline, because we feared it would be hard for an unqualified reader to fill in the gaps. In the modern, hypertext, world the reader can almost always get the material to fill in the gaps, as long as you provide them a pointer to it in the form of a link. The decision about linking or explaining in line therefore comes down to this: would the person who is normally qualified to do this task understand this concept? If not, explain it inline. If so, link to content that does explain it, for the sake of the unqualified reader.

5. Links help keep a topic focused on its specific and limited purpose

A good Every Page is Page One topic has a specific and limited purpose and sticks to it. Every topic is embedded in a complex subject space. Subjects are related to each other in all kinds of complex and interesting ways, and as we are writing we constantly come upon interesting relationships that we want to highlight for our readers. Indulging this desire, though, can quickly lead a topic away from its intended purpose. At the same time, those relationships probably are of genuine interest to at least some of the audience. To help keep you on track in fulfilling the specific and limited purpose of your topic, while still providing access to related subjects for those who are interested in them, use links to connect your content to those interesting but ancillary topics.

6. Understand the function of every link you create

What all of these tips have in common is that the describe a specific function that a link performs in a document. Links are not a gloss added on top of a linear text. They perform specific functions in making a text perform effectively in a larger information set. Removing any of those links would make the text less effective. If you were writing in an environment where linking was not possible, you should be writing a substantially different text in order for it to be as effective as possible.

Not surprisingly, the elements of link discipline described above are based on the seven principles of Every Page is Page One information design. Links are an integral part of information design, and the discipline of linking derives from the overall discipline of information design.

7. Links are part of topic type design

On that note, I will conclude by invoking one more EPPO principle: EPPO topics follow a well defined topic pattern or topic type. The topic pattern or type is what expresses the overall discipline for writing about a particular subject. Since linking is part of that discipline, linking should be part of how you define your topic patterns and topic types. Specifying a certain kind of link in a certain place is as much part of topic type design as specifying a certain kind of text in a certain place.

This, then, is the essence of the discipline of linking: treat linking as an integral part of your overall information design. Design in your linking strategy from the beginning and follow it as rigorously as you would follow any other part of your information design.

If anyone has questions about the discipline of linking, or would like help integrating linking into their information design strategy, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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