Readability Updated: An End To The Yank Of The Hyperlink

Since Readability was released over a year ago, we’ve gotten an amazing amount of feedback on the tool. The great majority of it has been positive, but a sizable chunk of what we hear is about how Readability is an effective “ad-blocking” or “ad removal” tool. While Readability does remove ads, that was never its intended purpose. Its goal from the outset was clear: make it easy to transform nearly any Web page into a more comfortable and inviting reading experience.

With this goal in mind, we’ve taken a keen interest in Nick Carr’s evolving monologue on what the Web is doing to our brains. His recent Wired magazine article – The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains – is a pretty compelling argument for a tool like Readability. His upcoming book, The Shallows takes an even deeper dive into what the Internet is doing to our brains.

In a recent blog post on delinkification. Nick gives the beloved hyperlink a suspicious stare:

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

Ads (obnoxious or otherwise), sidebars, caked on layers of navigation – they all get in the way of the reading experience.  Hyperlinks are a different animal. They’re potentially useful, but their temptation is distracting. Nick nails it: it’s a “more violent form of a footnote.”

The article clearly struck a nerve around the Internet, and it also struck a nerve with us. In response, we’ve decided to add a subtle but important option to Readability. Just below the style, size and margin options, you’ll find an option to Convert hyperlinks to footnotes:


If you check off this option upon installing Readability, it will:

  • mask away all hyperlinks in the body text (they’re still links, but they’re hidden unless you hover over them)
  • number all links in the body text and mark them via superscript
  • list out all links at the bottom of the body of text.

In other words, it’ll turn hyperlinks into footnotes. If you already have Readability installed, you will need to reinstall it to take advantage of this feature (sorry about that). Here’s an example of what a typical New York Times article will look like with this feature is turned on:


There’s one additional bonus for authors. If you add a title attribute to your hyperlink, like so:

<a href=”http://link-to-another-web-page” title=”Here’s some information about this link.”>another viewpoint</a>

Readability will grab that text within the title attribute and display it in the corresponding footnote at the end of the document.

From the outset, we’ve always viewed Readability as a technology answer to a problem that technology created. In the spirit of continuing to improve reading on the Web, we hope you’ll enjoy this subtle but important update.

We’ve got big plans for Readability in the future. You can stay up to date on Readability and all of the other efforts at Arc90 (lab or otherwise) by visiting this blog or following following us on Twitter.

Happy reading!