Links – are they a net negative for readers online? That’s the idea being deliberately explored by a number of publishers, says writer Nicholas Carr today.

The iconoclastic author says that he has grown sympathetic to the thinking of Steve Gillmor, the almost incomprehensibly future-bound sage tech journalist who has argued for years that “links are dead.” Links within articles are a distraction and imply that the reader ought to leave what they are reading to read something else, Carr says. Placing links at the end of articles is more respectful of a person’s intentions and concentration. Do you think that’s true? I’ll skip putting links in this post, until the end, and you can let me know how it feels.

If you’ll forgive me a block-quote, Carr explains it like this:

“Links are great conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.”

I think reading posts with links at the end does make my brain feel different, more relaxed.

Angels and Devils

At the same time, links in text are the standard practice for a reason, right? Inline references allow a reader to explore, to look under the covers of a train of thought, to familiarize themselves with something casually referenced, in the middle of reading. It’s good to point at things sometimes, maybe even often. (In some cases, the writing on a site can be so bad that readers just want to find a link to whatever the blogger has discovered and leave to see it for themselves. I hope we always add more value than that here.)

I often advise new writers on our staff to place links inline with the reader’s mental voice and vocal emphasis in mind. Imagine that a link is like a chorus of angels singing – the words you link are going to be underlined and appear in a different color after all – and make those angels sing at just the right time in the sentence. Maybe those are little devils, though, and not angels after all.

I like to add links out to other sources at every opportunity in order to enrich what I’m writing, to broaden the conversation, and frankly because I think linking to other blogs is a good faith way to encourage other blogs to link to us. To act as if our blog is the only place online to learn about what’s important is the height of arrogance and a real disservice to readers. Internal linking is good business practice, but I think a balance is best.

Search indexing is largely powered by links, and the words linked inline are key. That’s a tough one. Links between documents are the foundation of much of the most innovative analysis being done online, but maybe those links could just be placed well away from a body of text.

Few of those other reasons for linking require that it be done in the body of the text, though. Most major blogs that put links in the footer of a post appear to do so as a formality, just to acknowledge debt to another blog but in the least likely way that readers would click off site to visit those other sources.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe links could be added tastefully and well to the footer of posts. It might not be as good for machines, but it could be better for the human brain. Linking may be what blogging is largely about – but let’s be honest: if links to read more were always found and well-placed at the end of articles, wouldn’t you get used to it as a reader?

One of Steve Gillmor’s most compelling arguments, to me, has been that links point the reader to a specific definition of a concept. That if a reader is really interested, they can search for those terms used and gain a far broader understanding of the topic.

What do you think? Could the format of online text publishing be changed so radically and still maintain its vibrant culture of democratized publishing, rich knowledge and frictionless discovery? Could publishers put links at the end of articles and still be participating in conversations, as opposed to the awful arrogance of link-free traditional media?

Let us know what you think about this in comments below. We do still believe in commenting, right?

These are still relatively early days for web publishers, all of this should be open to debate. And it’s exciting to re-evaluate what we take for granted, isn’t it?

Now here’s some links:

Nicholas Carr’s post today – Experiments in Delinkification (ReadWriteWeb’s previous posts that cite Carr)
Steve Gillmor (ReadWriteWeb’s previous posts that cite Gillmor)

There…now how did that feel?