Hypertext Links: Whither Thou Goest, and Why by Claire Harrison
The link is the basic element of hypertext, and researchers have long recognized that links provide semantic relationships for users. Yet little work has been done to understand the nature of these relationships, particularly in conjunction with the purposes of organizational/informational Web sites. This paper explores the semantic and rhetorical principles underlying link development and proposes a systematic, comprehensive classification of link types that would be of use to researchers and Web production teams.
Semantics: The "Whither" of Linking
Rhetoric: The "Why" of Linking
Why a Classification of Links?
The Classification of Links
The term hypertext has a history that is almost as old as the first computer system. It was coined by visionary Ted Nelson in the early 1960s. As he explained in a 1996 radio interview:"I had done a great deal of writing as a youth, and re-writing, and the intricacy of taking ideas and sentences and trying to arrange them into coherent, sensible, structures of thought struck me as a particularly intricate and complex task, and I particularly minded having to take thoughts which were not intrinsically sequential and somehow put them in a row because print as it appears on the paper, or in handwriting, is sequential. There was always something wrong with that because you were trying to take these thoughts which had a structure, shall we say, a spatial structure all their own, and put them into linear form. Then the reader had to take this linear structure and recompose his or her picture of the overall content, once again placed in this non-sequential structure ... you had to take these two additional steps of deconstructing some thoughts into linear sequence, and then reconstructing them. Why couldn't that all be bypassed by having a nonsequential structure of thought which you presented directly? That was the hypothesis - well the hyperthesis really - of hypertext, that you could save both the writer's time and the reader's time and effort in putting together and understanding what was being presented" (Nelson, 1996).
Nelson's vision - a nonlinear way of presenting information - has, of course, come to fruition on the Web, although whether hypertext saves anyone time given the increasing quantity of available information is debatable.
Hypertext in organizational/informational Web sites takes a variety of forms, based on different types of hypermedia system designs. Lewis, Hall, Carr, and De Roure (1999) noted that links today can be static, i.e., point-to-point connections that are fixed and embedded in a document, or dynamic, i.e., built into link databases and separate from the documents to which they refer. Links can also be explicit, i.e., obvious to the user, or implicit, i.e., built in as part of the structure of the hypertext design model. In this latter case, they may be "dynamically created by a process [such as user querying] which defines how elements of the hypertext structure are related when the process is invoked." Hypermedia designers continue to work on technologies that will enhance search capabilities and enable user access to large databases. Nevertheless, the underlying basic feature of all such systems is the link whether a site is strongly authored, i.e., the links are manually made, or weakly authored, i.e., the links are built through computational models.
As a professional writer, I have been increasingly involved in developing Web sites for government and the private sector. I discovered that, as I was writing content for a Web page, I would remember another page that contained related information, decide that users might find this information valuable, and then create a link between the two pages. I was acting in a manner that Shriver (1997, p. 159) has noted about many document writers, editors, and designers, i.e., that they "imagine the audience and draw on their internal representation of the audience as a guide to writing and design ... The strength of intuitive modes is that they capture ... the phenomenon that skilled communicators are good at 'doing things with words and pictures' that get the audience's attention and keep it."
I began to ask myself questions about my intuitions regarding linking. Was this behavior completely idiosyncratic? Or was I making decisions based on principles that I had not articulated? If so, what were these principles and what did their application mean for hypertext authors and users? The purpose of this paper is to report on my exploration of the principles underlying linking practices and proposes a classification of links that, I suggest, can apply to all types of links on most, if not all, organizational/informational Web sites.
Semantics: The "Whither" of Linking
Researchers from a variety of fields - for example, Burbules (literacy), 1998; Verbyla (hypertext systems), 1999; Lemke (semiotics), 1998a - have noted that links create a relationship between different types of information. In fact, hypertext can be defined as a web of relationships. Authors establish the relationship potential of linking by choosing to expand on an existing item of information by adding a connection to another item of information. Users, on the other hand, establish the relationship actuality of linking by choosing to follow the link and examine the relationship created between the items of information. This relationship has meaning, i.e., semantic value.
