One of the Level A Success Criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) states that users should be able to determine the purpose of each link on a website from the link text alone, or from the link text together with its programmatically determined context.
In simpler language, this means links should be clear and easy for all users to understand. Websites that don’t meet this guideline fail accessibility standards at the most basic level.
Why is knowing the purpose of links important?
Regardless of ability or disability, most people visit websites with the intention of looking for something specific. They expect to be able to easily identify and navigate between links to find whatever information they’re looking for – but if the link label is too ambiguous, this becomes much more difficult to do.
Not everyone has the privilege of being able to quickly scan webpages to figure out which of the many links named “read more” will bring them to the content they need. Someone with a cognitive disability might struggle to pinpoint what exactly they will be reading more about. Someone with motor skill issues might want to avoid clicking on irrelevant links. Someone using assistive technology like a screen reader might be provided a list of every link on a webpage, only to be confused by 20 different but identically named links.
How do I make link purpose clear?
The solution to the problem of ambiguous links is simple: make sure link text is descriptive but concise. This is the most accessible and easiest solution to implement; fixing vague links is not a complicated process at all.
Some web designers might feel their link text is too long and clunky. In this case there are other solutions, such as using HTML coding attributes to programmatically state the purpose of a link.
There is always a way to make links clear and accessible from their text label – especially if a web developer plans to one day make their site Level AAA compliant with the WCAG 2.1 standards, as these require the purpose of a link to be determined using link text alone.
Exception to the rule
There is no need to identify the purpose of a link if it is supposed to be ambiguous, or if its purpose is ambiguous to all users. The lack of context – programmatically determined or otherwise – might be intentional.
The example given in the WCAG standards describes a game with links named door #1, door #2, and door #3. In this case, the fun of the game arises from not knowing where each door leads, therefore vague link text is fine.
However, it is best to avoid ambiguous links all together, as most users prefer to know where on the internet they are going.
How can IA Labs help?
As part of our consultations, accessibility audits, and training sessions, we can explain all the contextual nuances that would apply to the WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion 2.4.4 Link Purpose (In Context). If you have any questions or need help with any digital accessibility issue, please don’t hesitate to contact IA Labs.