CTL Blog

A Beginner's Guide to Authoring Universally Accessible Materials, Part 5: Hyperlinks

February 10, 2021 | 7 Minute Read

This guest post is by Celine Greene, Senior Instructional Technologist in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

So far in this series of posts on Authoring Universally Accessible Materials, we’ve discussed editing documents and communications in such a way that we are mindful of a resource’s document properties, structure and formatting, alternative text, and color. In this update, I am going to break down another small but mighty practice toward making your resources accessible: when and how to use hyperlinks, the text (or object) that serves as a conduit to navigate to another resource. There are three main points to keep in mind when inserting hyperlinks. First, hyperlinks should only be included in such a way that they are purposeful and meaningful, telling the user something about their destination. Second, the intent of the hyperlink should remain obvious even when it is taken out of context. And third, a URL, or web address, should only be displayed if it is an essential part of the communication.

Accessible resources are easier to access, easier to understand, and easier to use by the greatest number of people and technologies possible. By considering best practices that relate to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), we are reaching and engaging people with varied abilities and circumstances, building flexibility and choice, and reducing frustrations. Purposeful, well-written hyperlinks are essential in any resource meeting WCAG principles.

When we include hyperlinks that are meaningful, giving information about the linked resource even when taken out of context, and avoid using a full web address except when that URL (uniform resource locator) is actually an important part of our message, we are making our resources both easier to understand and to use (operate). If our hyperlinks are not meaningful, such as when we link the phrase “click here now”, then they are not helpful and may even confuse users. Furthermore, a link whose purpose isn’t obvious makes it harder for anyone to navigate inside our document (detracting from the WCAG operable guideline). A generic hyperlink requires a user to take some sort of action and navigate away from the current resource to determine the purpose of the link. This extra interaction, to fully understand where the link points to, diminishes the operability of our original resource.

We need to also make certain the destination of a hyperlink is clear even if that linked text, phrase, or other object is removed from its original proximity in our resource. In other words, if someone “skips” through a document from link to link – which is often done with a visual scan, and is even possible with some assistive technologies’ (AT) navigation shortcuts, they should be able to predict what is linked even if they don’t take the surrounding text into consideration.

This “skipping” tendency is also a good reason to avoid repeating the same link several times in a single section of a resource. Before you repeat a link in the same section (or on a single webpage), consider the usefulness of each redundant link against its cognitive load when a user might scan your resource for its links.

And if we write out an entire web address, the text of that address should not detract from the rest of our communication. A URL’s inclusion should somehow be beneficial, with or without it being an actual hyperlink. Further supporting this practice of only including the URL as text when it’s essential to the communication: some AT will translate (i.e., read) the linked web address in addition to the text or phrase that is hyperlinked. This means a hyperlinked URL in your text might be translated to the end user twice. If the full web address isn’t really part of the essential communication, then simply don’t include it. And if the URL is important, try to keep it short; this is beneficial for several reasons, including being helpful to anyone activating a hyperlink via voice command.

It may seem easy for some of us to just click on the hyperlinked "read more" or "click to download" phrase to discover where we're being directed. But for many others, every interaction with a resource might not be such simple task – be it a nod of the head, a spoken word, the puff of a switch, or any other AT technique such as the examples provided by the W3C WAI (W3C Web Accessibility Initiative). Technology barriers, including low bandwidth and latency, also make unnecessary navigation very frustrating. When we make it a habit to only include meaningful, obvious hyperlinks, we are being conscientious in understanding that our abilities, and our resources, are not all the same.

  • Use text (or alternative text, when it is an image that is linked) that describes the unique purpose, or destination, of this hyperlink. Avoid linking generic phrases such as "click here" or "learn more".
  • Use hyperlinks that serve as navigation aids, allowing a user to predict what they will find if they navigate to the other resource. If someone must click on, or otherwise activate, a hyperlink to know what it points to, then the word or phrase serving as the link is not predictive nor meaningful.
  • Consider if the linked text can be removed from your resource – i.e., taken out of context – and not lose its meaning.
  • Try to be as clear as possible in selecting the appropriate text for your hyperlink. Consider if the same text might point to a totally different resource.
  • Try to keep the hyperlinked text concise.
  • Whenever practical, indicate the type of resource that is linked. This is especially true if you are linking to resources other than websites.

When is a Web Address Considered Meaningful Text?

A web address, or URL, should be included only when its display is essential to the communication. Examples include:

Return to Part 4 in this series to learn about color and contrast ratios, or proceed to the final part of our series to learn about accessible tables in Part 6.