Passive vs. imperative linking

By | 2014/04/14

Summary: Writers worry about whether links will distract users. To discuss this concern, we need to begin by distinguishing between imperative links that command the reader to click and passive links that merely make finding ancillary material easier.

Tom Johnson wrote a post recently in which he raised an important question about linking, and referred to an earlier article of mine on the subject. When you refer to another document in a post or article, should you link to it immediately? Tom wrote:

Mark Baker has an in-depth essay on linking, where he explores many of the issues associated with links. I would point you to the post, but whether to insert the link here or elsewhere is at the heart of many discussions about linking. So I’ll briefly delay inserting the link while exploring the risks of doing so.

If I insert the link to Mark’s post here, two potential problems occur:

1. You might immediately jump to his post and, because it is rather long, never return here. You’ll never get my full argument because I’ve distracted you with an inline link.

2. The link to his post may return a not-found error.

The second problem does not concern us here. Things move. People move. It is not a reason not to give anyone an address.

The first problem is the interesting one. Many authors are worried about distracting the reader, and that if they distract them, they may not come back. I have argued before that the writer’s desire to be understood (“get my full argument,” as Tom says) is not really germane to technical communication (or other forms of commercial content). The point is not that the reader should comprehend the text but that they should take the correct (or desired) action. If following a link leads them closer to the correct action, it does not matter that it leads them further away from comprehending the individual text.

Imperative linking puts reader at crossroads

But we should note that links of the kind Tom is discussing (and the link I made above to his post) are not simply distracting. They are imperative. By linking to it in the way I have, I am implicitly telling you to go read Tom’s article (and mine). I am discussing an issue Tom raised in his article, and which was extensively discussed in the comments on that article. In fact, this post is really a response to the comments on Tom’s article. The pretty clear implication of this is that I am telling you to go read Tom’s post if you want to fully understand the points I want to make here, or at least the motivation for this post.

And that, of course, puts you, as a reader, at a crossroads. I, as the author of this post, am asking you to go in two directions at once: go read Tom’s article, and keep on reading mine. You have to choose which you will do first, and whether you have the time and patience to do both.

Imperative references also put reader at crossroads

Now we should note that Tom does not avoid this problem by deciding not to link to my article the first time he mentions it. The implication that you should go read my article (you should, it’s great) is still there whether he provides a link or not. The reference is imperative, even if it is not linked. All that is achieved by not linking is that he makes it slightly harder for the reader to decide to read my article first, rather than continuing in his. Presumably this will result in more readers continuing in his essay rather than stopping to read mine. But the difference is probably small. He tells the reader he will provide a link at the end, so the reader does not have to expend much extra effort, at the point of the imperative reference, to find and read my essay first.

(Tom avoids naming my article, so if he had not provided a link, you would have had a hard time Googling for it. Googling “Mark Baker linking article” would get you lots of hits, since I have written a number of articles on linking, but you would have a hard time telling which one Tom was referring to. As an author, you can obscure the text you are referring to in various ways to try to keep the reader from leaving your text, but then you have to ask yourself, if you are discussing a text, don’t you owe it to the reader to give them access to it? Why should they trust what you say about it if you don’t let them read it?)

Imperative linking and Every Page is Page One

Within the comments on Tom’s article, a couple of people used this example as a basis for criticising the emphasis that I place in rich linking in Every Page is Page One. To answer those concerns, I need to make a distinction. The rich linking that I advocate in Every Page is Page One is not imperative linking, it is passive linking. In fact, I regard imperative linking — telling the reader, implicitly or explicitly, to follow a link — is bad practice in Every Page is Page One.

Distinguishing imperative and passive linking

Here’s the difference between imperative and passive links. In this sentence, I am going to recommend you read a couple of other articles that I have written on linking, such as Why Your Content Needs More Links and The Nature of Hypertext. These are imperative links. I am referring to specific articles and inviting you to read them. Once again I am putting you at a crossroads. In this sentence, I simply want to make the point that the Web is a hypertext medium in which readers are free to forage for information like wild animals. None of these links is inviting you to click on them or to read the articles they lead to. They simply sit there passively.

