Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Idea for Web-browser feature: Highlighting Equivalent Links

Here's a simple idea that could provide a minor enhancement to the web-browsing experience. If there's more than one link on the visible portion of a page pointing to the same target, then when the user mouse-overs one of those links, have the browser highlight the rest of them. This way, the user can be alerted to the fact that they all point to the same place. As far as I know, there aren't any browsers that implement this and I'm not aware of anyone having tried it - but then I hardly keep close track on these matters.

It's not uncommon for a webpage to contain multiple equivalent links. Links on the site's navigation side-bar can also appear with in the body of the page. Or the page may simple reference the same document in multiple contexts; sometimes these links may point to different parts of that document. For example, a page on the university site may make repeated references to the university's as policies outlined on a particular page. Or certain links from within the body of the page may be distilled as references at the end of an article.

That all these links point to the same place may not be clear, however. The link text may not be the same on all links, for one thing. (In Internet Explorer, if you open one of the links in a new browser window it gets marked as read but the other equivalent links stay the same until you refresh the page, but this issue would be best remidied by immediately marking them all as read).

Even if the link text is the same for all the links, it won't necessarily be obvious that they're all pointing to the same page. I've had a number of experiences like the following. You might have seen a link in one paragraph and decided not to follow based on its link text and the context. Then, a minute and a few paragraphs later, you see another link and click it, because it this context it seems interesting or useful - only to realise that it's the same one you didn't want to visit earlier.

Because you were like most readers and didn't devote a heap of attention to the target of each link you mouse over, you forgot that the two links were the same. Memory is made more difficult by non-mnemonic URLs that are hard to read let alone remember. If the relationship was shown by the browser, I think this mistake would be harder to make.

If pages were written well, the destinations of links would be clear, and this problem wouldn't help provide justification for such a feature. But often they're not, and tools such as well browsers should be designed to best support the realities of the task they're facilitating.

I think it'd be interesting to try this idea out and see how it flys. It looks like it'd be easy to implement, and aside from it potential usefulness, I think there are other reasons it might fly: it's an incremental, evolutionary addition to the browsing toolkit, and it requires no overhead or change of habits to use. I also don't think it'd be too distracting, nor too confusing to inexperienced users.

Unfortunately I've got too many things I'm pursuing that are higher-priority for me than learning enough about a browser to have a go at implementing this. So if anyone is interested in giving it a go, please let me know how it went.

There's a lot more I'd like to say about this feature, because I think there are a few other situations it'd be useful in, and I'd like to go a little deeper into the underlying reasons why it's useful (or at least seems so to me). There's also some more sophisticated ways this could be implemented (so you can see all the equivalent links on the page, not just those that are currently visible), and I think the technique that could be used to do this would be useful in a number of contexts. There's just not the time at the moment :-), so I'll have to deal with these matters later...

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