Making hyperlinks better

In the world of web content, there’s a common misconception that accessibility refers to people with specific needs, like those who use screen readers or other assistive technologies. However, what accessibility really means is that web content should be accessible for everyone.  

Links should be useful and accessible 

Using hyperlinks correctly is an element of accessibility that we all need to get right. We use hyperlinks so that users can navigate between content, and access relevant information quickly. 

Linking can help reduce the word count of a publication by avoiding duplication of content. Using hyperlinks correctly may seem like a simple concept, but there are different interpretations of how this works in practice.  

Different link text for different users 

In my previous job in a local authority, I learned that hyperlinks must be:

  • concise
  • clearly state where the link is directing the user
  • make sense out of context

This is primarily so that screen reader users can access the content easily.

When I joined the ONS, I noticed that hyperlinks were used inconsistently across our publications. I saw link text being made up of one or two words, often only vaguely explaining the content on the destination page.  

Reviewing our hyperlink guidance as a team was a really valuable process for me. We know that users will scan content and use hyperlink text to assess the relevance of what they’re reading. An excellent observation came up about our users and how they use ONS content compared with, for example, people visiting a local authority site. This was that: 

  • users come to the ONS website to “find” something out; whether it be as an inquiring citizen, technical user, or policy influencer, our users want accurate data and analysis as quickly as possible 
  • users of a local authority website are much more likely to want to “do” something and so it’s imperative that link text describes an action 

So, ONS users want to see links that offer additional, useful information while local authority users will look for links that help them directly achieve their goal: hyperlinks have different jobs in different types of content. 

Always question how any hyperlink will help your users 

There are ongoing conversations about best practice in link text: the number and frequency of hyperlinks, how much detail they should include, and, in the ONS, whether something like “accompanying dataset” is sufficient link text or if a dataset title should be used each time.  

Our updated guidance offers general rules but it’s good to remember that link text will often be decided on a case-by-case basis according to the user and the content. 

Read the latest hyperlink guidance on the ONS service manual.