NATHAN ASHBY-KUHLMAN > Blog entries from November 2002

Unclickable headlines

I can’t believe there are still large news sites where headlines do not link into stories:

  • nypost.com: The top headline, for the print edition’s cover story and the only headline in the first screenful, is not a link. You use a little “Full Story” link below the large tease instead. Most other headlines on the page, however, are links — except you wouldn’t know it since they’re just plain black Times New Roman text, not a different color, not bolded and most importantly not underlined. The only way for first-time visitors to realize those headlines are links is to wave the mouse pointer over them.
  • tampatrib.com: The “Full Story” links are preceded by relatively attractive blue triangle dingbats. Not only are the headlines not clickable, but pictures associated with each story are not either.
  • denverpost.com: There are large bold headlines, and they even have different headline sizes. But none of those headlines are links. Instead, following the tease there are “new story” links. As opposed to what? When’s the last time you saw a newspaper run an “old” story? Pictures aren’t linked here either.
  • sptimes.com: There are just simple bold “Story” links following each tease.
  • abqjournal.com: There are “Full Story” links immediately following each headline, which are just plain wasted words. Furthermore, since they’re colored blue like most links, they attract your eye and the black headlines themselves don’t. Their inside section fronts are designed differently, though, with clickable headlines and summaries for each story. I wonder why?
  • Journal Newspapers (Maryland and Virginia): Headlines are colored red, but are not links. Blue (but not underlined) links at the bottom of each story summary read “Click Here For Whole Story.” Pictures load larger versions of the picture, rather than the associated story page.

There are two main reasons to make news site headlines into links to their story.

First, almost all major news sites do it. Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen says, “If 90% or more of the big sites do things in a single way, then this is the de-facto standard and you have to comply. Only deviate from a design standard if your alternative design has at least 100% higher measured usability.” In other words, online readers expect to be able to click on your headlines because they can click on everyone else’s. Print readers expect the most important news on A1, and English readers expect type to be laid out for left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading. Following established conventions improves your usability remarkably.

Second, it provides more pixels for the user to click. It should be common sense that a larger area (the headline) is easier to click with the mouse than a smaller area (a little “full story”) link. If you want to prove it to yourself, test your speed in this interactive demonstration of Fitts’ Law of interface design, which says that larger and closer on-screen objects are easier for users to click.

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It looks like editorial copy, but it's not

The State, in Columbia, S.C., used poor judgment in mixing editorial teases and promotional copy on its home page over the past few days:

Near the top of The State's home page is this text: 'EZPay -- Sign up for EZPay today! A service for new or renewing subscribers.' This circulation department promo has an identical design to the two editorial department teases right next to it.

Online ads already use distracting colors, animation and DHTML effects, but The State has found a new low — using a space designed expressly for editorial copy for a house ad. This deception is almost as bad as those Web banner ads that look like dialog boxes. In print, advertorial content is labeled with that magic word, “ADVERTISEMENT,” and news sites need to avoid deception online as well.

Maybe someone at The State thought that since this was a house ad rather than a paid ad, it wasn’t as big a deal. Perhaps so, but that misses the point. Readers expect editorial content in that specific space. They do not expect photos of your dog, cell phone ringtones or John Deere tractors there. Nor do they expect paid advertising or self-promotion.

I’ll take my vindication in the fact that clicking their links for new or renewing subscribers brings up an SSL certificate security warning. What a smart e-commerce technique!

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Different headlines on front page and article

News sites’ home pages and section fronts should have good headlines written for the Web. Unlike print headlines, Web headlines have to adequately summarize an article out of context, divorced from subheads, photos and captions and the article itself. “Cute” headlines — like “Drugs get the boot,” “She stands out in her field” or “Opening up the ‘self’ ” make no sense online.

Even though many sites do write their headlines well, I’m concerned that headlines on some article pages are different than their front page counterparts:

Differences between front page and article page headlines
Headline on front pageHeadline on article page
Dems aim to alter security billDisputed provisions may delay homeland bill
Fiscal Crunch Hits SecuritySpending Bill Delays Crimp War on Terror
Turkey Engaged on War CostU.S. Discusses Aid for Turkey to Defray Costs of an Iraq War
Plotters Turned Into PatsiesMean ol’ NFL can’t stop the force that is Al’s team
Man accused of cutting landlady’s throatMan facing 3 felony counts
Bosses: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say itThe way job reviews handled crucial to employee success
Pollution fightWater rules coming in March

I think these differences in headlines from the front page to an article page impose an extra cognitive burden on readers, who have to determine if they’ve arrived at the right article once they follow the link. Jonathan and Lisa Price ask in their book Hot Text: Web Writing that Works:

How often have you clicked a link, gone to a page, and wondered “Did I click the wrong thing? This doesn’t look like what I clicked.”

