The web relies on any number of technologies, from the servers that host websites to the routers that direct endless streams of information around global networks, but if I had to name one core technology specific to the web that gives it its unique character and capability, it would be the humble hyperlink. Hyperlinks are the sine qua non of hypertext, and hypertext documents constitute the bulk of the web. The use of “hyper” seems outmoded in 2016, but the technology that it denotes and the idea behind it has had an immense impact on our society.
The concept is quite simple. In the code, links look like this:
<a href="http://www.futurehosting.com">virtual private server hosting</a>
The part between the quotes is the URL, and the part after the first “>” is the anchor text. The anchor text is the text that appears on the page, by default highlighted with blue text and underlined. In the example, the anchor text clearly indicates the type of content that the URL points to — that’s the job of anchor text. It’s impossible to know what is being linked to without one of two factors: it’s stated in the anchor text, or it’s clear from the context.
“This explains how Tim Berners-Lee invented the hyperlink”
To most people both of the above examples are functionally equivalent. We know what to expect when we click the link. But for people with accessibility issues and for search engine crawlers, the first example, the one with the meaningful anchor text is much better.
Anchor Texts And Accessibility
Partially sighted and legally blind people may use screen readers to interact with the web. Screen readers attempt to reproduce the functionality of the web with an audio interface. Because people with visual impairments can’t “scan” a page for relevant content, screen readers will take elements like links out of context and present them as a list that users can tab through. If the links don’t have meaningful anchor text, when the screen reader reads the anchor text out loud, it can’t relay any information about the page being linked to.
Non-meaningful links make the web more difficult to use for people with accessibility problems.
Anchor Text And SEO
It’s a commonplace of web design that what’s good for accessibility is good for SEO. Keyword anchor text used to be a mainstay of search engine optimization, and while the importance (and efficacy) of filling anchor text with keywords has declined, search engines still use anchor text as a signal for determining the relevance of a linked page to search queries.
Anchor text is an important part of the way the web communicates hypertextuality giving meaning to what would otherwise be an inscrutable element. If you don’t use meaningful anchor text, you run the risk of reducing the risk of creating less than idea user experiences for all users, particularly those with accessibility issues, and for the search engines that will bring users in the first place.