What If Links Previewed Content?

As I’ve discussed extensively in the past, one of the main problems with many technologies online and on the mobile web is that symbols and icons and other items don’t always have a clear purpose or necessary action. Clicking on the RSS icon that was once ubiquitous across the web didn’t do anything, often just opening a page full of confusing code. It wasn’t clear people were supposed to copy the link and paste it into the discovery tool of the aggregator they’d already setup. So too, QR codes never delivered on their initial hype because there was no education of the public that they needed a specific app on their device to read the code and unlock its content.

The most successful mass adoption of RSS came when services like MyYahoo essentially masked the technology, allowing people to do what they expected – click an icon – that created a clear result, in this case adding that feed to their personal Yahoo portal. Similarly, QR codes have continued to languish as a niche feature but the concept – scan an image to trigger an action – has been adopted by a number of services such as Spotify, Snapchat and a number of others because the users know what to expect.

All of that came to mind when I saw the link highlighted below on a story I was reading on Bloomberg.

bloomberg terminal link

The link takes subscribers to the Bloomberg terminal readout, something that’s clear because in the middle of it there’s a small image of a screen or terminal. Seeing it got me thinking: Do we need to rethink links to be more explanatory?

In the last few years there’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing over the death of the open web, a fear powered by the rise of Facebook and other sites/services that want you to stay within their closed ecosystem as well as the growth of mobile apps. The open web is powered by links, but within an app links don’t play a huge role unless they’re “deep links” that lie behind an ad or which take you to a specific section of the website of the company behind the app. If people don’t see something in their Instagram feed, in a Snap sent to them or within some other app they may not see it.

The thing about apps is that they usually clearly label certain actions. Click something that says “News” and you’re going to get news. Everything is designed to make the user experience as seamless and worry-free as possible.

Links admittedly don’t work like that. When you see a word or phrase that’s been linked on the web it isn’t immediately clear what lies on the other side. If you hover over the link with your mouse you can usually see a preview of full URL so you can judge the quality of the site before clicking, but not everyone is savvy enough to do so. That questionable sites could be masked behind short URLs is one of the reasons Twitter began its own link-wrapping service to at least do a small amount of vetting. And many content marketing people say sharing long links on social media more clearly presents the value proposition to the audience and is worth sacrificing the click-through stats available if you use a service like Bit.ly.

But what if links worked differently? While I will admit the Bloomberg terminal example above is a bit clunky in how it interrupts the text, there’s an idea worth exploring. I don’t want to propose something like those annoying text link ads that open up a massive box everytime you move your mouse over them on a page, but there must be some way to better present a clear message and set expectations when including a link. It might be an icon of some sort. It might be a small window that opens in the corner of your browser that shows the page being linked to.

I’m not sure what the perfect solution here is. There seems to be a strong need for a reeducation campaign around the power of links and what they mean, how they power conversations and have the ability to squash fake news in a way that the social networks dominating the media landscape today don’t seem interested or capable of doing. That power largely comes because they’re not driven by the misguided or narrow perspectives of engineers working for a single company but because they’re a community standard that work across devices and platforms.

Do you know of anyone innovating on new ways to make links as essential to the mobile web as they were to the initial social web?

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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