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October 21, 2008

Afraid of outbound links? Don't be.

Rubber Cement
Just how sticky need you be?

"The site looks great. But could you take out the links? I'm afraid people will follow them before they apply to our program/sign up for our event/read the installation instructions/etc." I don't hear this as often as I once did, but it still comes up often enough that it's worth addressing. So today I'll try to dispel some myths about Web stickiness and outbound links.

Will they stay or will they go?

They will go. You know that, because you will go. Whether I bore you halfway through this article or you go on to read several more entries, at some point you will leave this blog. I could offer you videos of the cutest dancing penguins or a fool-proof Web marketing technique and you would leave. I could even tell you the meaning of life (42). You would still leave.

But that's alright. My goal isn't to keep you here forever—trapped with my musings on Web development. My goal is to share ideas and best practices with you, and learn more from the feedback you provide, so that we can all strive to make the most useful Web sites possible. Your goal may be to recruit students to your program or sell more towels, but either way the same principles apply.

What is a sticky Web site?

According to myth, a sticky Web site is one that compels visitors to stay on the site for a long time. The content and features of the site are so enticing that users will stay there wandering about for hours. This is why many Web marketers fret over the percentage of visitors who bounce out of the site and the amount of time spent on it by those who stay. But time is relative. I think a Web site is sufficiently sticky if the goals of the site owner and its visitors are achieved. If the visitor has a positive experience, follows your call-to-action and comes back to visit in the future, then the site is sufficiently sticky.

For example, if I need to order a copy of Don't Panic, I can skibble over to Amazon.com, place the order and be done in less than a minute. I'm happy and Amazon is happy; after all they know I'll be back.

This blog, while vastly different from Amazon, has similar requirements when it comes to stickiness. Perhaps you'll spend a few minutes reading the one article that answers your question. Perhaps you'll linger over the Planning Your Web site Tutorial. Either way, if I've provided something worth reading, then we've both reached our goal. If I'm lucky you'll also subscribe to the RSS feed and Stumble this page so that you and others come back for future visits.

Where will they go when they leave?

On the one hand, that depends on their plans for the day. If they're feeling peckish and adventurous they may want to run out for lunch at Milliways. But if they have time to keep surfing the Web, where they go is partially up to you.

If you've been writing a blog entry about Web site stickiness and outbound links, perhaps you've piqued their interest enough that they want to learn more. In that case you can provide links at the bottom of the page that will give them more information. If you choose these links carefully, you can:

  • keep them thinking about the subject
  • lead them to content that adds depth or breadth to what you have already covered
  • reinforce the idea that your site is a resource—to which users should return—for quality information and site referrals
  • influence the pages they visit, ensuring they see pages you trust—as opposed to pages that may be your competition
  • link to sites that may return the favor by linking back to you in the future
  • enhance search engine optimization (SEO)
I'm not providing information, I'm trying to sell anti-depressants to paranoid androids, where should I link?

Whether your Web site is meant to sell widgets, promote an event or disseminate knowledge, your outbound link strategy should be to provide helpful information to your visitors. If you're selling pharmaceuticals to robots, you could link to:

  • studies showing the efficacy of your product
  • reviews of your product by satisfied customers
  • social media networks and discussion groups geared towards or run by paranoid androids

By providing such resources you can build goodwill towards your brand and help users make a purchasing decision. The same can be applied for events. If it is a lecture, provide a brief biography of the speaker and include a link to his/her own Web site, links to videos of past presentations and other pages that will demonstrate what a compelling speaker he/she is.

In the end, if you take as much care with your links as you do with your other content, your readers should come back for more.

Learn more about outbound links and stickiness
Addendum: Due to excessive spamming I've had to close comments on this entry. Nov. 1, 2008

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Posted by: Heidi Cool October 21, 2008 01:32 AM | Category: Content , Heidi's Entries , Tips and Tricks , marketing , navigation

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Ahh..but what about the question that troubles every person who is coding an outbound link. Should it open in the same window or in a new window?

I noticed you have coded all the links on this page to open in the same window. However, reading a nytimes.com article I noticed outbound links open in a new window while links to other nytimes.com pages open in the same window.