However, choosing these semantic relationships turns out to be problematic. Research by Furner, Ellis, and Willett (1999) found that, when people were given the same texts and asked to choose links among them based on the same guidelines, the results were highly variable. "Our conclusion is that different people tend to have very different views of the semantic relationships that exist among the components of a full-text document, and consequently tend to impose different hypertext link structures on the same source documents." Clearly, the author's personal choices would also be an imposition on the user. As Bodner and Chignell (1999) noted,"The role of the author was to create the hypertext and the role of the user/reader was to browse through it. Thus, the reader was faced with the task of understanding the author's mental model of the hypertext documents in order to navigate the collection of linked nodes (hyperbase) effectively."
The question then arises: Is it actually possible to create a hypertext that is not idiosyncratic in some manner? I suggest that it is not. Whether a site contains pages and/or databases, the decision regarding what is to be included is always based on human choice which is inherently idiosyncratic. For example, let us say that a government database includes the biographies of all elected politicians. Not only has someone decided that such information should be on the site, the biographies themselves are tainted, so to speak, by the writer(s) who have decided what information should or should not be included in them. Even simple facts can pose difficulties. Say, the government database also included a link to all votes by elected politicians within a given Congress. The "yeas" and "nays" are facts, but such facts are only the foundation of interpretation, discussion, and/or argument for which they require context. Yet, the minute the user can link to contextual information, e.g., the politics of the day, the dynamics of the particular Congress, each politician's political affiliation, and so forth, the information is once again "tainted." As Nelson (1999) noted, "'Information,' referred to as a commodity, is a myth. Information always comes in packages ... and every such package has a point of view. Even a database has a point of view."
In other words, no hypertext - whether static or dynamic, explicit or implicit, and strongly or weakly authored - can be divorced from the subjectivity of human choice. This notion is in keeping with research in semiotics which demonstrates how signs, such as words, pictures, gestures, and so forth, make meaning. As Lemke (1998b) pointed out:"Every time we make meaning by reading a text or interpreting a graph or picture we do so by connecting the symbols at hand to other texts and other images read, heard, seen, or imagined on other occasions ... Which connections we make (what kind and to which other texts and images) is partly individual, but also characteristic of our society and our place in it: our age, gender, economic class, affiliation groups, family traditions, cultures and subcultures."
Hypertexts, then, are a social/cultural phenomenon, based on the ideologies of the particular communities - for example, a corporation, government department, non-profit organization - from which they emerge. These ideologies work to create, enhance, and restrict users' access to information. As Johnson-Eilola (1997, p. 26) noted, "hypertext is not some magical technology that transforms the information within it into a free, open space. In fact, the communities in which specific forms of hypertext are taken up, appropriated, and remade typically act in a way consonant with their current structures of power, action, and knowledge."
On the other hand, users themselves come from ideologically driven communities - for example, their workplaces, network of friends, and families. They bring to a text their own ideas, beliefs, and knowledge that affect not only the path they choose to take through a hypertext, but also their understanding of the semantic relationship created by linkages. For example, Burbules (1998, p. 104), in a discussion of hyperreading, said that"selecting and following any particular line of association between distinct textual points involves an interpretation of the nature of the association this link implies. Sometimes this association involves our own idiosyncratic way of making sense of the connection; sometimes it is prefigured by certain familiar conventions (such as the nature and purpose of footnotes) in the context where we encounter the link; sometimes it involves our attempt to guess why the hypertext designer/author made exactly this link in this location between these two items."
Tosca (2002), in a discussion of links based relevance theory, noted that users must interpret a hypertext link as if it were a "speaker's utterance":"That is, if a word (or picture) is highlighted, the reader has to understand that it points to a relevant development of the text. Links don't interrupt the flow of meaning; on the contrary, they enliven it ... . In my approach, the link itself would have a sort of "suspended meaning" that wouldnt be confirmed until we have seen where it takes us. In this sense, it can be said that the link has no fixed definite meaning; it is a mere indicator: "there is meaning here: explore the context." ... From the point of view of pragmatics, links force us to make meaning before and after travelling them."