For a good example of passive links used for this purpose, see this article on quantum computing that contains passive links on its references to quantum mechanics and related subjects: (Yes, this is an imperative link. Choose whether to view the article now or come back to it later.)

Now, some may see an implicit invitation in the mere presence of a link. But when there are six links in a single sentence, it is hard to imagine the reader thinking that the writer is really inviting the reader to click them all. One passive link sitting lonely in a long article might cause the reader to ask whether the author intended the reader to follow it. Consistent rich passive linking (as is ubiquitous on Wikipedia, for instance) does not.

Imperative and passive links have different forms

But mere link density is not the only thing that distinguishes a passive from an imperative link. How they are written matters greatly. A passive link does not change the construction of the sentence that contains it. Nor does that sentence make an explicit reference to the article it references. In fact, you could freely substitute a different resource as the link target for the passive link without changing the meaning or impact of the original article in the least. An imperative link usually, but not always, depends on a specific resource. A passive link never does.

An imperative link in the form “for more information on X see” often does not depend on a specific link target. In many cases, the “for more information on X see” form results from moving a link from its natural position inline to some other point in the text — the end of the article, section, or paragraph. This creates a link in the imperative form where the linking intent was passive. However, the reader cannot necessarily tell that a link in this form has a passive intent. Perhaps the author is saying that you need more information and had better click here to get it. Thus moving the link in an attempt to avoid distraction actually forces the link into a more distracting format.

Purpose of passive linking

But what are passive links for, if not to invite the reader to follow them? They are there because the basic assumptions we make about the reader when we write are wrong. And they are wrong not because we made a mistake in identifying the reader, but because every reader is different: they know different things, they understand different things, they believe different incorrect ideas about different things, and they want different things. No one set of working assumptions can possibly be right for more than a few readers.

We would like to imagine that the best thing a reader can do, even if they are not fully prepared, is to stick with our text to the end. This probably isn’t true. John Carroll pointed out the paradox of sense making, which says that a reader can’t make sense of text that conflicts with their experience and expectation. Sticking with the text therefore isn’t a viable option when the reader does not understand one of the ideas it introduces. But even if it were possible, it is not how readers behave. Readers skip out of content when they encounter things they don’t understand. The role of a passive link is to suggest somewhere that they can go.

Without that suggestion, the reader will probably Google for an answer or post a question in a forum. In either case, they are lost to your content, and to your company. And any inclination they may have had to visit your content next time they have a question has been weakened or destroyed. The link gives you, as the writer, another chance to meet the reader’s needs yourself.

Passive links and the reader’s curiosity

In the comments on Tom’s article, Steve Anderson asks (of links) “If they don’t arouse curiosity, why have them?” This is why: because the subject matter itself arouses curiosity, and, often, frustration. Passive links exist not to arouse curiosity but to satisfy it, not to create a distraction, but to reduce distraction by allaying frustration.

So, in the sentence above with the examples of passive links, the passive links serve to allay the curiosity or frustration of any reader who may not know what a sentence, the Web, hypertext, a medium, information foraging, or wild animals are. Of course, these links are not exactly aimed at the same size of population. The number of people who know what a sentence is is larger than the number who know what hypertext is. The number who know what information foraging is is smaller than the number who know what hypertext is. If you can put your arms around your whole audience and say, they will all know what this means, then there is no point in adding a passive link. If you think some might recognize the term but not fully understand it (hypertext is such a term for my audience) or that many might not recognize the term at all (for my audience, information foraging and paradox of sense making) then a passive link adds value.