Ironically, a good example of the Prices’ principle is how I have to link to that quote. It’s on page 260 of their book, available in the PDF of Chapter 10. Unless I told you how to find it in that PDF file, you might give up in disgust (and you still might, but the Prices were very generous to put their book online in any form at all).

I’m basing my argument completely on my own experience here, but as the Prices say, I do find it disorienting when a headline has changed significantly between the front page and the article page. It’s most confusing for me when the two headlines begin with different words or contain very different sets of words, as in the Washington Post’s “Fiscal Crunch Hits Security” / “Spending Bill Delays Crimp War on Terror” article. It’s much more clear when most of the headline is exactly the same, as in another Post article: “A Monument to Eco-Spirit” / “A Monument to Eco-Mindedness”.

My guess is sites with this problem often run print edition headlines on their article pages, but rewrite headlines for their front page to improve clarity on the Web or fit the space available. I especially appreciate the way the Washington Post uses careful headline writing to eliminate widows from its front page at default browser text sizes. But does that practice come at a price — the price of momentarily confusing readers with some headlines that have been rewritten too much?

To be sure, sometimes making the front page link text different than the article page headline reduces confusion. In a package of related material, links can be very short: “Doves v hawks,” “Inspection countdown,” or “Weapons inspections.” But for regular unadorned articles, I think significant differences between front page headlines and article page headlines do cause some moderate reader confusion. What is the best balance between an attractive, informative front page and less confusing links?

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Telling us that (but not what) you updated

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has an editor’s note atop one of its articles today:

Editor’s note: This article was revised and updated at 5 p.m. 2002-11-18

It’s great that the Tribune-Review chose to add that note. If you had seen the article before 5 p.m. and e-mailed me its URL, I could be very confused reading it after 5 p.m., because we wouldn’t be reading the same article. Telling readers that an article has been modified from its original version may seem silly, but it’s the right thing to do. The Tribune-Review further tells readers when the article was modified, which is also the right thing to do.

Even though the Tribune-Review is ahead of most online news sites in showing readers that note, there are still a few improvements I might make:

  • Use a different date format. I do applaud the site for using the ISO 8601 date format rather than the more internationally vague American MM/DD/YY format, but both are designed more for computers than humans. How about the more readable “Monday, November 18, 2002”?
  • Explain what has changed since the previous version. The Associated Press does an excellent job of explaining revisions to editors at its member newspapers. News Web sites usually configure their AP feeds to hide that information from the public, but occasionally it leaks out. For example, an article from 2001 at Belo has this gem of abbreviations: “Eds: SUBS 3rd graf, bgng ‘Maj. Bill...’ to CORRECT that two soldiers walked off plane sted three.” Of course news sites should use plain English rather than editorspeak, but they have a duty to tell readers what has changed — especially when a new version makes corrections.
  • Keep previous versions available. The World Wide Web Consortium’s online publications are a great example of this. The XHTML specification, for example, includes links to the specification’s latest version, previous version, and even a copy with the changes highlighted. News sites don’t do anything like this. Web editors probably believe it would take too much staff time, even though a content management system could easily be programmed to provide this feature automatically. They probably also believe readers would have little interest, and perhaps that’s true. There are always some readers, though, who are fanatics about breaking news or sports or whatever interests them. They want every last drop of information about big stories and sometimes follow as many links as a site can provide. Anyway, regardless of how many readers would actually look at previous versions, I think journalists have a professional duty to make them available. History should not disappear down the memory hole.

I do wonder what the Tribune-Review changed, and whether the previous version of the article had any errors that they fixed. Their printed newspaper tomorrow will probably contain a third and further improved version, and I suppose we’ll never know.

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'Click here': Needless words

The words “click here for...” and “click here to...” serve no purpose within links. Unfortunately, many news sites still use them. According to Google, “click here” is on about 8,970 pages at sptimes.com alone.

Perhaps when the Web was just catching on — in 1995, say — writing “click here” within links made some sense, to teach new surfers the Web’s fundamental interface element. But those words are meaningless, especially today when people have already learned that clicking links takes you to a page described within the link.

