Adding links to content, making them accessible and GOV.UK's external linking policy.
Using links in content
Don’t duplicate information. If it exists elsewhere on GOV.UK or can be better supplied by an organisation outside government, link to it instead.
Writing link text
When writing a link, make it descriptive and front-load it with relevant terms instead of using something generic like ‘click here’ or ‘more’. This is because generic links don’t make sense out of context or tell users where a link will take them.
They’re also not accessible for visually impaired people using screen readers, who might use links to navigate a page.
Links help people scan content so don’t swamp them with too many or link to the same tool or web page throughout your document. Only link to other pages on GOV.UK or external sites if it’s necessary for the user to complete their journey. You should always link to online services first, offering offline alternatives afterwards (where possible).
If you need to link to an external site, read the External linking policy to find out what you should check first.
You can add links anywhere in body text, but not in titles, summaries or subheadings.
In Whitehall publisher, you must use Markdown to format:
- links to content on GOV.UK
- links to external websites
- email addresses
- links to specific paragraphs on GOV.UK
GOV.UK external linking policy
- 1. GOV.UK should link externally where doing so helps meet a clear user need. This guidance:
- a) lists the various types of external links from GOV.UK
- b) describes some of the general risks and outlines what we’ll do to mitigate them
- c) lists the principles to be considered before adding an external link from GOV.UK
- d) provides a checklist of considerations
- e) describes the process by which new external links can be added
- 2. Where user needs on GOV.UK are better met by third parties, we should consider linking to them and always seek to avoid unnecessary duplication. Whether it’s a charity website offering information or a third party tool to run a survey or gather analytics, we will consider linking from to external sites and services if we believe they will meet the user need and help them to complete their task.
Background: types of external link
3. GOV.UK has 4 main types of external link (ie links to non-gov.uk domains, including links to other government sites).
Inline external links
Where a need is being largely met on GOV.UK, content designers (and/or relevant departments) might identify an onward journey to an external site that helps the user meet their need and is best supported by linking directly from the text on the page.
External related links
GOV.UK content sometimes offers lists of related links. GOV.UK can also offer external related links, in order to make it easy for users to continue their journey elsewhere. There will be guidelines and constraints around how many external related links can be provided.
External links on site search result page
Where a need isn’t being met on GOV.UK, but we have evidence that users come to GOV.UK to find it (eg health and NHS content), we can display links to relevant external sites against keywords using our GOV.UK site search tool. These links appear prominently in GOV.UK internal search results pages, as ‘Other sites that might be useful’.
External services through transaction start pages
Transaction start pages will usually link through to services provided by third parties on external sites.
4. In order to ensure that we continue to build users’ trust in GOV.UK, there are several risks to consider when adding links to external sites, and principles that should always apply when linking externally.
Is it clear to users that they’re leaving GOV.UK?
5. GOV.UK relies on users’ trust in order to fill its role as the home of government services and information online. This means:
- a) when pointing users towards third party services, we need to be clear that users are leaving our site
- b) we will ensure external links are always accompanied by the external link icon to help make it clear to users that they are leaving GOV.UK
- c) as part of the ongoing user testing of GOV.UK, we will continue to test that users are clear and confident about when they are on GOV.UK and when they are being taken elsewhere
Changing external content
6. By linking to external sites in order to meet a user need, we open ourselves to the risk that those sites will change and our link is no longer useful. By linking to things which can change outside of our control, there’s a possibility of us accidentally providing misleading information to people, which could cause frustration and stress for our users.
Content on third party sites to which we link might be moved and redirected, removed or shut down completely. We can automatically test for these scenarios, and will regularly review missing, broken and redirected external links.
Content on third party sites might be changed substantially so that it no longer meets the original user need, taken over by someone who provides a quite different type of content, or a third party site might substantially change its approach to privacy, cookies, mobile or accessibility.
These scenarios are much harder to detect automatically, so in addition to taking feedback from users, departments will need to regularly revisit external links they have requested, and we will need to regularly review the success of external links, and review the content of the highest traffic external links to ensure that the intended user need is still being met by an external link.
7. Recognising that third parties will use the provision of information as a route to selling a service (whether via advertising, consultancy or other services, or establishing a market), our approach must be impartial and even handed. We will also need to take care around perceived endorsement of specific private sector suppliers.
We (GDS, with input from the relevant departments) will need to ensure that relevant external links to third parties do not act as an unfair endorsement of 1 specific site, for example.
Inclusion or exclusion of specific links must be based on the principles and policies outlined in this document, and we will publish a policy/disclaimer regarding external linking on the support pages of GOV.UK.