Posted by dave on October 21, 2008 11:16 AM

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I agree that I never know if links should open in a new window or not. Lately some browsers have been blocking links opening in a new window "popup blocker" and stuff. Then people might not be able to use the links at all. However if you decide to let the links open on same page that visitor could be "lost".

Well this post just made me more unsure..:) I hope someone can clear it up.

Posted by Johan on October 21, 2008 01:42 PM

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Should it open in the same window or in a new window? I prefer my links open in the same window... after all reader is the king and we should let them decide this them self. Good post by the way! Nicely written...

Posted by yamaniac on October 21, 2008 01:44 PM

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Heidi,
Hum... not really sure how to start this response so I'm just going to jump right in. You say it's ok to have links to other content on your site and that is ok if this is the purpose of your site, but if the purpose of your site as you mentioned is to recruit a student by getting them to apply, schedule a visit or request information then why do you want to give them all these other options that prevent them from accomplishing the mission of your site? Once you reach a certain point in your schedule a visit funnel you want to "keep it simple" or "don't make me think". If the purpose of that page is to schedule a visit then having links to lots of other options only destroys your conversions and ultimately hurt your stated sites purpose.

I'm not saying this is always the case, but it is the example that you gave. :)

Now with every site it is all about the user experience and if links to compelling and strong content adds to this experience then yes it needs to be included, but don't just add things to add them. Also you risk the situation of adding to much of ultimately confusing and annoying your visitors where they just leave out of frustration.

Ok I'm off my soapbox.

Posted by Kyle James on October 21, 2008 03:52 PM

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Kyle,

I think you bring up some points that can really help drive this discussion. First let me clarify that I don't think we should ever add links just for the sake of adding links. My premise was geared more towards those who are so afraid of adding links that they don't include them when they would support their goals and add value to the site.

So we're probably on the same page here, but for the benefit of others, l'd also like to add some definitions. When I used my blog entry as an example that was just one page, but normally when I'm talking about including links on a site, I'm thinking of a site that would be composed of several pages. So in your recruitment funnel, it may be that you don't have external links on the application page, but you have them on pages reached earlier in the process.

I should also clarify what I mean by "external" or "outbound" links. I mean external to a specific site. Here at Case, for example, the university Web presence is composed of a collection of sites that work together in a manner similar to volumes in an encyclopedia. Schools, have sites, within those departments have sites, and so forth. Thus if I included a link to the School of Law on my blog, I'd consider it an outbound link even though it's in the same domain. Of course, Case is a fairly sizable place. As of this writing Google has indexed 339,000 publicly accessible pages within case.edu and 12,100 within wofford.edu. This volume of pages is what makes me think of the Case site as a collection of sites rather than one site in and of itself.

Since you mentioned recruitment, I did go take a look at your site. On your admission site you do include the type of outbound links I would consider useful. You have links to majors and programs, dormitories and so forth that may not fall within the admissions area, but can help students in their choice-making process. Your sites also include the primary navigation menu of the overall site (which ours don't) thus adding even more options for the prospective student. So in this case I think it may be that we were looking at links from a different perspective. Of course that doesn't mean I wasn't considering true external links as well.

Last night when I mentioned recruitment, the example in my head was Pharmacology. When they were redoing their site—with a mind towards student and faculty recruitment—they made a point to include links to our Visiting Case page, the School of Medicine and the School of Graduate Studies (among other things). While pharmacology is part of the medical school they are involved in multiple degree programs, some of which are under medicine and some under graduate studies. They consider the entire site to be a recruitment tool (though it serves other goals as well) so they also made a point of creating more robust pages for each of their students and faculty. In this type of program, the research that individual faculty members do can have a big impact on a student's choice. If the student is already interested in topic X, they want to ensure that there are faculty members in our program pursuing research on topic X and they want to know more details about it. Thus a specific faculty member's page will include not only a description of the research and selected publications, but also a link to where their papers have been indexed on PubMed.

All in all I think we're in agreement here, we were just looking at the topic from different vantage points. In any case I hope this clarifies things for you and other readers. Thanks, as always for your insights!

p.s. Another link strategy I use is to include outbound links to any words or phrases I use in my text that readers may wish to know more about. Thus I included links to your site, and others in this comment, so readers could see the pages to which I was referring. I find this particularly helpful on sites meant to disseminate knowledge or information. While I use it often on the blog, I also encourage it on things like campus news releases. Thus if a member of the media, an alum or anyone else needs to know more about something we've mentioned we can guide them in the right direction to save them the time of searching and to ensure they get to the right place. In stories related to grants or philanthropy, I also like to acknowledge donors by linking to their sites.

