The Web Design Group

Style guide for online hypertext

Document style: Make it usable out of context

Even when you structure your site according to the tree model described earlier, people can jump in at any point. They can find the document through a search engine, or they could simply have bookmarked it on an earlier visit. Regardless of the reason, there is no guarantee that a reader has followed the path he is supposed to.

If the documents are naturally sorted in a specific order, then keeping the flow from one to the next is important. It is not necessary to rewrite the entire document set to help those who jump in half-way, but there should be enough information to prevent them from being completely lost. Some ways to do this are:

Always make sure there is a way to navigate to the index or overview document(s).


Because of the nonlinear structure of the Web, readers may come into your site at any point. A link claiming to take them "Back" to some document makes no sense. Their browser will already have a "Back" function that takes them back to the previous document that they were viewing, which is not necessarily the previous document in your structure. All links in the document are forward links, as far as the browser is concerned. The job of the navigational links/icons is to help navigating around the structure that you have defined. To do this, add links to make the logical structure visible, but make sure they are usable out of context. For example, "Up" (to table of contents), "Previous/Next" (to documents that belong in the same logical sequence), or "More" (a document that gives more detail about the topic in the current document).

The document's title

Since the title is often used by search engines to list the results, and by browsers to label a bookmark for the document, it should be understandable out of context. "Introduction" makes no sense when it appears in a hotlist, but "The Gutenberg Project -- Introduction" does. Try to keep the length under 64 characters; this prevents it from being cut off in browser windows and bookmark lists.
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Web Design Group
Last updated: 30 Sep 1997
Copyright © 1996 - 2006. Arnoud Engelfriet.