Thursday 13 November 2003

What’s with footnotes on web pages? Footnotes to references used to be a compact way to point off to other resources without unduly interrupting the flow of the text. On a printed page, it was a good solution. But now we have better technology.

A footnote is essentially a link to a link. Why make two hops? And if you are going to, at least make the links actual links. In the Paul Otget article I just pointed to, there are footnotes, which are not clickable, and refer to a numbered list at the end of the paper. That list references paper resource, and so are not links, and so can be forgiven for appearing collected at the end.

Here’s a article about web services: Achieving Loose Coupling. In it are footnotes which are links to a list at the end. The list is itself composed of clickable URLs. Why do this? Make the footnotes themselves links to the URLs. I click the footnotes to open them in new windows, then go look in the other window, and don’t see what I expect.

If you want to collect the URLs at the end for some sort of overview of outward links, fine. Do that, and label it as such, but don’t make me take two hops to get to the reference.

Worse yet: Here’s a short piece about describing XML data. It’s about web technologies, published online by a technical publication. It has footnotes, which are not clickable, each of which at the bottom of the page lists a URL, which is itself not clickable. Can someone get a clue?

» 6 reactions


I think you're definitely right; print has a way of bleeding into on-line document representations because we're so used to seeing certain structural elements. What would be interesting is having the on-line copy have regular links, but the printer-friendly copy have footnotes with a summary of linked web sites at the end of the document. I don't think you can do this with CSS because it requires structural changes to the document, but you could do something like this with XSLT.
Perhaps David Orchard, who wrote that Loose Coupling paper, was subconsiously implementing Loose Coupling. That's the way programmers think - "if a referenced URL changes, all I have to do is update my page in this one place."

OK, maybe not, but a lot of coders do think that additional levels of indirection are good for their own sake. Getting a technical person to think about the experience of the eventual user of the output (code, web pages, whatever) is often a challenge.

On a completely different tack, I sometimes see footnotes style links that also contain a little summary of the page linked to. These are a good idea.
I actually prefer the list at the end for two reasons. First, sometimes the page references stops existing at that particular URI and occassionally I've been able to dig it up again with a search. Second, occassionally I print out web articles, and a footnote that is directly linked does not show up. But it does annoy me when the footnote contains a URI that isn't linked.
I changed the Achieving Loose Coupling such that the references were still listed at the bottom but the links within the text such as [xxx] would open the references in a new window.

So best of both worlds I hope.
There is a case for footnotes in webpages, and reading these comments reminded me of the following website.

Obviously you'll need to be one of the few that actually uses a gecko browser.
Cool, I hadn't seen the sidebar footnotes. Even better, is the cross-browser version that works on hover rather than click:

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