Links and non-linear reading

Every Page is Page One is an information design principle that acknowledges the fact that readers, particularly of technical communication, do not read linearly, nor stick to one information source, but forage widely across many information sources. It does not try to keep the reader on the straight and narrow, therefore, but supports the behavior we know they will use anyway by making it easier to move from one source to another. This means both a rich use of passive linking, and writing topics that work as page one no matter where the reader comes from. Its response to any tactic that tries to keep the reader from wandering is: that is a battle you can’t win. Where you can win is by making it easier and more attractive for them to wander into your content and to keep their wandering within your content set.

This is why I think the use of imperative linking is a bad idea in Every Page is Page One. Imperative linking is an attempt by the writer to shape the reader’s course. Every Page is Page One is about supporting the reader finding their own course. Rich passive linking helps the reader to chart a course based on their own needs and interests. Taking the imperative links out is as much part of the Every Page is Page One linking strategy as putting the passive links in.

Imperative links and the discussion of ideas

Imperative links (and imperative references) necessarily play a big role in the discussion of ideas. Very often, a post like this one, or Tom’s post that it references, are explicitly addressing ideas (or the misunderstanding of ideas) that were raised by particular people in particular texts. In many cases, particular people are associated with particular ideas (me with Every Page is Page One, for instance, Carroll with Minimalism, or Horn with Information Mapping), and so any discussion of these ideas tends to reference back to their texts at some point. That is why there is a lot of imperative linking in this blog post, and in this blog in general.

Imperative links in technical communication

Imperative links, on the other hand, have little or no proper role in technical communication. Where they are used, it is usually because the writer is trying to dictate the reader’s course, not because the nature of the material or the user’s need demands it. But technical communication often plunges the reader into a web of unfamiliar terms, tasks, tools, and concepts. And because readers tend to use tech comm opportunistically rather than systematically, avoiding the gentle introduction and diving into the middle, they are often reading material that is full of references to things they don’t know about or understand, each in their own individual way. This is what passive links are for: to enable the reader who has dived into the middle to find a path to the information and the understanding that they need to perform their desired task.

14 thoughts on “Passive vs. imperative linking

  1. Jack DeLand

    Great stuff, Mark, but what do you say to the argument that sometimes I have to use an imperative link because I have additional material in an appendix or other chapter? Would you have the writer include a lengthy set of tables or other material into an EPPO topic?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Jack.

      Yes, sometimes an imperative link is the lesser of two evils in Every Page is Page One. Generally one would not include lengthy reference material in an EPPO topic, unless such material is only of interest in a single context.

      Of course, in many cases you have a choice as to whether to express such a link passively or imperatively, and I would encourage people to choose the passive form wherever possible.

      In the end though, user behavior is so eccentric that one cannot hope to ever create the perfect topic or the perfect topic set that is just right for every reader. EPPO is not about making a topic that is perfect for one reader, but a set of topics that works reasonably well for a variety of readers. (I have use the metaphor of a bus service before to describe what a topic set should be. Not door to door for anyone, but providing adequate reliable service for most people most of the time.) Sometimes you have to do things that are not individually ideal in order to make the overall systems work.

  2. Pingback: Passive vs. imperative linking | M-learning, E-...

  3. Mark Bernstein Post author

    We used to worry that readers would be confused by links, that they’d get lost in hyperspace. That turned out to be wrong: nobody gets lost.

    Crucially — and this is the big contribution of your fine observation — people read for many reasons. Often, they don’t know why they’re reading what they are. Even if they know, they can’t, or won’t, explain their reasoning. You don’t know why they’re here or what they need; links give you an opportunity to give them more.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Mark, and for the additional detail in your own post that you link to. I’m not sure if you realize it or not, but your contention that readers often don’t know why they are reading cuts the feet out from under the last 40 years of tech comm theory, all of which takes it as axiomatic that the reader has a clear purpose in mind: that they know exactly why they are reading.

      Proceeding from this assumption, tech comm has sought to understand and accommodate the readers clear purpose, particularly, these days, with complex forms of top-down navigation that assume that the reader can define their purpose in a way that will allow them to precisely navigate an information set.