Clearly, an enormous number of variables affect hypertext relationships. For strongly authored links, there are the variables of human choice on the part of authors and the variables of understanding on the part of users. For weakly authored models where user choice is often based on searching and querying, the mathematical functions are still based on human-choice variables such as keywords, indexing, and user profiling and are still subject to user interpretation. Nevertheless, no matter how links are constructed or understood, one underlying principle of links is that they are semantic by nature.
Rhetoric: The "Why" of Linking
The primary purpose of organizational/informational Web sites is to persuade users that their content, whether goods or information, is credible, meaningful, and, therefore, of value. In this manner, the Web, i.e., the most modern rhetorical communications medium, is directly connected to oration, i.e., the oldest. Aristotle (1954/2001) defined the rhetoric of oration as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Although Price (2001) has argued that modern communication has many purposes other than persuasion, e.g., "to entertain, to instruct, to sell, to spread awareness, heck, just to participate in a group," I suggest that, given the 30-plus million Web sites (NetNames, 2002), none will succeed against their competitors if they are not able to persuade users that their purposes are worthwhile in the first place.
Aristotle, in his analysis of rhetoric, focused primarily on the traits of the rhetor that would lend credibility to an oration. Today, researchers in rhetoric believe that the listener/reader/user plays as significant a role in a persuasive event as its initiator. As Brent (1992) noted,"Rhetoric ... is not just a communicative but also an epistemic process. For instance, philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi argue that knowledge, even the most "scientific" knowledge, is not made simply through individual encounters with the physical world. Rather, knowledge exists as a consensus of many individual knowers, a consensus that is negotiated through the medium of discourse in an unending conversation that involves all humanity. Rhetoric interpenetrates every aspect of this conversation. If knowledge is negotiated, it follows that differing views are involved in a competition for the minds of believers. Knowledge is not what one has simply been told. Knowledge is what one believes, what one accepts as being at least provisionally true. The process of symbolic negotiation is thus a process in which competing propositions attempt to establish claims to be worth believing. Only when such a claim is established can a proposition be elevated to the status of knowledge. In short, then, persuasion, the essence of rhetoric, lies at the heart of this endlessly recursive process of producing and consuming discourse."
As the world's largest source of information, the Web compels users to constantly weigh rhetorical claims from different Web sites. Upon "meeting" a piece of information, users must engage in an internal dialogue concerning their belief systems, asking: Do I believe this bit of information? If so, why? If not, why not? As Slevin (2000, pp. 24-25) noted, "In contexts in which information is coming from a diversity of sources, individuals have to make sense of such information and use it to choose among alternative courses of action. Even if they choose to follow traditional routines, traditional ways of life still have to be contemplated, defended and decided upon with an awareness that there are a variety of other ways of getting things done."
Web sites are, therefore, in fierce rhetorical competition not only to attract users, but also to keep their attention. In fact, Lanham (1993, p. 117-119) suggests that, in this environment, a new definition of rhetoric could be "the economics of human attention-structures":"whenever we "persuade" someone, we do so by getting that person to "look at things from our point of view," share our attention structure. It is in the nature of human life that attention should be in short supply, but in an information economy it becomes the crucial scarce commodity. Just as economics has been the study of how we allocate scarce resources in a goods economy, we now will use a variety of rhetoric as the "economics" of human attention-structure ... a vital activity in our information society."
As a new form of communications with ever-changing technologies, Web site owners are continually experimenting with the available means of online persuasion such as GUI design, graphics, multimedia, and so on. However, the use of internal links for rhetorical purposes is the oldest, most conventional, and most stable Web tool for persuasion, designed as Shaw (2001) noted, for "potential stickiness, in terms of retaining users and driving them into the site... ."
Why a Classification of Links?
