The Tyranny of Hyperlink Ends Now!
Erping Zhu -Assistant Director, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan- conducted an experiment aimed at discerning the effects of hyperlinks on comprehension.
Her discovery should be of great interest to anyone delivering content via the Internet.
She had a large group of people read the same article but she varied the number of links. She then tested reader’s comprehension by asking them to write a summary of what they have read followed by a multiple-choice test. The results were unsurprising but tremendously important for content creators.
Comprehension declined as the number of links increased.
Reading and comprehension require establishing relationships between concepts, drawing inferences, activating prior knowledge, and synthesizing main ideas. ~Erping Zhu
She went on to say that a form of disorientation from hyperlinks can thus interfere with cognitive activities of reading and comprehension.
Sounds Interesting. Tell Me More.
In 2008, a company named ClickTale, a developer of software for analyzing how people read web pages, collected data on the behavior of a million visitors to sites maintained by its clients around the world.
ClickTale’s own research found that most people spend between 19 and 27 seconds looking at a web page before moving onto the next hyperlinked page.
On the web, there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move. ~Wrote Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Amazon Affiliate Link)
We Are Like Dogs.
My dog is constantly trying to stimulate his reward centers by soliciting yet another treat.
Likewise, we are constantly trying to stimulate our own reward centers by clicking on yet another link which will no doubt result in some great reward beyond the rainbow. If not this link, then surely the next…
“F” is for Fast.
In 2006, Jakob Nielsen, a longtime researcher in the field of web design and Internet usage, conducted an eye tracking study on 232 volunteers outfitted with a small camera which tracked their eye movement as they surfed the web.
He found that hardly any participants read the web text in a methodical, book-like, line by line manner.
Most test subjects scanned the first line, skipped down a few rows to read the portion of the horizontal text only to skip even further down towards the very bottom. A reading patter that resembles the letter “F”.
All In All
In 2005, Diana DeStefano and Jo-Anne LeFevre, psychologists with the Centre for Applied Cognitive Research at Canada’s Carleton University, did a comprehensive review of 38 experiments involving the reading of hyperlinked content.
Tho not all studies showed that hyperlinks diminish comprehension, they found no support for the once popular theory that hypertext leads to an enriched experience and better comprehension.
On the contrary. There was overwhelming evidence indicating that the increased demand on decision making and visual processing of hyperlinked text impaired reading performance and stymied comprehension.
In case you “F’ed” your way down to this part of the post, let me repeat myself.
Most people spend between 19 and 27 seconds looking at a web page. And this is good news for those who can’t write to save their life. No one will find out you suck.
But if you are trying to educate your audience, perhaps you’d like to have them stick around for the encore .
What is the meaning of this?
When browsing online, fMRI scans show that many brain regions light up. As we process the audio/visual queues from the page our brain is working overtime.
This has proven to be a desirable effect for the elderly. Presumably, this Christmas Tree effect allows them to “exercise” their mental faculties and even stave of serious, age related mental foibles.
However, the book-brain, sans hyperlinks, shows fewer brain regions engaged and facilitates a kind of quieting. This brain state is very similar to a kind of quieting achieved through meditation.
By browsing online we are not allowing our brain to quiet down and reflect on itself. Instead, we are fostering a brain environment that’s akin to a Formula 1 driver. We are going thousand miles per hour never pausing to allow the information to take root.
To Click or Not to Click
That is the Question.
Why are hyperlinks so bad? Well…let’s look under the hood.
Every time our eyes encounter a hyperlink we have to decide if we are to click on that link or not?
This takes our attention away from integrating the content into our knowledge base and we are forced to make a decision to click or not to click.
While these fractions of milliseconds are hardly observable to our conscious mind, every time our attention is taken away from the primary task, a certain amount of “boot up” time is needed as we switch from integrating the content to making a click/no-click decision and back to content again.
So what’s the solution?
Make Your Blog Posts Read Like a Book. Only Better.
Having your articles read like text from a book is a good start. We only need make few minor adjustments. Here are some suggestions.
