Links in print

I’m working on the new Eduserv website right now – content inputting, structuring, trying to hang the whole thing together – and the question came up the other day about how best to deal with incoming links from printed materials. We do a fair amount of these at work: brochures, leaflets, case studies – that kind of thing. I’m also writing a book at the moment, and this’ll have a supporting website – so the same question is looming large in another part of my life too.

When I gave this some brain time, it struck me that there are several possible solutions, and also some obvious problems which come along with those solutions, so I thought I’d punt the ideas I came up with here and see if you clever people had any better or different ideas.

The problem that needs solving is obvious: URL’s tend to be fairly cumbersome, and frankly a PITA to type in. Getting people from print to web on the other hand seems to be something which has a fair amount of potential value in it, either from a marketing “measure the effectiveness of our campaign” perspective or purely (as is the case with my book) because the web gives you an opportunity to offer additional and more up-to-date material than the printed page.

The barrier is high, though. We’re almost (I think) past having to type the http:// bit. We’re also (I think) past having to type the www bit too (unless you’re talking many government institutions, that is..).

The obvious solution, and one which – if you flick through a newspaper or magazine – seems to be the most favoured is to simply use an aliased url of some description. So there will be or whatever. Easy enough, although there is some alias hackery required and needing to be maintained at some level. Also, the URL is still a bit of a mouthful, especially if your root domain is a bit chunky in the first place. So my old stomping ground has for example – fine, but a bit of an arse for a user to have to type.

The next obvious one is to URL shorten., tinyurl, – they’re all much of a muchness: immediate, short, measurable URLs, and if you fork out for “pro” versions of these services then you can get a similar(ish) domain to the one you originally started with. TechCrunch for example shortens to All good, but as per wider criticisms of URL shortening: not only does it kind of “break” the web, it also relies on a 3rd party. If you’re talking about printed material then the link potentially needs to be maintained and maintainable over a more extended period of time, so this becomes more of an issue than online maintenance. You can always create your own shortening service (there are a whole number of scripts out there that do it), which makes things a bit safer, but you still need to maintain a secondary shorter domain.

Next up, and potentially good but not yet widespread enough is QR coding. Instant links, but suffering from two main problems: 1) few people know what to do with a QR code or have the necessary hardware to deal with it and 2) typically you’ll scan with a mobile, which probably isn’t where you want to be experiencing the web content. There are ways round this: you could for example ask people for an email address on first scan, and send links to this address – but it’s all a bit clunky.

The final thing I can think of is to use a variation of the “big brand” approach you often see on TV: “Search the web for: ***”, but this time say something like “Search our site for: ****”. You could do this using some kind of magnifier icon to keep the words short.

I’ve got a suspicion that I’m over-thinking the problem, especially given that most brands – even companies who have a fair overlapping of offline and online presences – seem to do it using the obvious first method. But it also strikes me as a problem which could be better solved with a bit of clever lateral thinking. Any ideas?

13 thoughts on “Links in print”

  1. If readers are gonna access the links in question they’ll already be online so you can simply put up a web version of the documents with inline hyperlinks, or put up an online appendix with a categorized list of links. I’d much rather have e-versions of this kinda of thing to give me less to carry around. If you need to measure the effectiveness of a print campaign you can edit the robots.txt to keep it from being indexed, but word would get out anyway, but hits is hits and one way or another the origin of those hits would have been the printed matters.

    I’d avoid shorteners and aliases.

    The other thing I would do is not bother with hardcopies at all 🙂 Dude, Hardcopy???

    • @Maintainer – yeah, in a 100% electronic world I’d agree, however audiences aren’t there – yet – and possibly never will be. The questions is the same too with posters, flyers, billboards, tv ads – and these aren’t going anywhere soon either…

  2. You’re absolutely right that it’s really tricky to get people to go from print to the web. However, I think that this is less about getting the mechanic (short link, QR code, etc) right, and more about giving people a good reason as to why they’d want to do it in the first place. A vague promise of ‘more information’ isn’t enough.

    Making it clear that the piece of content you’re reading in print is also available online is a good thing to do, but that’s not something that people will want to view straight away – instead it’s more likely that they’ll search for it a few months later when wanting to refer back to it.

    Which brings me onto my suggestion for signposting specific webpages from print: give people a search term they can use to find it on your website (eg “search for ‘case studies’). This has the advantage that if people can remember the search term, they don’t actually need the printed document with them when finding the link online.

    Note: if you go down this route, you should have a decent-sized search box on every page of your website, backed up by a good search engine with a nicely-designed results page, and then make sure you ‘promote’ the pages referenced in print to the top of the results when using the designated search term.

    • Great point, Frankie. In the particular instances I mention (Eduserv / book), the stuff online isn’t just a replica of what’s in print but an extension to it – but you’re right, making it very clear that there is value in going online is absolutely fundamental. I’m liking the “search for..” thing more and more.

  3. Twice in recent days I have typed in URLS from print and I was more than happy with the way it worked, so this may be a possible route:

    Where the text refers to a URL, simply place a superscript reference at the point required and then use the footnote to display the full url.

    This technique is used in the recent JISC briefing paper and even more elegantly in the new book by Andy Clarke (Hard boiled web design). – this uses small and grey footnotes as not to distract from the main copy.

    When I get your book I will see which technique you opted for 🙂

    • @Zak – yeah, the point about not disrupting the flow of the text is a good one, too. I’m still not convinced that a long URL is the answer, though. isn’t great from a usability point of view

      • Yes it is not ideal agreed, but wasn’t as bad as I expected. I suppose you could link to 1 webpage with a shorter standard URL that contents all of the URLS in the book and then use anchors.

  4. I agree with Zak. If you want to access a URL, then people will type it in. Using a commercial URL shortener is a no-no as they may disappear at any time. Running your own means that you have to maintain two websites, potentially. One for your short links, and the one they actually point to. Perhaps it’s best just focussing on making URLs nice to type – ‘pretty’ URLs even though I hate that phrase.

    Browsers like Chrome even start to do the work for you as you type a URL. Let them do the heavy lifting.

    It’s not so hard to type a URL in really – keep it simple – footnotes FTW!

  5. Aliases are easy and you can track their usage (if you’re into simple metrics).

    UX research says typing words is easier/faster than typing random characters so that’s another reason custom shorteners are out.

    And what Zak and Tom said.

  6. About two years ago I came up with the idea of “go to page number”.

    Try it.

    Go to

    On the home page, type 1437 in the “go to page number” form on the right side and click the purple circle.

    We are using this method in a brochure we are publishing for junior hight science teachers. I have prepared an annotated image of the brochure in English so you can understand how it looks like. (If you read Hebrew, you probably don’t need the annotation.)

    We are also using this method in a booklet we have sent to all the schools in Israel about our educational programs.

    People understand this method intuitively and in the site statistics I see that it is used.

    • Thanks Hanan – really interesting example. I’ll take this away and think about how best to make it happen with the book. One problem is I won’t know the page numbers in advance, but I may be able to get around that…

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