The two principles of linking, that links are semantic by nature and rhetorical in purpose, provide the basis for arriving at a classification of links. This classification can be applied, I believe, to all types of links on most, if not all, organizational/informational Web sites. The classification can also be applied to links no matter how they are authored, how they are accessed by the user, whether they are part of a site architecture, if they are embedded in content or a database, or even if they are internal or external. In creating this classification, I disagree with Miles (2002) who argued that"The pattern of connections formed by links, as understood by a reader, are ultimately grounded by what they take the "point" of the narrative to be, and this is only determined by virtue of what is the end of the work. It is not that these connections are neutral, but on the contrary always dynamic. It is only in recognising the immanent eventfulness of connection as an event, with all its implications of presentness, unfolding, openness, and retrospective closure, that we are able to recognise the inevitable failure of predetermined link categories or types. The movement of information into knowledge, whether fiction or nonfiction, is never stable and in a temporally and visually dynamic environment it is this eventfulness that will teach us what we should be doing." (My italics)
While it is true that the meaning of a link ultimately depends on the user - relying as I noted earlier on variables of approach to the link and background ideas, beliefs, and knowledge - it is also equally true that hypertext authors have rhetorical reasons for incorporating links, based on what the authors perceive to be their semantic value. As such, the classification will be of use to hyptertext researchers who wish to analyze Web sites, usability specialists who wish to measure Web site effectiveness, and Web production teams who, in my experience, often implement linking in an ad hoc fashion.
Users, as Bodner and Chignell said (above), must develop a "mental model" of a hypertext document in order to use it effectively. As Hammerich and Harrison (2002, p. 293), have noted, "Many organizations have Intranets, Extranets, and/or Web sites with thousands of pages. Such sites can include online technical documentation, human resource policy manuals, online learning modules, product catalogues, customer service information files, and/or workgroup files for research and production." Although site maps provide some assistance to users in developing accurate, comprehensive mental models of site structure, creating maps for large sites is extremely difficult. As Johnson and Schneiderman (1999, p.152) have pointed out,"A large quantity of the world's information is hierarchically structured: manuals, outlines, corporate organizations, family trees, directory structures, internet addressing, library programs ... and the list goes on. Most people come to understand the content and organization of these structures easily if they are small, but have great difficulty if the structures are large."
Therefore, users must rely on site developers to apply a consistent logic in their linking practices in order to create effective mental models. If this doesn't occur, they are likely to become disoriented, confused, and annoyed. The links will lack the quality of "stickiness," and users will go elsewhere to find the information they seek. On the other hand, Web production teams whose members understand the rationale behind their linkages are more likely to develop policies for link development which, if followed, will contribute to consistency of practice. Consistency will, in turn, help a site realize its rhetorical goals of attracting and retaining user interest amidst an ever-increasing number of competitors.
The Classification of Links
The classification of links describes a link's functionality as intended rhetorically by the author but with recognition that the user will be the final arbiter of its semantic value. This classification applies to all types of links, including the full panoply of multimedia. As long as a link connects two items of information, e.g., text to text, text to a song, a graphic to animation, it creates a relationship that is semantic by nature and rhetorical by purpose. The link categories in Table 1 and the descriptions that follow are in alphabetical order. It is important to note that a site can have one or more types of links, and a link can have one or more functions. (This section is adapted from Hammerich and Harrison, 2002, pp. 185-191.)
Table 1: A Classification of Links According to Primary Function
Link Primary Function Examples Authorizing Describes an organization's legal, formal policies, contact information, etc. that authenticate the site and its content.
- About Us
- Customer Service Policies
Commenting Provides opinion about the site and/or its content.
- Press Releases
Enhancing Provides more factual information about site content by offering greater detail or painting the "bigger picture."
- Guidelines for Membership
- Site Map
Exemplifying Provides a specific example of content within a broader category.
- Future Events
- Today's Horoscopes
Mode-Changing Moves users from the reading mode to one that requires a different kind of activity.
- Online Survey
- Shopping Cart
Referencing/Citing Provides information that "informs" or supplements the site's content.
- Related Links
Self-Selecting Allows users to narrow a search by making choices based on their age, sex, geographical location, life situation, personal interests, and so on.
