When is a link an endorsement?

In recent weeks, critics have reamed the National Education Association for a Web site that supposedly encouraged teachers not to blame al-Qaida for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Brendan Nyhan, one of Spinsanity’s independent political watchdogs, debunks the myth in an excellent article. As Nyhan points out, the controversy started when the Washington Times quoted a few sentences on a externally linked page as the NEA’s official position.

Whatever your opinion of the teachers’ union, the fact remains that a single external link caused a week of controversy on cable TV and in respected newspapers. That should give pause to anyone who makes links to elsewhere on the Web. Can readers always correctly infer whether an author intends a link as an endorsement or not? News sites have worried about this since the early days of the Web, running disclaimers about their external links. It’s ironic that a reporter, not a reader, got it so wrong this time.

Adrian Holovaty recently wondered about using a different color for external links on news sites. I think another problem may be distinguishing between different kinds of external links. In this blog entry, I’ve already used at least three:

  • “Matter-of-fact” links, which imply no endorsement. Sometimes, their only purpose seems to be proving that what the author is talking about actually exists. (The link to the original NEA site, the link to’s privacy policy.)
  • “Related” links, which cover a similar general subject but bounce off on a different tangent. These links often imply that the tangent is interesting, but do not necessarily endorse it. (The link to Adrian Holovaty’s link color discussion.)
  • “For more information” links, which let the author skip retelling existing details and instead offer a conclusion or new information. This kind of link implies that the external information is trustworthy. (The link to the Spinsanity article.)

What may be lurking behind other external links? I can think of more types:

  • “Quotation in context” links, which jump to where an excerpt was taken from. These need not imply endorsement.
  • “Action” links, which let the user do something. These usually do imply endorsement, like “sign up for our e-mail newsletter” or “click here to search the state’s official database.”
  • “Non-original location” links, in which the content is not from the site listed in the linked URL. For instance, sometimes people link to a cached version of a page at Google if the original is no longer available.
  • Advertising links, which imply (or at least should) a total lack of endorsement.

In Adrian Holovaty’s discussion of link colors, Wohleber says he wants “a better way generally of anticipating what sort of info awaits at the other end of the link — a two-sentence glossary entry or an in depth article? A primary source, a neutral factual overview or an opinion piece?” And in his book, Interface Culture, Steven Johnson writes, “The link is the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries, but it is only a hint of things to come. ... [W]e need more than one type of link.”

I completely agree. The Web needs some kind of interface enhancement to distinguish between kinds of links, connote endorsement or lack thereof and help the reader determine which links are interesting. In the meantime, maybe we could just focus on getting reporters to recognize that something with a non-NEA URL probably shouldn’t be attributed to the NEA.

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This page last modified on Friday, March 28, 2014 at 2:23 am