Do Hyperlinks Change the Meaning of Content?

By Deane Barker on November 7, 2014

I’ve been thinking deeply about the idea of hypertext lately (reading Vannevar Bush didn’t help), and I’m curious if there’s a standard, convention, or best practice for the actual selection of words to link in a sentence? Additionally, to what extent does the existence of a link and the placement of that link affect the perceived meaning of the underlying text?

Historically, we’ve all hyperlinked the infamous “click here” phrase, and accepted that this is doesn’t make sense without the link.  But is this effect even more subtle?

Consider, in fact, hyperlink in the parenthetical aside above from the first sentence in this post.  There are four ways, I think, to link this:

  • [reading ]( “"As We May Think””)Vannevar Bush didn’t help

  • reading [Vannevar Bush]( “"As We May Think””) didn’t help

  • reading Vannevar Bush [didn’t help]( “"As We May Think””)

  • [reading Vannevar Bush didn’t help]( “"As We May Think””)

I think each one of those changes the sentence, subtly – the existence of the link and its positioning has an actual effect on how the sentence is perceived.

Is the important point of this sentence that...

  1. I read something (as opposed to doing something else with it)

  2. I read Vannevar Bush in particular (as opposed to reading someone else)

  3. It “didn’t help” (as opposed to having some other effect – the “didn’t help” is sarcastic)

  4. The combination of all three

So, the link itself becomes part of the content. Whether it wants to or not, where the link is situated changes the meaning of the words.

Does the hyperlink change the emphasis of the sentence, if you were to read it out loud?  Would you mentally incorporate the hyperlink into your verbal presentation of the sentence?

(After I posted this, Arild Henrichsen made a tweet referencing Chandler Bing from Friends and his tendency to emphasize the word “be.” Funny as this is, the point is valid – Chandler aptly demonstrates how you might mentally read a sentence where the word “be” is hyperlinked).

More importantly, if the link was gone, would the sentence even make sense on its own?  That sentence depends on its link target to impart meaning.  If there was nothing to click on, the sentence would be some random non-sequiter with no context (unless, of course, you had read the Vannevar Bush post relatively recently, and were independently able to connect the two).  With the link, the reader can click through and understand exactly what I’m talking about.

But even if they never follow the link, the fact that it’s there makes them think there’s some explanation to a sentence which is otherwise random – they are aware that this requires explanation. They can choose to seek out this explanation if they want, or else they can just acknowledge that there is an explanation, and decide that they don’t care. But the hyperlink signals that further information about a given word or phrase exists, which is helpful – if someone is making an inside joke and you know this, it’s much less confusing.

Links provide context. Their existence and positioning impart and affect meaning.

Comments (2)

Pie says:

I agree with you 90%. Hyperlinks do add context but emphasis to a lesser degree. When I see them, or add them, the author is saying,

“There is more detail I could add but I either don’t want to disrupt the flow or it has already been said better.”

When someone is simply linking to examples, all about emphasis. As a result, the real meaning of hyperlinks is defined by context.

Great post. Pie

Larry Garfield says:

It’s like a footnote, as Pie said. THIS thing has now information, available elsewhere like a footnote our sidebar. I use then often in that regard to indicate that a post is part of a larger discussion. The emphasis is only in calling out the item that is footnotes.