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Creating valid and accessible links

The anchor element is often cited as the main building block of the World Wide Web. It is used to create a link to other pages, to anchors within the same page, to other resources (such as a PDF) or to an email address. How can we make sure they are accessible to everyone?

Start with valid HTML

To be a valid link it must have:

  • A href attribute: The location of the anchor, page or resource.
  • Link content Text describing where the link is going, this could be plain text or the alt attribute of an image.
  • Opening and closing tags.

Common unhelpful link texts are 'click here', 'read more' and 'link'. These are problematic because when a person using a screen reader is navigating using links alone these will be read out of context. Where would you expect any of those three links to go if you heard them? It's impossible to know.

Think about restructuring your sentence to remove 'click here' or 'link' and then surround the meaningful part with the link:

<!-- bad -->
To see our documentation <a href="/">click here</a>.

<!-- better -->
We have made our <a href="/">documentation</a> available.

"Read more" can be fixed by including what we will be reading more about:

<!-- bad -->
<a href="/full-article">Read more</a>.

<!-- better -->
<a href="/full-article">Read more - Accessible Landmarks</a>

What about the title attribute?

The title attribute is not exposed by all browsers in an accessible way meaning that people using keyboards and touch-only devices will likely never see that information.

If you want to hide content from mobile and tablet users as well as assistive tech users and keyboard only users, use the title attribute.

It is therefore not recommended to use the title attribute on <a> elements. If you do use it don't double up on the accessible name of the link, this can produce unnecessary duplicate announcements to some screen readers.

Focus state and keyboard

Some developers/designers see the focus outline of links as ugly and remove them. People navigating using the keyboard require this focus state to keep track of where they are. Best practice is to never remove focus outlines but there are accessible solutions to styling, which are set out in the Quick tip: Never remove CSS outlines.

By default an <a> element with an href attribute can be activated by the Enter key. Be mindful to not override this functionality if attaching other custom scripting. Additionally, it is not expected for the Space key to activate links.

When should you use a button instead?

If you have an <a> element that has:

  • An empty or no href attribute
  • Scripting attached via the onClick attribute or listeners.

This will probably be triggering an action on the same page, such as opening a menu or toggling content and as such is a much better candidate for the <button> element.

Further reading