On meaningless hyperlink graphics

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In the beginning, there were hyperlinks. And the Web standards committee decreed that said links would be underlined, for ease of distinguishing them from the surrounding text. The people were happy, for they could read a page of text, quickly identify the links to other sources of information, and click those links to see that information in detail. Times were good. But then, something unexpected happened. The Web got popular. Really popular. So popular that simple text links were no longer interesting enough. No, something better had to be found.

And so then came CSS, which let Web page designers go crazy—no longer was it required that links simply be underlined. No, now links could have a single dotted underline that turned into a yellow-filled solid box with a blue border when the mouse hovered over the link. Or whatever else the designer’s hearts and CSS skills could dream up.

But even that wasn’t enough. Pushing the limits, we soon started seeing hyperlinks with double (or thick) underlines that were actually advertisements included inline with the editorial text. These double-underlined links pop up a box filled with the advertisement when moused over, like this one:

While everyone needs to make a living, I find these inline advertisements to be quite annoying—the odd underlines really grab your eye, and moving the mouse to reach a legitimate link, you’re more than likely to trigger one of the inline advertisements (which is the objective, of course). Compared to the latest and greatest in hyperlink enhancements, though, inline advertisements are tame.

So what’s the latest and greatest? That would be Snap Preview Anywhere, or SPA for short. And thanks to SPA, when we mouse over a link, we may now see something like this:

Yes, that’s right—you can now get an actual miniature representation of the Web page you’re about to visit before you go through the trouble of clicking the link. These abominations are showing up all over the Web, and I must admit, I do not understand why. To me, the entire concept is pointless: a completely gratuitous graphical pop-up that provides absolutely, positively no useful information whatsoever.

If you stop to think about it, what exactly is this pop-up supposed to show you? And how is it supposed to help you with the decision-making process? Am I now supposed to decide to visit a given link based strictly on how it looks ? That certainly seems to be SPA’s objective, as you can’t read any of the text in the image, nor are you told anything interesting or enlightening about the site in the link. The only thing you know about the link’s destination that you didn’t know before seeing the pop-up is whether or not you like the color scheme and layout the designer of the target site chose to use.

To make matters even worse, these SPA pop-ups may impact a site’s performance: When a visitor mouses over a link, the Web server must talk with the SPA server to find and display the thumbnail. If there’s no thumbnail in the system, it must create one on the fly. So sometimes it will take a second or two for the pop-up to show up after you mouse over the link.

And all that work for what? So that we can see how pretty or ugly a given link’s destination site may be, and then make our decision to visit based on nothing more than appearance? Sheesh. If we must have pop-ups when mousing over a link (and I’m a firm believer that we really don’t need such a thing on every hyperlink!), then why can’t that pop-up at least contain useful information? Instead of a meaningless postage stamp webpage, imagine if you saw this when you moused over a hyperlink:

Now that’s information that would help me decide whether a given link contains something that I’d like to read. So instead of impressing me with your company’s ability to shrink a 1,024-by-768 Web page down into a tiny little box, impress me by previewing useful information and content from the linked sites. Seeing more information before I click a link would often be welcome; seeing tiny pictures of various Web sites is definitely not something I welcome.

The Web is already a crowded, complicated space, with lots of graphics, motion, and auto-playing audio snippets (yes, ESPN.com, I’m talking about you!). The last thing I want is yet another image competing for my eyes’ focus—especially when there’s absolutely nothing compelling or informative within the image. To me, SPA is an “innovation” I would gladly say “no thanks” to, if only I were given the chance.

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