8. Our checklist of issues to consider when assessing link requests is as follows:
- a) does the link help meet a clear user need?
- b) does the external site have clear privacy and cookie policies?
- c) are we being even handed and impartial?
- d) do other providers deliver a similar set of information, and if so why would we choose one over another?
- e) is the external content free to access?
- f) is the ownership of the external site clear?
- g) does the site work on mobile devices?
- h) would the site meet our accessibility standards?
- i) is data is being collected on our behalf?
More information on these issues follows.
9. We should only link to third party content in order to help meet a clear user need. Links to private sector and charity sites will not be provided as a matter of course, unless they are an essential next step in meeting the user need addressed by the page.
10. Where we link to relevant third party content, we must be able to link deeply to the relevant content (eg when linking to a piece of content from a third party organisation, we would link to a specific helpful page, rather than the organisation homepage).
Privacy and cookies
12. We should always review whether third party sites are similarly responsible and only send our users to sites that have taken these concerns into account. Where third parties we want to link to aren’t clear or have made mistakes, we should encourage them to change that before we link to them.
13. Our decisions about who to link to are going to be scrutinised and we should be careful to choose the sites we link to and the tools we use impartially.
14. We must never include a link in return for cash, services or any other consideration in kind, including requests for reciprocal linking.
15. We should be prepared to explain the suitability of any third-parties chosen, eg where we’d be seen to be favouring one commercial provider over another. Where appropriate, GDS will need to challenge the relevant department(s) to answer the following questions:
- a) will a specific external link help the user complete a specific task?
- b) do other providers deliver a similar set of information, and if so why would we choose one over another?
Free access and commercial sites
16. Some needs might be best met by third parties with a commercial model (whether via advertising, consultancy or other services, or aiming to establish a new market). While we should not normally link directly to pages whose main purpose is commercial (e.g. selling services), if a user need is clearly met by a site which is broadly commercial, we should nevertheless consider linking to it as long as the content is free to access and does not require payment or registration before the user need can be met.
17. We shouldn’t link to content that requires payment or registration from users in order to be accessed. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t link to organisations which have a paid membership, but we should only link to content that is free to access and does not require payment or registration in order to access it.
18. More than a third of visits to GOV.UK are via a mobile device. If we link to external sites that do not work for them, we’ll be frustrating significant numbers of our users. Before we link to external sites, we should be confident that the site will at least be usable on a mobile device.
19. We’ve put significant effort into making GOV.UK the most accessible website it can be. We should ensure that any third-parties which we link to have provided for accessibility. We won’t be able to thoroughly review every site we link to, but we should do what we can, and we should avoid linking to sites that are not accessible.
20. If data is being collected on our behalf then we should only work with providers whose privacy and cookie policies are at least as good as ours, ie:
- a) we are confident that data is stored and handled securely. We should seek assurances that this has been considered and that security is regularly tested
- b) all obligations under the Data Protection Act are met
- c) we have carried out a Privacy Impact Assessment as required
- d) we own the data collected and the third party have no rights to exploit it
- e) there is clear information to users about who owns the data, what their rights are, and who they should contact with questions
Processes and procedures
21. To add external links the following 3 processes will need to be followed.
Departments and Policies
22. For ‘Departments and Policies’ (‘Inside Government’) content, owning departments will be required to follow the GOV.UK external linking policy, in the same way they follow the style guide.
23. For any new Mainstream content, the department working with GDS can suggest useful external links as part of the content request. The content designer will assess whether these help to meet the need, and whether they comply with the approach outlined here.
24. If departments become aware of a site or service that they believe would help to meet an existing user need on mainstream GOV.UK pages, they can suggest this is added via the internal content request process.
Requests from external organisations
25. External organisations are likely to contact GDS via the GOV.UK feedback form, or contact departments directly, asking for links to be added to GOV.UK. They may also occasionally make requests/suggestions via the blog, or Twitter.
Requests for links from mainstream content should be passed to the mainstream product team for assessment. If they are satisfied that adding a link will help to meet a demonstrable user need, then the request will be assessed against the approach outlined here and discussed as appropriate with the relevant department(s). If accepted, the link can be added as a link in context, as an external related link, or as an external search result.
Document version history
v1.0 approved by GOV.UK steering group, May 2013 (Paper GUK/06/03)
v1.1 minor formatting and numbering changes, September 2013 (Graham Francis)
v1.2 removed references to missing annexes, updated section 3 to reflect that external links are now possible, September 2013 (Roo Reynolds)