- For Seniors Only
- Your Local Chapter
The authorizing link provides access to an organization's official, legal, and formal information that helps to authenticate a site. Some examples of authorizing links are:
- "About Us" or "Company Profile";
- "By-laws" for membership sites;
- "Archives" which demonstrate that the organization has a history;
- "Legal Notices," "Disclaimers," and "Terms and Conditions of Use"; and
- The Webcast of a CEO speaking to employees via an Intranet or to the public via the Internet.
Authorizing links can also serve as enhancing links when their content is factual or as commenting links when the content is opinion.
The commenting link is one that provides opinion, either official or non-official, either obvious or subtle, about the site and/or its content. Examples of commenting links are:
- "Read Messages" on an online discussion forum - a section of a Web site essentially devoted to commentary;
- "Press Releases" on a corporate site that connects users to documents that provide commentary about the business and its recent activities;
- Expert or consumer reviews of a company's products or services; and
- Links to opinion articles and columns.
Commenting links can be in different media. For example, a firm that rents holiday accommodations might have a site section devoted to testimonials from people who have used their services to rent condominiums, villas, and ski chalets, and accompany the textual testimonials with photographs. Commenting links can also be found through search engines, whether internal or external, e.g, Google, which respond to user queries.
In some cases, the difference between whether a link functions as commenting (opinion) or enhancing (factual) exists in the mind of the user. What some people may consider opinions, others may believe are facts, and vice versa.
The most common type of link is the enhancing link. It layers factual information for the user by linking to complementary content within a site, that is, by zooming in, i.e., linking to content that adds more detail, or zooming out, i.e., linking to content that provides the "bigger picture."
Users who drill down through the site's information architecture, moving from the general to the increasingly specific, are generally enhancing through detail. This activity includes any link that leads users to how-to or resource information, guidelines, descriptions, explanations, or more of the journalistic story. For example, the Web site home page ( http://www.fema.gov) of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Service (FEMA) recently had a photograph of a flooded road in Minnesota accompanied by a link entitled "More About this Disaster." The link provided greater detail by presenting a map of Minnesota that showed the extent of the flooding state-wide.
On the other hand, users seeking the bigger picture must usually link in reverse, moving from the specific to the more general. While zooming out can involve topic information, it is also a common activity for users who need more information about the site itself. Links such as "Home," "Site Help," and "Site Index" can serve as enhancing links.
Other types of links that frequently act as enhancing are those that authorize, exemplify, and refer. However, their primary function depends on user intent and interests.
The exemplifying link is the online equivalent of the print phrases, for example and for instance. When users are looking within general categories and then click to find specific content as examples within that category, the link has an exemplifying function. Typical exemplifying links connect users to:
- Individual products or services on an e-commerce site.
- Job openings on corporate sites and job posting sites.
- Recipes on a cooking or gourmet site.
- The trailer for a movie on a movie production site.
- Books on a publisher's site.
- Events on sites such as those of professional associations, museums, and non-profit groups.
Exemplifying links generally function as either commenting or enhancing links, depending upon whether the examples are facts or opinions.
The mode-changing link moves users from the reading mode to one that requires a different kind of activity such as:
- Taking a quiz.
- Undertaking an exercise.
- Playing a game.
- Listening to a song.
- Completing an online survey.
- Filling out a form.
- Undertaking an e-commerce transaction.
In some cases, as in quizzes and other online educational tools, users are provided with interactive methods for learning more about specific content. Therefore, such links can also act as enhancing and exemplifying links. Entertainment links, such as choosing a piece of music, may serve as exemplifying. However, filling out forms and undertaking e-commerce transactions are somewhat different. Although participants in these activities are achieving goals not related expressly to gaining information, they are learning other things about a site. For example, if their experiences go smoothly, they will believe in the site's competency, efficiency, and credibility. When this occurs such mode-changing links also have an authorizing capacity.
Although referencing/citing links are external links, they allow Web site developers to supplement their own content. "Related Links" to other sites, Listservs, and newsgroups is a very common way for site owners to demonstrate solidarity with similar subject-matter sites. Links to Listservs and newsgroups also generally act as commenting links since the activity of such discourse communities is generally commentary.
