Five ways sharing links can build relationships instead of breaking faith

Suppose you read a tweet or a Facebook update: an urgent message about something truly vile that a public figure has said. Outraged, you click through… and discover that, actually, what they said is far milder.

Or you click the “About us” link on an organization’s web site… and you’re taken to a rambling, vague philosophical essay. Or you search online on three keywords, click a promising result, and discover the page has nothing, nothing to do with your search terms. Or you tap a link to “Read more” on a mobile web page, and a 30-megabyte PDF begins to download slow-w-w-ly onto your smartphone, sucking the life out of your data plan.

Been there? Me, too — all in the past week — and it left me fuming.

What happened in every case wasn’t just a little wasted time, or a frustrated search, or a dent in my data plan. What happened was a little tiny betrayal.

Because a link isn’t just an URL or a little HTML code. A link is a promise.

On a web page, it’s a promise that if you click or tap here, you’ll go to the page, document or resource that the text inside the anchor tag describes. In a Twitter feed or on a Facebook page, it’s a promise that this link will be worth your while – that it was worth sharing because it’s worth reading.

Breaking that promise means breaking faith with readers and visitors. And the ways people do just that are depressingly numerous:

  • Letdowns: Site navigation that leads to “Coming soon!” pages.
  • Surprise downloads: Links that lead without warning to Word documents, PowerPoint files and anything else that doesn’t load seamlessly in a user’s browser.
  • Hype: Claims that the content at the other end of the link is far more controversial, significant, useful, factual or hi-LAR-ious than it really is.
  • Lockouts: Links to walled gardens that many users won’t be able to enter: paywall-protected news stories, for instance, or any service that requires you to create an account to see the content.
  • Lies: Outright deception about what’s at the other end. (No matter what the motivation is – whether it’s rickrolling, black-hat SEO tactics or something else – you’re making a withdrawal from your trustworthiness account.)

The result? Some pretty upset people:


http://storify.com/robcottingham/i-hate-it-when-i-click-a-link-and-it-leads-to" >View the story "I hate it when I click a link and it leads to..." on Storify]

The flip side? When someone clicks a link of yours and gets exactly what you promised, it builds trust – the same way that keeping any other promise does. Trust helps to build relationships, and relationships… well, they’re what social networks are built on.

Here are five ways you can be sure you’re keeping those promises:

  • Open doors: Avoid linking to content behind paywalls or registration barriers. And before you pass on a link to something someone’s posted on Facebook or Google+, check the sharing settings on it to be sure it’s public.
  • Fair warning: Let people know when you’ve linked to something other than a web page or an image. Label your link with the file format and, if it’s a hefty one, add the file size: Interview with Nancy Duarte (MP3, 5.5 MB)
  • Working links: The web is a living thing, which means bits of it die sometimes – bits you may have linked to. From time to time, give your site a check for broken links. (Looking through your analytics for common 404 errors is a start.)
  • Unvarnished truth: Sharing your honest excitement along with the link? Great. Puffing up mediocre content as life-shatteringly awesome? Less so.
  • Due diligence: Twitter and Facebook make it awfully easy to repost someone’s link if they’ve made it sound appealing. But have a look first – so you know what you’re sharing when you pass a link along.

Sharing links can do a lot of good for you and your audiences. Just remember that when you share content, it reflects on your reputation – for better or worse.

2 thoughts on “Five ways sharing links can build relationships instead of breaking faith

  1. Terrence Lockyer (@TLockyer)

    On Twitter especially, I also, whenever possible, indicate where a link is going, by giving the author’s / site’s @name if I can find one, or otherwise if not. Helps reader know what sort of content to expect (news, blog, academic, etc.), shows that I’m checking things before reposting, and encourages trust when I link an unfamiliar site.

    I think this matters when using shortened URLs, because experience has shown me that not everyone knows about previews and services like Longurl.org.

  2. Rob Cottingham Post author

    Very well put, Terrence! I’d love to see mystery-meat links become the new posting-in-all-caps: done occasionally for effect, but frowned on in polite company.

Whaddaya think?