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 21, 2008 07:31 PM

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Same window or different window?

As Dave noticed, my links always open in the same window/tab. Some people prefer a new window, but they've always annoyed me. Like Yamaniac, my feeling is the user should be in control of his/her windows and tabs rather than the Web site and the back button is easy enough to use.

This has been an ongoing debate for several years now, but Johan's point about pop-up blockers is what I hope will end the debate. I have pop-up blocking enabled and I will only turn it off for sites that I know and trust. Thus I may have missed out on decent content, but it's a chance I'm willing to take. Better that than to risk the and unknown series of ads, special offers or whatever.

It's an interesting question though, so I'll add the topic to my research list. It might be worthy of a follow-up post.

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 21, 2008 07:43 PM

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Thanks for clarification. I guess the point that I was specifically making was that funnel pages should have less navigation options because you want to keep them in the funnel, but otherwise yes it's absolutely ok (yes even encouraged) to link to related and valuable content. My point would be that don't add links just to add links. Keep it simple and uncluttered.

As far as the whole open external links in a new window, everything on wofford.edu does work this way along with everything on my blogs. I like to keep people on my site, but like you have said it's still a wide open debate. From a strictly analytical perspective them leaving your site in a new window or same window is still them leaving your site and an exit. At least the hope is them doing it in a new window once they are done with that window maybe they will decide that they aren't quite finished exploring your site. Hey you can always hope.

Posted by Kyle James on October 21, 2008 08:46 PM

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Thanks again for your post and posting on my blog.

Posted by John Flynn on October 22, 2008 04:21 PM

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FYI,

I have change all the links on my "outbound links" to come to your page.

You are right. The readers should have the information they need and I hope this helps them.

Love your site.

I am on Facebook and Twitter in case you wish to send a message.

Thanks!

Posted by John Flynn on October 23, 2008 09:27 AM

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Another quality post. Thanks for bringing up the discussion. I myself (usually within any blogs I write for) tend to link out. If there is something worth posting or that will add value to your own content, then its worth linking to.

As for the people above, I do usually force it into a new window so they still have my site there. Nowadays though, everyone is very accustomed to the "back" button on their browser. So even if you send them offsite, if they hate the content for whatever reason, you know they will be hitting back and coming back to your site.

If you provide good content, your reader will remember who showed them this content :)

Posted by Domains at Retail on October 23, 2008 02:44 PM

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WOW! Something about 'outbound links' really brings out the spam.

Posted by dave on October 24, 2008 02:49 PM

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John,
Thanks for sending the traffic my way. It is topically accurate, but somehow I find it amusing that so many links on the same page are coming this way.

I wonder what impact that has on SEO. I will sometimes link to the same thing twice in a page. We do this often on news releases where we link on the words "XYZ Corp" somewhere in the top paragraph then include a phrase such as "Visit the XYZ Corp Web site to learn more." I wonder if doing more has a positive or negative impact. There's probably a tipping point somewhere where it switches from good to bad. I'm just not sure where that might be. It's an interesting scenario to ponder. Glad you like the blog, I'll track you down on the social Web.

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 24, 2008 04:32 PM

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Dave,
No doubt! This entry was showing 111 comments before I went through and deleted/blacklisted. They were of the ilk that don't normally get through the spam filters so I let the blog-admin know as well.

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 24, 2008 04:38 PM

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Thanks for shering this great blog Posting with us!

Posted by Frank on October 24, 2008 05:47 PM

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Yea, outbound links can be important in another way too, besides the points made here. It is important in terms of SEO. If you have a lot of outbound links, it means your blog is high quality. But the links should be very valuable and to the point. Recently, Google Webmaster Tools also spoke about importance of outbound links from a page.

Posted by Lenin Nair on October 29, 2008 03:12 AM

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Posted by: hac4 (Heidi Cool) October 21, 2008 01:32 AM | Comments (15) | Trackback