Referencing/citing is also frequent on scholarly sites. For example, a site on postmodern thought may provide an overview of the topic and then list numerous links to articles and books on the subject. Shaw (2001) described such links as: "...paying homage to pioneers, giving credit for related work..." Citing is a sub-set of referencing and occurs when a researcher posts an article, whether individually or in an online journal, and provides bibliographic citations that link to other online articles.
This link allows users to narrow their search for information by making choices based on their age, sex, geographical location, life situation, personal interests, and so on. This type of link creates the logical "If...then" relationship - for example, "If you are over 65 years of age, then click here," "If you're interested in printers for home office use, then click here," or "If you're ready to purchase, then click here." Sometimes, self-selecting links are only visuals such as the shopping cart icons used on some e-commerce sites. These links, whether textual and/or visual, occur in a wide variety of sites. Some examples are:
- Children's sites with links for "Parents" and "Teachers" that provide educational advice and information on products;
- E-commerce sites that provide links to different categories of products;
- Game sites where users choose among a variety of different "moves";
- Professional associations that provide links to special interest groups (SIGS);
- Sections of e-commerce sites that allow transactions such as an airline's online reservation service where users narrow choices by clicking on different destinations, times, and so on.
Self-selecting links generally function as enhancing and exemplifying when users are seeking further information or as mode-changing when they wish to undertake certain activities.
Attempts (Burbules 1998; Lemke 1998a; Morgan 1999) have been made to classify links in grammatical terms. For example, Burbules categorized links based on rhetorical figures of speech, such as metaphor (a comparison made by referring to one thing as another), metonymy (reference to something or someone by naming one of its attributes) and synecdoche (a whole is represented as one of its parts and vice versa). However, he acknowledged that his "menagerie" of tropes was not "meant to be systematic or exhaustive," but an attempt to "help us consider links as something quite different from what they appear to be." (p. 111) Although his effort was not comprehensive, I agree with Burbules' intention which was to reveal "the subtle and not-so-subtle implications that links make through association." (p. 110)
In this paper, I have attempted to reveal these implications by creating a systematic, comprehensive categorization of links and their functions, based on the two principles of linking, i.e., that links are semantic by nature and rhetorical in purpose. However, this classification arises out of my experiences in link creation and usage, and research questions remain. For example:
- Most of the research into readability and hypertext falls within the areas of literacy, pedagogy, and online fiction. One interesting area of readability research would be to match the rhetorical reasons that developers create a link with users' perceptions of that link's semantics.
- Along with Pang (1998), I wonder about the dynamics of Web production teams whose members - project managers, writers, designers, programmers - speak "multiple languages," but must create a site where information is "electronic liquid, pouring effortlessly from words into pictures into databases." Who makes the link decisions, and why? Could the classification of links improve a team's performance and results, and how could this be measured?
- I have suggested that consistency of linking practice would enhance a site's rhetorical goals, which can be measured, in part, by site usage. Most of the research into site usability and linking examines design issues, search engine capabilities, and the ability of users to predict link pathways. It would be interesting to explore renovated sites that have experienced improved usage and explore if more consistent linking practices have been a contributing factor.
- Finally, I have suggested that the classification can be applied to all links on most, if not all, organizational/informational Web sites. Investigations of links on a variety of sites may modify the classification and/or throw additional light on link functions.
About the Author
Claire Harrison, president of Cando Career Solutions, Inc., is a writing consultant to government and corporate clients. She recently completed an M.A. with Distinction in Applied Language Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, specializing in writing, rhetoric, social semiotics, and systemic functional linguistics. She is the co-author of Developing Online Content: The Principles of Writing and Editing for the Web and has delivered papers on writing and language to the Canadian Association for Teachers of Technical Writing and the International Systemic Functional Linguistics Conference.
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Paper received 20 August 2002; accepted 19 September 2002.
Copyright ©2002, First Monday
Copyright ©2002, Claire Harrison
Hypertext Links: Whither Thou Goest, and Why by Claire Harrison
First Monday, volume 7, number 10 (October 2002),