- No hyperlinks
I hope you saw that one coming. It’s kind of the main point of the article, no?
- Vary the font size
On my own blog, I typically use very small sized font to add caption to pictures and illustrations. Medium sized font for the main text and large font for subheading or major points of the article.
- Like book but shorter
I love books. But one of my pet peeves is the “time” it takes to present a thesis in a typical nonfiction work. Most nonfiction books clock-in at about 300 pages. This pisses me off to no end when I read a book that could have fit on 100 or 150 pages. And I don’t blame the author for this. Publishing companies require typical nonfiction to be of certain size so that they can justify charging $30.00 they typically charge for nonfiction hard covers.
In short. Be brief.
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. ~Albert Einstein
The “shortness” principle applies to not only the overall article size, but also sentences, paragraphs and overall language (small words instead of the ones that cost $5.00).
The only exception for the “big words” rule is when the meaning of the word can be discerned from the context of the sentence.
ALL of these points should be balanced with the following.
- Take as long as you need to make a compelling argument but have respect for the reader’s time.
- Also, I believe in the old rule of not writing “down” to your readers. Instead, write “up”. Its OK for your reader’s to encounter occasional “big word” that they might need to look up, but don’t use big words for the sake of using big words. OK Dennis Miller? For example. The word “ostentatious” always struck me as pretentious. (he he…get it?)
- Multimedia in support of main thesis is good. Adding pictures (and caption) to emphasize the points can be effective. I sometimes do it to break up the monotony of the text, sometimes to inject humor into the post and sometimes to enhance the point of the article.
Education researchers have found that carefully designed presentations that combine audio and visual explanations or instructions can enhance student’ learning. The reason, current theories suggest, is that out brains use different channels for processing what we see and what we hear. ~Wrote Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Dr. John Sweller, Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales, further explains it by saying the following:
Auditory and visual working memory are separate, at least to some extent, and because they are separate, effective working memory may be increased by using both (audio and visual) processors rather than one.
Internet Engineers Do Come In Handy on Occasion
You might have noticed that I haven’t included any links to research.
Well, first it would be contrary to the spirit of the article and second, Engineers do come handy on occasion.
If there is a single piece of information in this text that is not sufficiently elaborated upon or if there is research that sounds counter intuitive to your experience, or you would simply like to find out more, you can easily do it by googling the information.
You can find information on people and references I’ve made by simply typing it in google’s search. This in effect replaces the Additional Resources section in the back of a traditional book.
In the age of google you will find hyperlinks to a person’s name or hyperlinks to a research documents convenient but unnecessary, distracting and ultimately counter productive. ..but you still may not be convinced, and you might be asking yourself…
Who Doesn’t Use Hyperlinks?
Well…all the cool kids are already adopting the “new” format.
Do the “F” scan over the back issues of copyblogger posts and you will notice the sparsity of links within the main body of the text.
Take a look at some of Darren Rowse’s posts. You’ll notice the same thing.
I think two examples are enough. Point made. Moving on.
But What About the SEO?
I can already hear some of you chanting “crucify him, crucify him…”
Put your pitch forks down and hear me out.
SEO is a constant battle between google, who is trying to make their automated search engine as accurate, authoritative and relevant as possible verses SEO “experts” who are trying to game the system and put -what’s often- high ranking garage in our search results.
Let your karma do your work for you. Besides. I suspect -tho have no data to back this up- that leads brought in via google search are less likely to convert (into sales, comments and what not) than leads brought in via Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Presumably this is because Facebook and Twitter allow you to develop relationships and share value before pushing your wares.
Let the backlash begin. lol
Yes, I am perfectly aware of the irony and the hypocrisy considering that only yesterday I’ve published two giant posts that are ALL ABOUT SEO.
What Can I say…I’m a man of contradiction. lol
Wait. But Aren’t We Supposed to Give Link-Love to our Buddies?
I’m only advocating that we quit being so oppressed by the hyperlink. I’m NOT advocating that we stop using them all together.
So simply be more mindful of how many hyperlinks you’re using and place them strategically towards the end of your text; for example, see above.