Links: accessibility for content authors

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 26 Nov 2012
  • Access: Premium

What makes a webpage different to a page in a book is its links. Hypertext, text that has been formatted as a link to allow a user to click and make something happen, is part of what defines the web as an information and entertainment medium different to any other.

So it's not hard to understand that something as simple as a broken link can not only impair but totally ruin the web experience for a user.

Imagine, then the impact that links that are not broken but are inaccessible to users with disabilities have. To be able to use a link effectively, a user has to understand what the link does. For this reason, links remain a common accessibility barrier for people who have a disability.

Success Criterion 2.4.9 Link purpose (link only) states:

A mechanism is available to allow the purpose of each link to be identified from link text alone, except where the purpose of the link would be ambiguous to users in general. (Level AAA)

Success Criterion 2.4.4 Link purpose (in context) states:

The purpose of each link can be determined from the link text alone or from the link text together with its programmatically determined link context, except where the purpose of the link would be ambiguous to users in general. (Level A)

These success criteria are about creating meaningful links so that people who use assistive technologies like screen readers or screen magnifiers can understand the purpose of a link. That is, creating accessible links by choosing link text that describes the function of a link — whether it is the text of the link itself or surrounding text and webpage elements.

More than likely you've seen a page that has links labelled 'Read more'. On its own, it provides little guidance on the purpose of the link, which is why it is generally regarded as poor practice. If a person using a screen reader wants to pull up a list of links on the page, a link labelled 'Read more' won't tell them what the link is for.

There are two ways to make your links accessible:

  • By describing the function or purpose of a link in the actual link text or;
  • By providing a means to allow the purpose of the link to be understood.

The best way to make a link accessible is to use link text that describes the purpose of the link. Capturing the function of a link in the link text itself not only maintains the 'flow of reading' for screen reader users, but also helps avoid clunky content.

An easy test for this is to consider whether, if all the links on a page were formatted into a simple list, the purpose of each link would still be clear. Be aware that some screen readers do exactly this.

However, if a link is too complex and its purpose can't be conveyed in the link text, then it is acceptable to provide a means to explain the link. That can mean using surrounding elements like paragraphs, links and headings to give the link appropriate context.

The highest level of accessibility can be achieved by providing several means to make the link accessible, including allowing users to change the way links are presented to suit their access needs. HTML, cascading style sheets (CSS) and JavaScript can be used to empower the user in this way.

Note: The key to success is providing options, because what may enhance accessibility for one person may diminish accessibility for another, depending on their specific access needs.

The bottom line is that the accessibility of links — and therefore the accessibility of the web itself — depends on giving the user enough information to know whether and how to use the link, regardless of any accessibility needs they may have.

A significant subsidiary benefit is that search engine rankings are positively affected by clear, accessible link text.

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