      I share your view that axiom of tech comm (and, indeed, of much of information architecture) is incorrect. In fact, I wrote about the dangers of idealizing the reader in my latest Users Advocate column on TechWhirl:

      (BTW, if people are noticing the striking resemblance between myself and the other Mark B, Mark Bernstein was unable to post a comment directly so he sent it to me via the contact form. I entered it with his name and address, but WordPress insists on showing my gravatar. If anyone knows how to fix that, I would appreciate knowing. If anyone had trouble posting a comment, please do let me know.)

  4. Pingback: Passive vs. imperative linking | Tanya Henderso...

  5. Tom Johnson

    Mark, it’s great to see you elaborate on this topic. It’s amazing how controversial linking is, and how much disagreement there is among tech writers.

    If I can summarize my understanding of your post, you advocate a type of linking where you link phrases and keywords that reference additional information, but without explicitly telling the reader to go to the resource to read the information. You call this practice passive linking.

    In contrast, when you refer explicitly to a resource, naming it or saying “click here to read X,” that is a more direct type of linking that you call imperative linking. You say imperative linking is bad practice because it forces the reader down a specific path rather than allowing the reader to choose his or her path.

    There seems to be one advantage to passive linking that you don’t consider. Let’s say a reader decides to print the help material. Rather than having a bunch of dead links (because all the sources aren’t included in the printed book), you can just style the links with the same style as your regular text. Then the reader wouldn’t know about the links to missing resources at all. (Which can be good or bad depending on your perspective.)

    One objection I have with passive linking is that I’m often not sure what the links refer to. When you link a word or phrase, I assume you’re offering me more information about that word or phrase, but it’s not always clear what sort of information lies beneath. Is it another post on your site, an external site, a book on Amazon, a Wikipedia definition reference, a text link ad, or what?

    Penelope Trunk’s blog provides a good example of passive linking. But again, you never quite know what’s behind door #1, which keeps me as a reader guessing.

    I am often explicit with my link references. I want to let the reader know with more detail what the source is so the reader doesn’t guess what the link points to. Passive linking invites the reader to play guessing games with the links. A good passive link should probably leave no question about the reference.

    However, links are problematic in help material due to the topic dependency problem, which you dismissed immediately (“The second problem does not concern us here. Things move. People move. It is not a reason not to give anyone an address.”) When you’re single sourcing, most people don’t want to refer to topics not included in the guide the reader is reading. Why don’t you see topic dependency as an issue with linking?

    Anyway, great post and distinction with links. I hadn’t thought about linking in this much detail before.

    I keep waiting to see SPFE’s linking in action. Isn’t there a sample online anywhere to check out?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Tom.

      You sum up my case admirably and raise some important points.

      I agree that the ability to suppress passive links in media that do not support linking is a big advantage of passive linking. It is one of the advantage that I regularly list in connection with soft linking.

      It is true that you don’t know where a passive link will lead. I’m probably less concerned about this than you are. The reader cares about subjects, not text, and a passive link leads to more information on a subject. This seems to be consistent with how people use Google. We don’t seem to care greatly about the identity of the resource returned by a search, but by its subject matter.

      Of course, you can betray the reader’s trust in a passive link with novelty linking or crassly commercial linking. But if you are going to do that, you can lie about where imperative links go as well. So the moral is simply to be trustworthy and consistent in how you link. (One reason I believe that linking should be managed, not left to the author to do ad hoc.)

      There is a simply design choice you can make to deal with this, however, and that is to name the resource in a tooltip when the reader hovers over the link. This informs the reader who is interested in the subject without breaking the flow of the reader who is reading past it.

      When I dismissed the topic dependency problem, I assumed that you were talking about links to external resources that you don’t control. We should be able to control linking to internal resources. True, not all the available tools provide good support for link management, but I don’t think tool inadequacies should limit discussion of design principles. You may have to compromise in the short term, but once you adopt an Every Page is Page One design, I think you have to start moving towards tools that support it adequately, and that means tools that provide adequate link management support.

