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Re: External Link Icons


From: Karl Groves
Date: Sep 28, 2007 7:10AM

> In any case, what is the consensus of opinion on the use of,
> what I am calling, External Link Icons? These are those tiny
> icons placed next to a link on a website when the link goes
> to a URL that is "outside" of the current web.

I've had the opportunity to witness scores of users in usability tests over
the last three years. I have witnessed, on numerous occasions, participants
in the lab leave the site we were testing and be completely unaware that
they had done so. The two sites could look completely different and it
still wouldn't matter. Often, the test facilitator would have to interrupt
the participant (something you usually don't want to do) to try to get them
back on task. When they did so, they'd ask them "What site are you on now".
All of them thought they were on the original site.

This indicates to me that it is it is very important to make sure users know
when they are leaving your site. Jukka's assertion that people concerned
about marking external links "don't understand that linking between sites is
just normal and part of the way the Web works" misses the point. The issue
is that people who don't want to leave the site their on *do* leave the site
without knowing they have. I would agree completely with Jukka if users
knew they were leaving, but they just don't.

While I have had the opportunity to observe people failing to notice when
they leave a site, I've not yet witnessed what methods work to let them know
they've left. I've seen three methods used: an icon, a "speedbump" page, or
placing some part of the URL in the text to indicate that it is external.

As an example of the latter:
"WCAG and the Myth of Accessibility (http://www.juicystudio.com...): Kevin
Leitch explains why he feels that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
have failed in their mission to ensure that web content is accessible to

The partial URL in this case indicates that the article is external. On the
surface, it may seem this is sufficient, but I have my doubts. During one
round of usability tests, there were similar cues that the sites were
external and participants failed to realize they had left.

In the case of the "speedbump" page: This is an interstitial page users are
taken to before actually going to the new destination. I've seen many
versions of this. In casual observation, users typically hate these things,
but they do work. So if this is a compliance issue (IIRC notifications of
3rd party links are required for NCUA compliance for credit unions, for
example), this may be a suitable solution.

And then of course is the external link icon. I think if we consider the
three components of usability: ease of use, ease of learning, and ease of
recall, a (well-designed) external link icon may be a good choice. Regarding
the initial ease of use, it really depends on the design of the icon. I'm
not sure it will mean a lot to most people. In fact, they may wonder what
the heck that weird icon is. On the upside, once they follow one of those
specially marked links, they will immediately learn and remember what that
link means.

I recommend trying it. Create an icon, create a mockup page which uses that
icon and do an impromptu usability test with friends, coworkers, or family
members. Make sure the people you use are not power users who have an
intimate knowledge of the web, but "regular" people.

Good luck!

Karl Groves