In a recent article, How to Make Accessible Image Links (Redux), the subject of real world implementation of the title attribute also became a topic worth taking a little further. While there are some very good resources out there explaining the pros and cons of title attributes, it still seems worthwhile recapping and bringing some of that external information into one place. This article will be aimed at discussing title attributes on links. The title attribute can be used on nearly every element and is even compulsory on several (including frames oink!). Did I just say oink? Frames. Oink?
The Title Attribute
The title attribute (not to be confused with the title element in your document head) is available to provide supplementary
implementation information to users, although without a solid guide to user agents on how to implement the title there is an inconsistency among browsers as to how they support it. In some cases the title may be provided as a tool tip, although this would require the user to hover over the element with a pointing device. Keyboard users wouldn’t see the tooltip, while screen readers have title attributes turned off by default and users have to turn that feature on.
The Down Side of Tooltips
Tooltips have their own issues like not being text resizable, or obscuring content by casual movement of the user’s mouse. When you try to read tooltips they can be truncated in some browsers and often disappear after 5 seconds impacting heavily on low literacy users and those with learning difficulties. Long titles as tooltips, if not truncated, could significantly confuse dyslexic or low literacy users about the destination of the link. Don’t get me started on the annoyance of abusing the title attribute to create obtrusive tooltips on some sites which heavily promote external advertising on the page, yet obscure their own content ad nauseum (read Mike Cherim’s Site Features Overload). And,when you think about it, adding an empty title attribute is a really bad idea. Some people do that, apparently.
Support is Shakey but is it Our Fault?
At best, support for title is shakey. At worst, title has the potential to become an accessibility barrier. In the comments, while I agree in principle with Joe Clark that this is actually a browser and adaptive technology issue and not the web content itself (the user’s issue), it falls on our work domain to try making websites more accessible today.
My feelings are the same about the use of text resizing widgets, by the way. While vision impaired friends use them I’m inclined to see their benefit on the interface if implemented correctly (Accessibility, Usability and Resizing Widgets). So I’m definately not a zealot nowdays when it comes to the letter versus the spirit of web standards and accessibility. I sometimes wonder if others have become A Little Jaded on Accessibility? with the expectation that all users are now “expert users”. They are definately not. We can’t expect everyone to know keyboard shortcuts, how to resize text in browsers or anything else. That, I’d suggest, is a tail wagging the horse.
Yet Jakob Recommends Title Attributes on Links
Add to that mix of negatives the recommendation by Jakob Nielsen on his Alertbox in January, 1998 (and updated in 2004) with an article titled Using Link Titles to Help Users Predict Where They Are Going. He strongly advises that title attributes on links should be used to enhance website usability through information scent. And, Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Accessibility Day 14: Adding titles to links identifies several positives for his user personas . So there are apparent benefits for some users – tooltips (if you can read quickly and have a mouse) and through information scent (if, as Gez Lemon points out in Using the title Attribute, your screen reader happens to have that option turned on, which is unlikely).
Intelligent Use of Title Attributes
At Web Essentials 05 Steve Faulkner presented The Title attribute what is it good for? which discussed many of these issues. The recommendations for how to use the title attribute seem well enough established. Use titles only when they provide the supplementary information about the link that they’re intended for – don’t use it to say Click Here and don’t repeat the link text redundantly. Use titles judiciously with some thought to the impact on keyboard users, assistive devices, and various browser / human disability combinations. Don’t use title attributes for anything not supplementary, definately don’t use it for site critical information. Be aware of the various implementations among browsers when treating title attributes. Steve Faulkner advises:
Do not use the TITLE attribute to clearly define the link target and if you use a TITLE to add extra non-critical information ensure that the plain link text information is also included before the superfluous stuff.Steve Faulkner, Web Essentials 05
The next time someone leans over my shoulder during a testing session and tells me that I must have those tooltips I’ll be asking a few questions in return. How will this impact on other user groups? What are the pros and cons? And, ultimately, from the client’s perspective, could my actions impact on their bottom line?
Also, its worth mentioning that I found no proof that titles affect SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) for either good or bad. If anyone has solid evidence either way could you put a link in the comments? Otherwise title attributes for SEO goes down as another Internet myth.