Everywhere those phrases appear, Web editors or developers could have followed William Strunk Jr.’s classic advice to “omit needless words.” For example:

  • newsday.com: “Get the scoop on more than 700 restaurants throughout the five boroughs. Click Here.” could be “Get the scoop on more than 700 restaurants throughout the five boroughs.”
  • miami.com and other Knight Ridder sites: “Click here to visit other RealCities sites” could be “Visit other RealCities sites” or just “Other RealCities sites.”
  • sun-sentinel.com: “Weather in your ZIP code. Click here to sign up!” could be “Weather in your ZIP code. Sign up!” or just “Weather in your ZIP code.”

Many other news front pages use the unnecessary words, among them:

  • nytimes.com: “It's easy to follow the top stories with home delivery of The New York Times newspaper. Click Here for 50% off.”
  • usatoday.com: “USA Today newspaper delivery Click Here” and “USAToday.com E-mail Newsletters Click Here
  • latimes.com: “Weather is not available for the zip code you selected. Click here to change your ZIP”
  • signonsandiego.com: “Click here for cell phone alerts”
  • buffalo.com: “WNY Web Cams: Click here for more cams!”
  • dailynews.com: “Visit our NEW Health Beat site for the latest medical news, webcasts, and advice from doctors.[CLICK HERE]
  • timesdispatch.com: “Click here to make the Times-Dispatch your Home page.”
  • nyjournalnews.com: “Subscribe to The Journal News.... Click here to start finding out HOW YOU KNOW.” (This one is especially stupid, because clicking on the words “click here” won’t even do anything. You’re supposed to click the animated GIF image above the text.)

At large news sites these wasted words are mainly in promotional copy. But there are still many small sites, like North Carolina’s Washington Daily News, where headlines are not links but a “For more click here” link follows each story tease.

Television stations do not tell viewers how to operate their remote controls. Newspapers do not instruct readers in removing papers from delivery bags. It’s time news Web sites stopped telling readers how to operate links.

Comment by Andrew Demack, posted November 18, 2002, 1:59 am

I thought they were needless words too, until my mother-in-law looked on my site for some holiday photos that I had told her were there. She couldn't find them and wrote me a baffled e-mail.

The exact text of the weblog entry:

"Well, Annette took the photo album to work, and scanned away during her lunch hour, or something.

Here's the result!"

As you can guess, "here's the result" was a link. So who do web sites design for? I think they may have to sitck with lowest common denominator for a while.

Comment by Eric Vitiello, posted November 18, 2002, 3:10 pm

"here's the result" were nearly useless words as well... "scanned away" or "took the photo album to work" would have been nice as links to the results as well.

Comment by snowsuit, posted November 20, 2002, 2:05 pm

no offense, but how do you balance usability and stupidity? My mother can hardly use the phone and its been around since 1910-ish. When the call-waiting beeps she panics and hits every button on the keypad. If we need click here text, then shouldnt we really put click here with the left mouse button using your hand while simultaneously hovering over this exact spotNote: cursor may change to a hand sharpe So, I hope this doesnt sound meanspirited, but we do have to balance usability with a small level of user intelligence.

Comment by Adam Greenfield, posted November 27, 2002, 9:34 am

I hate to say it, but here's one of those rare instances where style should take a backseat to marketing. As any Mad Ave type could tell you, "click here" is what is known to the trade as a "call to action." When expressed as an imperative, advertisers all know that such calls significantly increase the effectiveness of their efforts.

I'm willing to bet cash money that linked text featuring an explicit call to action have a higher click-through rate than the otherwise-identical text omitting same.

Comment by Mark Thristan, posted November 27, 2002, 11:01 am

I believe that the call to action should be implicit in the link, so that the text of the link becomes performative text.

Therefore not "click here to buy the camera", but
"buy the camera". "Buy the camera" is a call to action and a link. Style should never take a backseat to "marketing" when it is demonstrative and linguistically useful.

Comment by AG, posted November 27, 2002, 9:17 pm

Mark, I actually disagree. "Buy the camera" is only a call to action if the *immediate* result of clicking on the link is a purchase event. I think there's a slight cognitive disconnect if you're asked to buy a camera and the resultant action is that a page loads.

I know this sounds nitpicky, but I remain convinced that at least to some degree this is why "click here" remains with us.

Comment by Mark Thristan, posted November 28, 2002, 4:36 am

Adam, yes I agree that "buy the camera" is not strictly performative in the sense of this being the only action required to complete the task.