      Both DITA and SPFE provide tools for managing links in reused content. There is more overhead in the DITA approach than in the SPFE approach, but it is certainly doable to manage EPPO links in DITA.

      I’m working towards publishing the SPFE documentation online soon, which will show off the kinds of linking that you can do with SPFE. Today you can download the SPFE-OT from GitHub and try it yourself, though it is a task for the technically inclined at the moment, and the docs are currently a bit out of date.

      There will be as much fanfare as I can generate when the next version is ready and the docs are online.

  6. Pingback: Passive vs. imperative linking | Writing | Sco...

  7. Neal Kaplan

    One thing that I might have missed, but it affects how we think about links: Tabs.

    When I come across an interesting link (passive or imperative) while reading, I’ll open it in a new tab. If I really want to read it now, I will, and the original topic is still there, just one tab over. Otherwise, I’ll take a look at that article once I’m finished with the original. But either way, I don’t have the feeling that I’ve lost my way

    I think we can assume that most users are savvy about using links (and the features of web browsers), and we no longer have to worry that they’ll become little lost lambs in the dangerous wilds of the internet.

  8. Alex Knappe

    Interesting article, Mark.
    This directly correlates with some solution Jan Graat was proposing in a short tutorial I attended two weeks ago.
    His proposal was to work with the tools HTML and Javascript provide, calling it “progressive disclosure”.
    Coming from minimalism, he supposed to write in a manner that works for an assumed “highest level” of audience, only presenting essential information on the surface.
    What you are discussing as passive linking here, he was hiding in collapsed subtopics, which could be opened inline if necessary.
    In my opinion this is a more distinct technique, than working with “pure” linking, as you’re not driving the reader away from your content at all (neither to something you are supervising, nor to something external).
    While I’m not totally convinced by it (browser issues, security problems,…), it still points out the necessity to distinguish between the information needs of individual users of a documentation set.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Alex.

      Yes, I think progressive disclosure can play some of the role that passive linking performs, though by its nature progressively disclosed information has to be more in the nature of an extended gloss (or a detailed sub-procedure) than a full blown independent topic. As such it may not be as satisfying to the reader, and may fail to hold them.

      Personally, though, I find that the mechanism of progressive disclosure can be confusing. I don’t think it is always clear to the reader that more content had been disclosed on the current page as opposed to a new page having opened — this depends very much on where the link is on the user’s screen and how much of the page is redrawn when it opens. Also, it confuses the function of the back button. The standard way you go back after following a link is to hit the back button, but if a link result in progressive disclosure on the current page, hitting back will take the reader back to the page before the current one, which can be very confusing.

      I’m not sold on the idea of active content generally. It looks cool when you are not frustrated by your inability to complete a task or to find content to help you complete it. When you are in that state, you don’t want shiny toys you have to learn how to work. You want plain content and plain navigation — search and links — that don’t add to your cognitive burden.

      And I don’t think that links drive readers away from content. Frustration and disappointment and boredom drive readers away from content. There are no barriers between texts any more, and so nothing to keep a reader in an unsatisfying text. The way to keep the reader is your text is to satisfy them. Nothing else can or will work.

      But since you can’t satisfy all of the readers all of the time — as you say, we have to distinguish between the information needs of individual users of a documentation set — we need to provide them with alternative routes through the content. Progressive disclosure can do that in a limited way — but why do it in a limited way when you have the means to do it in a far more general and powerful way? It can only come back, I suspect, the the writer’s primal fear of abandonment.

      Our job is to make our readers successful, not to make sure that they finish their peas.

  9. Pingback: Passive vs. imperative linking | Instuctional D...

  10. Pingback: Why use DITA, relationship tables, working in code and author views | I'd Rather Be Writing

Leave a Reply to Mark Baker Cancel reply