As SEO practitioners and content writers, we are taught to do two things with regularity when creating: link internally with great frequency, and also do our best to spread the link love by linking out to others.
The SEO and time-on-page fundamentals that these things revolve around haven’t changed, but much of our thinking about what this does has. Research has shown that the act of linking dramatically drops readability, and also severs the ability for retention.
In the most recent issue of WIRED, there is an article titled “Chaos Theory”, which is an adaptation of a piece of Nicoholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. Within, Carr details two studies that delve into the perils of linking out:
“In a 2001 study, two scholars in Canada asked 70 people to read “The Demon Lover,” a short story by Elizabeth Bowen. One group read it in a traditional linear-text format; they’d read a passage and click the word next to move ahead. A second group read a version in which they had to click on highlighted words in the text to move ahead. It took the hyper-text readers longer to read the document, and they were seven times more likely to say they found it confusing.”
Carr continues a paragraph down:
“A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse.”
As SEOs, this has obvious dilemmas for our work. We are extremely more likely to link out due to our craft, and as such, extremely more likely to make the content we create more difficult to understand and retain. For example (and the only time I will do this during this post), look at Aaron Wall’s recent entry SEO is a Zero Sum Game. Wall links out 47 times, and that, mixed with the difficult subject matter, makes the post essentially incomprehensible.
SEO shouldn’t get in the way of user experience, and as these studies suggest, the way we create content definitely does. There are ways around it, thankfully, although it takes conscientiousness to implement them.
It is my suggestion that SEOs should make a concerted effort to not link out within the main body unless absolutely necessary, and instead, take the extra three or four minutes to summarize the link you would have used. We can still get links in the content, where studies show that links offer more juice, we just have to do so at the tail end, after we‘ve summarized our point.
Consider creating a “Additional Resources” addendum, where you can link out to multiple places without concerns about readers not understanding the content. You also have the ability to create blog posts like term papers or Wikipedia entries, with footnotes addressing anything that needs to be linked to.
Of course, this isn’t always necessary, and the more vanilla your topic, the less it matters. If you’re creating content a la “50 ways to..” that really has no lessons or long-term intentions attached, link away, as dragging your users all across the internet will have little to no implications on the retention of ideas. In cases like Wall’s, though, where he is trying to instruct a point and create understanding, his act of linking out so often actually greatly disrupts his original intentions.
Studies like these should mark a fundamental step forward in the way we learn online. As the article continues, much of the way we consume content is very “surface” level, and because of that, skimming has become our dominant mode of thought. If our goal is to progress and not simply consume, we have to take steps away from this mode of thinking.