However, all purchasers are aware of the fact that transactions require a transactional process. When you go to a shop, to buy the goods, you expect to queue and then pay at the checkout for your purchases - this is implicit in the sense of "buy". For this reason, I feel that "click here to..." is very much akin to having a sign that says "queue here to wait to pay" rather than just labelling as "checkout". So long as the labelling is careful and consistent (which, agreed, it isn't always on the Web), language and function can occupy the same space.

There might be rare instances where "click here..." ought to be used, however, I believe all alternatives should be explored and exploted before settling for this option.

Comment by josh, posted November 29, 2002, 2:53 am

Novice users are constantly trying to figure out what they should click on. "Click Here" labeling makes that easier. I do usability tests every week and I consistently see novice users struggle with even very clear underlined links, "Where do I click?"

Did I mention that this makes me furious!

Comment by STW, posted December 4, 2002, 10:13 am

In addition to this article's points, "Click Here" is also less useful to sight-impaired users who rely on screen reading technologies to access the Web. One capability of such software is to read only the links on a page, but hearing that the link text of the various links consists of "click here, click here, click here" offers no information about where the links are pointing.

Comment by Peter Birtolo, posted December 4, 2002, 4:41 pm

The "novice user" issue is a very real one. I suppose if ALL links were blue and underlined, things would be simpler sooner. As web design and software have grown, the underlined blue link has taken a back seat to design. While well-done "design" is easily deciphered by experienced users, the novice still has trouble. Another thought ... will there ever come a time when novice users are no longer novice? In other words, will there come a time when the novice represents less than 10% of the users? And without the "click here" notation, how will they learn?
Perhaps users will someday need licenses to surf pages for "experienced browsers only." :-)

Comment by Dawn, posted December 4, 2002, 9:41 pm

Thank you for posting this. I love this topic! I am firmly in the author's camp here - I don't think the words "click here" are the best choices when creating links. The chosen hypertext should give users the right expectation of what they will be getting when they click on them. "Click here", when used alone, is one of the worst ways to do this. This forces users to read the rest of a sentence so they can decide whether or not to click on the link. Since most users scan pages rather than read them, if a page is littered with a bunch of "click here" links, that's what will catch the users' eyes.

Maybe its due to snobbery, but I don't think the wiords are necessary when combined with other words in a link. (like "click here to order") It just doesn't read like a call to action - "Order now" would be a better choice. The addition of the two words makes the call to action lose some of its meaning...or at least its punch. It just doesn't sound as strong.

Comment by Richard, posted December 10, 2002, 8:46 am

It took me ages to work how out to post this comment. If only it had said "Click Here to Post A Comment", I'd have been fine.

Comment by Ray, posted January 2, 2003, 12:35 pm

I can see that click here might be useful for novices - perhaps it could be used once or twice on the homepage for 'educational purposes', but thereafter dropped?

From a usability point of view, I find that click here links draw the eye, but that it is then necessary to scan back and forth to get the context. If the relevant text is itself linked, the user should be able to see exactly what the link is about without scanning or further information gathering. Or am I wrong?

Comment by josh, posted January 20, 2003, 11:54 am

Went to lunch the other day and noticed that every button on the soda dispenser was labeled "push here".

Comment by Markus, posted February 21, 2003, 2:45 pm

Is "click here" not the web equivalent of "Call 1-800-XXX-XXXX" on TV commercials or other advertisement? What else but call would you do with a phone number? And phones have been around much longer than the web. In a way, "click here" or "call" are a means to invoke an action from the reader or viewer that a link or phone number do not. Just wait until true interactive TV is amongst us, we will now be asked to "Click here to go there", "Click her to email", "Click her to start a voice call".

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A poll packaging problem

The Chicago-area Daily Herald has a wording problem on its poll interface. Take, for example, this poll appearing on the site’s front page today:

Screenshot of Daily Herald poll, which reads: 'Who is more dangerous -- Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein?' The button you click to vote is labeled 'Answer'.

I’m sure many Americans would love to know the objective “Answer” to this question, but that’s not what you get if you click that button. The button is for submitting your subjective answer, and comparing it to other people’s subjective answers.

The Daily Herald should start following the Web convention of labeling submit buttons on polls “Vote.” At least this site has a prominent link to a disclaimer; too many other sites do not. News Web sites in general need to better explain that their polls are unscientific — and thus almost meaningless.

Comment by Julie, posted November 16, 2002, 9:03 pm

Agreed! I'd add that I prefer their link-to-disclaimer method to the paragraph of fine print that some sites use ... and that this particular poll would be infinitely improved if they just asked 'who is more dangerous?' rather than the redundant inclusion of the "answers" in the question.

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