Bad, Bad, Bad-Linking Beeb

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 21:35 | Filed in Accessibility, Media, Standards, Technology

I read with interest that the BBC news site was trialling…

linking from within the body of news stories to related background materialBBC Editors Blog: New ways of linking

Well, that’s nice, I thought. The BBC have finally worked out how everyone else has been using the internet since 1995. You know, when you find some relevant information, you can provide a hyperlink to it in the body of the article, so people can read it if they want more information.

Unfortunately not.

Instead, the BBC links are injected by javascript on an external site, which means if your browser or assistive technology doesn’t support the relevant javascript, or you’re not willing to trust the external source (as it’s not hosted by the BBC), then you don’t get in-line links at all.

If you actually do trust this external site to serve you up javascript, then clicking on the link does not send you to the page in question. Instead it creates a pop-up.

Yes, the BBC insist that the default hyperlink behaviour is somehow wrong, because:

…we don’t want to interrupt a news story by sending the reader off the page in the middle of a sentence.BBC Editors Blog: New ways of linking

I find this somewhat offensive. It’s my browser, my internet connection, my computer — why does the BBC think it should be able to control how I want to read news stories?

So let’s get this right:

  • If you are browsing on a mobile device that doesn’t support javascript, you can’t have inline links
  • If you require assistive technology to access the site, and it doesn’t support javascript, you get a poorer user experience — as those links aren’t necesarily provided elsewhere.
  • The BBC have decreed that popups are the way forward, despite the fact that they look like adverts, and nine years ago they were identified as one of the top 10 usability mistakes of 1999.

It’s not really that complex.

On the Web, users have a clear mental model for a hypertext link: it should bring up a new pageJakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, February 21, 2006

So why on earth would the BBC be proceeding with this half-baked usability and accessibility nightmare instead of using standard hyperlinks which work perfectly well — we’ve been using them for over 15 years now, after all.

I don’t really know what to put it down to, other than idiocy. Fortunately the comments on the editor’s blog seemed to be presenting a united approach, including this delightful comment which I presume was from the much esteemed Mabbett:

Please stop breaking the web, learn about WCAG accessibility guidelines, and stop treating external links as though they’re some kind of radioactive material needing lead-lined boxesBBC Editors Blog, ‘pigsonthewing’ comment

So I’m begging you, Mr and Mrs BBC, follow the green cross code here.

  • Stop what you are doing
  • Look at usability and best practice guidance (as well as ‘how to include standard hyperlinks’)
  • Listen to those commenters who are telling you that you are wrong

There’s a good reason for these standards, you know…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Comments to Bad, Bad, Bad-Linking Beeb

  1. Steve Pugh says:

    August 19th, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Did my half written comment get eaten by the interweb? Shame.

    The links are hard to distinguish from the surrounding text – being a similar colour, the same weight and not underlined (except on hover). But the typography on the BBC site is average at best.

    They are preceeded by an icon, but look at the full set of icons – and try to work out what means what and why each one is doubled up. (Also, Yahoo! have demonstrated that arranging your CSS sprites horizontally rather than vertically is more memory efficient in browsers, don’t ask me why.)

    I’ve worked on three sites for the BBC and believed until today that the lack of inline links was entirely due to the shortcomings in the CMS; inline links are one of the hardest things to handle in any content management design – managed lists of related links are much easier. To learn that there may be a philosophical aspect to the lack of links is a surprise.

  2. Anthony says:

    August 20th, 2008 at 2:07 pm

  3. Seb says:

    August 20th, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    I agree with your stance on standards. I also agree I think it’s a bad idea, poorly implemented and while the links are ‘carefully chosen by our journalists’ I don’t think it’s appropriate to promote Wikipedia, great though the site is, as an ‘official’ looking source. Haven’t there been enough embarrassments caused by that already?

    However, I disagree with you that they shouldn’t be doing this. I think it’s entirely appropriate to run trials like this in a contained and selected way. Using a ‘progressive enhancement’ approach, rather than lowest common denominator or graceful degradation is also appropriate in this instance, as it’s non destructive to the original story.

    If the trial proves popular (I too hope it doesn’t), then certainly it needs to be implemented in a standards/guidelines/accessible way. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect everything to be accessible from the get-go, otherwise there would be no technological progress as the barrier to implementation is too high.

  4. paul canning says:

    August 21st, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Too right. But it’s also what they link to. Almost always it’s the ‘official’ sites, the MSM etc. I particularly noticed this during the Kenyan crisis and today during the Zimbabwean one. They harp on about blogs but never link to any of them, even when to do so would be providing the best service or even when they themselves rely on them for stories.

  5. Apture trial on BBC News Website a great success | :Ben Metcalfe Blog says:

    August 26th, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    [...] has also been a number of people who have raised some concerns, mainly around the fact that the BBC isn’t directly linking to the sources and also the way in which JavaScript is used to create the [...]

  6. Ben Metcalfe says:

    August 26th, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    (Disclosure: I am an advisor to Apture. I used to work on the BBC News Website as a software engineer for 4 years. I also helped write the BBC’s usability guidelines, on behalf of BBC News Website).

    I wrote a fuller response to your comments on my blog post ( But in essence:

    The purpose of Apture is not to replace hyperlinking, and it would be wrong to use it in this way. It’s a tool that brings small amounts of relevant content to the user’s attention so that they are minimally distracted from their reading. The idea is that the user can gain background information about the themes/topics/etc they are reading about so that they can better engage with the story.

    I would encourage you to read my complete response on my blog and look forward to chatting with you more about this!

  7. I’ve Said Too Much » Links and BBC psychology says:

    September 3rd, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    [...] links experiment, in response to Metcalfe here and the BBC Editors blog here, but I find that Steve Pickard’s already done a good job. To summarise his articulate meltdown: why add Javascript-dependent links which pop up little boxes [...]

  8. BBC Common Platform: My first week as blogger in residence… says:

    October 6th, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    [...] to select links so this is an editorial-driven innovation – also a controversial one, if the standards hardliners are to be believed. Of course, any self-respecting social media web site would have had the [...]

  9. Andy Mabbett says:

    November 1st, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    The BBC now have a new technique for linking to external sites discussed on Blogstorm and now on AccessifyForum.

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