SXSW 2012: The Secret Lives of Links

So it’s the second day of SXSW Interactive 2012 and I was looking for an interesting presentation to check out and I flipped through my pocket guide and came across a featured session called “The Secret Lives Of Links” given by Jared Spool. The name caught my eye and I figured it would be interesting so I went. I walked over to a huge room and waited for the session to start while watching Andrew Federman begin his Ogilvy Notes Image Think board about the session. Soon enough the large room started to fill and Jared Spool took the stage.

Image Think

Andrew Federman

Jared Spool

Jared Spool

Once he took the stage he told the whole audience to stand up because he was going to teach us something. We all stood and to our surprise screenshots from Beyonce’s Single Ladies video popped up and the song came on and everyone began to laugh and giggle while he taught us the first move. Then he proceeded to do the whole routine and it was awesome! It was definitely a great start to the session! After that I took out my notebook and was ready to take tons of notes. (Turns out I ended up taking a lot of notes!)

Jared Spool Notes

So many notes!!!

Jared Spool Notes

Even more notes!!!

Jared Spool Notes

notes galore... i think by this point my hand hated me!

Jared started out with talking about the day Congress tried to shut down the budget and he noticed that all the links on the CNN website and it inspired him to design a new CNN website… a much more simplified version with just links and … Snooki.

Secret Lives Of Links

Snooki On CNN

After that he said “A website isn’t just links on a page but what you get when you click”. He added that links desire to get you through a website. He then showed us an example of all the home pages of CNN, Huffington Post, LA Times, and the New York Times all on the same day and said that the links did what they needed to do and that was to get you to the story.

We then went on to “The Scent Of Information” which is how links pull the user through to the content. Links use the scent of information to get us what we want. He then gave a few examples, the M.I.T. homepage and the Oberlin College homepage. He pointed out that the M.I.T. homepage doesn’t have a lot of links explaining who they are because if you are on their site you should know who they are unlike the Oberlin College homepage. He said that the “design of the links have to do with the mission of your organization” and gave a few more examples; the Yale School of Art, Ohio State University, and Walgreens. We then did a small analysis of the Walgreens homepage, which breaks Fitt’s Law. When analyzing the page he realized that people only care about 3.8% of the information on the page and the other 96.2% is not what the users want but what the Walgreen marketers want.  The point of the example was to say that links:

Deliver Users To Their Desired Objective:

  • Link copy needs to communicate what the users will get
    • Sometimes using original, unique copy
    • Sometimes taking advantage of what the user already expects
  • The inks have to take the user to where they want to go
    • Not to where the site wants them to go
  • Make real estate reflect users’ desires
    • Take advantage of Fitt’s Law

Next we talked about how links secretly live to emit the right scent and example was the Ohio State University homepage. He pointed out all the Trigger words on the homepage, which are words and phrases that match the user’s goal and signals where to click, these words turn out to be really important. He said that design trumps the experience.

Then Jared moved on to talk about Predicting Failures of Scent, which consist of three points:

  1. The use of the back button
  2. Pogosticking
  3. Use of search

As far as the back button, when there are clickstreams with 1 back button present there is an 82% chance of failure or that the user will not find what they want and only an 18% chance of success. When there are clickstreams with 2 back buttons present there is a 98% chance of failure and a 2% chance of success. The back button is the Button of Doom! Because once you see a user use the back button you lose the user. The back button is a predictor of failure.

Next we moved on to pogosticking, which is where the user bounces between level of information hierarchy. An example was Goldie locks and the three Bears where she bounced around until she found the right temperature of porridge. Jared told us that 66% of all e-commerce purchases occur when there is no pogosticking. The more users pogostick on e-commerce sites the less they purchase and with non-ecommerce sites the more they pogostick the less information they find.

Next we moved on to getting home from content: users using search. He said that users using search with every site users behave the same, they go to the page, scan for trigger words, then go to the search box, except for one and that’s Amazon, because on Amazon users don’t scan the homepage, they just go to strait to the search box. When users do search they search for trigger words (Search Pro Tip: Your search logs are filled with trigger words! Match the search phrases up with the pages the users search from). He said search also can prevent success. He then told us about his 7/11 Milk Experiment. The 7/11 Milk Experiment is where he would have some sort of alert to tell him the second that someone was out of milk. Then he would go to that person, take them to 7/11, and give them money to go inside and buy milk. And the chance are that if you give someone money to go inside the store to buy milk, they would do it. And this is exactly how they perform studies online called “Compelled Shopping Studies”.  Then he gave an example of some a study he did with a couple of sites. He said on the ideal site the shopper would spend their whole budget, which would be $1000. The following sites show how much the user spent per every $1000 they gave to them to shop.

  • The Gap – $660
  • Lands’ End – $465
  • Macy’s – $156
  • Newport News – $63

He said the variable was the number of pages from the homepage to when the shopper adds something to their cart. There are usually al lot of back buttons, searches, and pogosticking. Here is the number of pages to purchase:

  • The Gap – 11.9
  • Lands’ End – 15.7
  • Macy’s – 51.2
  • Newport News – 51.0

Why such poor performance? You should give users enough information to make a choice. One of the best examples is Crutchfield’s camera page because they add things that the users care about, there might look like a lot of information but it isn’t considered clutter because it’s useful, relevant information that they want. Clutter means that you don’t have what your users want. An example of clutter would be the Bank of America site. It is considered clutter because on their card description page, all the description for each card is the same and you can’t choose any by just looking at the product page.  And at this point he added that there are 3 useless words in web design:


Jared also pointed out that “Good Design Is Invisible” which means that you don’t’ ever notice when something is working well.

Next he made the statement that we have moved beyond the thought that links should be blue and underlined. Underlining changes the shape of the word and blue is one of the hardest colors for humans to see! Its also bad when you cant tell which is a link and he gave an example of the LA Times homepage, at some point in time, where all the text on the page was black, including the links. A good example of the right way of showing people where links are was the BBC news site.

The point is that links secretly live to look good (while still looking like links):

  • Links no longer have to be blue and underlined
  • Users need to understand that the link is different from the rest of the content
  • We confuse users with things that look like links, but aren’t

Also links secretly live to do what the user expects:

  • Support the user with what they want to do
    • Don’t distract them
    • Don’t hide scent through flyouts and dropdown
      • Surface your most important scent by displaying it outright
      • Remember that users like to move in straight lines

And then we had an overview of the whole presentation. Links want to:

  • Deliver users to their desired objective
  • Emit the right scent
  • Look good, while still looking like a link
  • Do what the users expects


I thought the presentation was really informational and Jared Spool made it interesting and fun. I definitely learned a lot about links and usability. It’s great to know what NOT to do and what links SHOULD do! It was an amazing session!

3 Responses to “SXSW 2012: The Secret Lives of Links”

  1. Trever S. says:

    Fantastic notes! You really channeled Jared’s infectious energy with your own wit and enthusiasm. I felt like I didn’t miss out.

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