How to write hyperlink text for better web accessibility
Descriptive links are an important part of web accessibility.
Yet the internet is full of poorly written link text. Even the top performing websites in the world get it wrong. (As much as 22% contains ambiguous link text, according to WebAIM.)
If you work in content, it’s important to know how link text affects accessibility.
This guidance is mainly for content writers, editors and website managers. But taking the time to write useful link text is good practice for everyone. In your emails, Word documents and instant messages.
What are hyperlinks?
Link text is the clickable text in a web link. They’re commonly called ‘anchor text,’ ‘hyperlinks’ and ‘link labels’. It’s the visible words that display when you link to another document or location on the web. It normally appears underlined, in a different colour, or both.
Why hyperlink text is important for accessibility
The words you use to describe your links are incredibly important. Whether you’re linking to the same web page, a different page on your site or an external website.
In short, people want to know where they’re going if they click a link. The text you use in hyperlinks should tell them.
Writing useful, or meaningful, link text is good accessibility best practice. It’s part of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This is because most people prefer clear link text. And for some people, it’s essential.
Many assistive technology users rely on links to get around a web page. That includes people who:
- are blind
- are visually impaired
- have motor impairments
- have dyslexia
Tips for writing better link text
Follow these tips for better, more accessible text used in your hyperlinks.
Be descriptive and accurate
Link text should describe what the destination web page or document is about. It should tell people where the link is going. Ideally, it should reflect the page title or H1 header.
For example, for a page about the social model of disability on scope’s website. Simply writing “Scope website” is not helpful. It’s vague and ambiguous. The Scope website contains thousands of pages. ‘Scope website’ could refer to any of them. It’s better to write “the social model of disability (Scope).”
Don’t duplicate link text on the same page
People access content in a variety of ways. You cannot guarantee the user will read your link in the body of your content, as you intended it.
Screen reader users will use the tab key to jump from link to link. Or they may prefer to pull up a list of the links on the page before reading the whole thing. That’s why it’s essential that each link is specific and different from one another.
And it’s important that your link text makes sense out of context. Imagine being a screen reader user pulling up a series of links with the exact same names. For example, having to hear “this article” repeated several times over.
Avoid generic phrases like ‘click here’ and ‘read more’
For the same reason, a list of identical links called “click here” is unhelpful for screen reader users. Instead of using the link list to navigate, they must go through the entire body text to work out where the links go to.
And again, generic phrases do not communicate anything to the reader. What will happen if they “click here?” What “more” are people expected to read? Let people know so they can make an informed decision about whether to click the link.
When you can use ‘read more’ link text with ARIA labels
There is an exception to the “read more” rule. But it requires a web developer to make sure the link is properly coded. This involves using an ARIA label.
This means that assistive technology users hear a description of the link in the code. While the text on the page (in context) still shows as ‘read more’.
Avoid hyperlink text that’s longer than a sentence
There’s no strict character limit for link text. But long hyperlink text can be hard to read. Particularly for people with lower reading levels and abilities. Because most links contain formatting, like underlining, this can reduce readability. It adds an extra cognitive load that the brain must work out.
And avoid hyperlink text that’s only 1 or 2 characters
Very short hyperlink text that only uses a single character or number is hard to click. They demand precision from the end user. This can be particularly hard for people with a range of different motor impairments.
You often see clickable numbers used to indicate search page results or indexes.
If you have one on your website, make sure you give people different options of how to navigate. For example, by adding a ‘next page’ link, too. You can see how Google does this in their search results:
Avoid copying and pasting URLs as link text
Some URLs are logical and descriptive. You can get a good idea about the contents of the page just by reading the URL.
For example, this NHS link tells us that this is a page about the common cold, in a category about conditions:
But not all links are descriptive. Long URLs, filled with special characters and numbers are not always easy to read. Both for humans and screen readers. It’s hard to work out what the page is about just by looking at them. This is common for product pages on large online retailers.
For example, would you know what this product listing is just by reading the URL?
(It’s a reflective dog jacket.)
It’s tedious for screen reader users to have to hear long URLs read aloud. And they’re not that helpful for sighted users either.
Don’t include ‘link’ in the hyperlink text
Most screen readers say “link” before each link. Therefore adding ‘link’ at the start is unnecessary.
For example, “Link to more resources”. Most screen readers will pronounce this as “link: link to more resources”.
Other benefits of writing good link text
So, link text is essential for accessibility. But there are other reasons why writing good link text is worth the time and effort.
It benefits all users
Most people scan web pages looking for clues and signposts to get to the content they need. Formatting makes links stand out visually. People often jump to them to work out what a section of the page is about.
Good link text makes the reading experience easier for everyone. It’s an open, transparent way of giving the reader all the information they need.
Especially if the person reading your content is:
- in a rush
- not confident in their digital skills
It builds trust
There are plenty of links on the internet filled with spam and potential security risks.
Accurate link text, on the other hand, builds trust. This is especially important when you’re linking to an external website.
When you write link text, you’re making a promise to the user. That if they click your link, they will see content relevant to the link phrase. And that it will be from a trusted source.
Especially screen reader users who might want to know if the website you’re linking to is accessible. When you communicate this to the user, it reassures them.
Misleading link text can also alienate your audience. Especially if you send them to irrelevant pages. Or promotional marketing content disguised as something else. As well as annoying them, it can damage their trust in your brand.
It helps SEO
Accurate internal link text can improve your website’s search engine optimisation (SEO). This is because search engines can get a better idea of what your web pages are about. The more they understand your website content, the more visitors they can send your way.
Using accurate, internal hyperlink text is an important part of any SEO strategy.