Image Links vs. Text Links

Jared Spool

January 16th, 2006

Last week, on the Interaction Designers discussion list, Johan wrote:

Hey, I read an article/study a while back on the efficiency of html text links compared to image links.
Can’t find it now..

I know we’ve published it somewhere, but damned if I can find it now. :)

Years back, we compared successful clickstreams (clickstreams that resulted in users accomplishing their goals, as observed in tons of usability tests) with unsuccessful clickstreams (clickstreams where users abandoned their goals before completing), looking for any clues that would help us predict behaviors in one that we didn’t see in the other.

One factor we looked for was whether the clickstreams contained image links versus text links — does one type of link show up more often in successful clickstreams than the other.

Our finding was when users clicked in image links they were just as likely to succeed or fail as when the clicked on text links. There was no statistically-meaningful difference.

Our inference from this was a well-designed image link will work as well as a well-designed text link. A poorly-designed image link will fail as often as a poorly-designed text link.

Since image links are significantly harder to design “well”, our recommendation to clients has been to favor text links. They are more efficient to create and manage and produce the same results.

We also concluded, from this same research, that there are three different types of images that can appear on a page:

  1. Content images — images containing information within them that assist or accomplish the user’s goal.
  2. Navigation images — images containing scent to inform the user what clicking will produce for them. (These may or may not be links — they just have to inform the user about links.)
  3. Ornamental images — images creating mood, displaying professionalism, organizing the page (such as rules and fancy frames), and otherwise enhancing the experience.

The quick summary was that we saw well-designed content images helped shorten clickstreams, we saw well-design navigation images helped with scent, and we couldn’t see any advantage to the presence of ornamental images, beyond pure layout assistance. (Inotherwords, no matter how we measured, users beliefs about the site as professional, as fun, as well-designed, was independent of the presence of these images. At the time, it was this last finding that branded us as graphic-design-haters, since we were dipping into the rice bowl of the visual design community.)

Of course, there’s a lot more depth in this research — I’m only summarizing before I run to a meeting. But that’s essentially what we found. Hope this helps.

[Editor's note: We'll be discussing this topic in-depth at the UIE Roadshow: Web Design Foundations sessions coming up this spring.]

5 Responses to “Image Links vs. Text Links”

  1. Kim Siever Says:

    Very interesting. I just received an email from someone who complained the website I develop full time did not have enough images.

  2. Jared Spool Says:

    Hi Kim,

    Is it possible that user is trying to tell you something else? I’ve found that when users make suggestions in their complaints, such as providing more images, they are really responding to their frustration and hoping their solution will work. The question is, what is their frustration.

    Without seeing the site or having watched the user try to work with it, it would be hard to guess. But one possibility is that the links on the site aren’t communicating enough scent and the user felt that, perhaps, if there were images, the scent would be stronger. (They are probably wrong, but that doesn’t stop them from suggesting it.)

    I’d follow up with the user and see if you can get to the root cause of their frustration. I’d also look at the scent from the links you’re providing and see if that can help.

    I wonder if the folks at Craigslist ever get requests for more images.

  3. Ryan Says:

    Text links are important both in terms of getting quality backlinks and good SERPs. However, image links are also very important in terms of branding and advertising if you are running an ad campaign for the site in order to do internet marketing and business promotion. Image links are fine as long as you put it the ALT text.

  4. Szandana Says:

    Text links with related content is what I read and what seems by far to get the best results. Image to image links has been a failure for me. Trying text to image links and hope for improvement.
    The content of one sites has many images. It took six months before any of my images showed up in any of the major search engines. Only the text links showed as a valid url.
    I find image searches fairly useless when it comes to finding a site I really want to visit. Lot of work needs to be done in this area by all of the search companies. It’s just my experience and yours may differ. Would like to know.

  5. UI: Text v Buttons « WiredPen Says:

    [...] really really long time ago, I remember hearing Jared Spool report usability research that said text links trumped images. I mean, a really long time ago. In the ’90s, I [...]

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