A properly built website is far more than the sum of its markup, stylesheets, scripting, and multimedia resources. Well-built websites take full advantage of their hypertext medium, making a once obscure technology central to the way we consume information. Without easily activated links, the Web wouldn’t be the Web; it would be just a rigidly organized heap of documents.
While hypertext offers tremendous flexibility, it also requires developers to help visitors find their way. Visitors will take unexpected paths even within a site, and will arrive from sites or bookmarks that you don’t control. The power that hypertext provides also comes with the responsibility to structure your site in ways that visitors will be able to comprehend and navigate.
The Web’s use of links to connect information makes it different from previous media. Today, when the Web is so familiar, it’s easy to forget those differences, but they pave the way to developing successful websites. So what happens when you remove hyperlinks from a site?
The first and most significant result of excising hypertext from a networked information system is that content becomes strictly linear: one must first read through a given amount of content before reaching the object of his interest. Take the links out of hypermedia and the result is nearly useless without a concerted attempt at imposing internal order and structure.
Linear resources are designed and structured on different assumptions, expecting that a reader has examined (or at least referred to) previous passages of content. Take this book as an example. You can jump around within it, but chapters are still ordered by the descending importance of the subjects that they cover. Also, if the companion website for this book did not exist, there would be plenty of verbose markup examples between its covers.
The visitor’s sense of location is informed by standard cues. Most books and other linear information resources have some sort of header or footer content on every page (or on the title bar of the reader application), and a visitor’s state of progress through a networked information resource, like a large Portable Document Format (PDF) file, is cued by a vertical scroll bar.
These distinctions illustrate how hyperlinks add new dimensions to documents. While this gives the Web tremendous flexibility, it also creates challenges. The added navigational possibilities result in systems that make it difficult to maintain a sense of place. While the consumer of a linear resource can count on traditional cues and her own critical thinking skills to enforce her sense of place, the consumer of hyperlinked resources needs the help of designers and implementers to maintain her sense of location.
Notions of “beginning” and “end” are artificial if not entirely absent from web media. This is a marked departure from the fundamental nature of nonhyperlinked resources, which are bounded by definition.