Link Trust and The Psychology Behind Why People Click On Links

Trustworthy Links Can Increase Click-Through Rate By Between 39% and 200%

Good image…

Good headline…

This is a good article, I want to read it… Whoa! Hold up.

What is that ugly link and where is it going to take me?

While link trust doesn’t work exactly like that, it is a nominal factor that people, you and me included, make when deciding whether they’d like to make the click and take the leap to the next page.

As marketers it’s our job to understand all of the psychological aspects surrounding our content and how we can maximize our click-through rate.

You’ve probably studied headline creation strategies, hashtag usage, image usage, etc….Link trust is the last frontier. The underrated and under-explored growth lever for getting more traffic.

Let’s dive into the factors that revolve around a users decision to clicking a link and some specific use cases that may or may not result in getting our desired result.

But first…

What is Link Trust?

Link trust is the inherent value a user places on the link they are thinking about clicking on. Will it take them to a trustworthy site, or something spammy or malicious? Does it describe where it is going to, or is it random gibberish?

While nowadays we are less concerned with clicking a link leading to a detrimental end, people, most specifically in this case users on various social media platforms, do have questions as to “Where will this take me?” and “Will this article be any good?” and “Who wrote this?” and “Is this author a good curator of content, or are they just streaming crap from their stream like everyone else?”

While the entire answer never lies in the link they click on, it is undoubtedly, a minor factor in their ultimate decision, and therefore an important, and insanely undervalued, opportunity for us, as marketers, to impress.

The Hierarchy of a Users Decision Making Process

Let’s just jump into an example here. Say a user is scrolling through the Twitter feed and comes across a post they are considering:

Is this link trustworthy?

A Tweet pulled randomly from my feed by @elainebeare

The main factors in getting someone to stop and read the post are:

  1. The image
  2. The headline (or the first line of the Tweet in this case)

After that, they have started to read the body of the post and are now contemplating the click through to the destination…

User: “Should I spend my valuable time reading what appears to be a potentially rewarding listicle (but will almost certainly turn out to be another regurgitated pile of crap…)?”

Sidenote: And that’s the funny thing about an impression, by the way. Since the dawn of the internet til this very day, there is not a better form of tracking a “true” impression versus a “scroll-by” impression – where the user has no recollection of the piece of content in question. I smell a business opportunity there worth billions… But that’s for my next venture.

[Tweet “If only the term “impression” meant the user was actually left with an impression. #BusinessOpportunity”]


So a user see’s a catchy image, of a celebrity, or a chart, or something else (hopefully not a dull stock photo) and then reels in to see if the article is worth their attention.

In this case for me, it is. I’m interested in the article. But I have two questions that remain unanswered:

  1. Who wrote this article? Which for the most part is synonymous with “Where will clicking this link take me?”
  2. Who’s Elaine Beare and is she pumping out great content, or just piping into a generic feed from Entrepreneur magazine?

The second question is about brand trust, which we can actually tie into our link, and I will get to that in a second.

It’s the first question that really drives in the problem, right?

If we don’t know where the link is taking us, we are less likely to click on it.

[Tweet “If we don’t know where the link is taking us, we are less likely to click on it.”]

Yet millions of people are still using a generic link shortener (and getting just enough clicks to keep them happy and oblivious).

In this case, it’s a problem of the “good enough” solution. You share generic links, you get clicks, you are happy. You don’t realize a few seconds of customizing that link could result in up to a 39% lift in clickthrough rate.

When is Link Trust a Factor

So obviously link trust is not always a factor. It’s more of a tipping point factor than anything else.

But put the same piece of content in front of 1,000 people, and you will always have a portion of your audience on that tipping point.

The breadth of this tipping point will vary from:

  • Content to content – which comes down to copywriting and we won’t touch on here.
  • Brand to brand – Do people know and trust the name behind the content being shared? I will talk about this more in a second.
  • Platform to platform, which I absolutely can give you a semi-data backed opinion of what platforms are likely to require more link trust and which don’t matter at all.

Note: We’re running multiple tests to verify link trust across multiple channels. The tests are proving difficult to implement due to uncontrollable environmental conditions, but all indicators are pointing to increased CTR when using branded links.

Top 6 Platforms Where Link Trust is a Contributing Factor

When you’re thinking about where using a branded link is most likely to make a difference, you need to think about:

  • Where people trust each other the least.
  • Where links are being shared openly (and not hidden behind images or anchor text).
  • Where having a memorable link will have the largest impact.

Here’s my half-opinion / half-data backed view of where branded links make the biggest difference, not necessarily in any particular order:

  1. Twitter – Twitter is a sea of noise where people are constantly looking to click on content, friending people they barely know, and there is a lot of spam floating around. Also, you’re limited in the size of your post, which leaves less room for explaining the content, author, value prop, etc. Oh yeah, and Twitter has got to be the #1 source of curated content/user on the web. And since everyone is just auto-posting to their Twitter, there is a frequent disconnect between the content being shared, and the person sharing it.
  2. LinkedIn Group Messages – There are some massive LinkedIn groups out there, and while the brand in charge is trusted for the most part, many group owners are sharing the links under random Bitly’s or the like. This leaves a brand disconnect that may lead to users losing interest.
  3. Offline Marketing – When driving traffic from an offline ad, flier, or other marketing material, you really need to be careful with where you are sending the user.Take the San Diego Zoo for example:
    San Diego Zoo Signage Missed OpportunityThis Bitly has a lowly 1,500 clicks on it since January 2016. That is terrible considering 10s of thousands of people are walking by these signs on a weekly basis. Sadly, running an A/B test vs sd.zoo/memories would be fairly tricky to control for, but that doesn’t mean their isn’t a bit (pun intended) of link trust lost when using a Bitly link in this situation.
  4. Facebook posts (wall and group) – while Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others are allowing the option of removing the link from a post altogether, studies have shown that leaving a clickable link does increase CTR on the post. So assuming the link is still visible, the URL you are displaying can have a net positive effect on how many clicks you get.
  5. Blog Comments – This can actually go either way. Sometimes it’s better or simpler to just leave the raw link to the URL, especially if the link is already very concise, such as mybrand.com/awesome-post. But if you need to add UTM parameters to that link, and you probably should, then you should consider using a branded short link instead.
  6. YouTube Descriptions and Comments – This can hugely simplify the way you are creating your descriptions and help you track traffic back from individual video posts to better attribute your marketing efforts.

Where Link Trust is Almost Never a Factor

Here are some places you don’t really have to worry about link trust:

  1. Anchor text – while this can have a minor contributing factor – I mean let’s face it, we’ve all hovered over a link to see where it was going at the bottom of our browser bar – it is significantly less important than when the link is “naked” out in the open.
  2. Emails – When sending personal emails, or even emailing a list, it’s pretty likely they trust you already and therefore a short link is not necessary. That and you should almost always be embedding the URLs in anchor text instead of leaving them dangling out there. There is one exception to this, though. If you’re sharing ugly links, there is an opportunity to improve overall brand presence.Tell me, what do you think of Christopher Penn’s “Almost Timely” weekly email newsletter? Not so pretty is it (I’m still a passionate subscriber, but…):
    Christopher Penn missing Link Trust opportunity in weekly email newsletter
  3. On-site navigation – there is no reason at all to worry about using branded short links when planning on-site navigation.
  4. LinkedIn – currently LinkedIn wall, page, and group posts (but not messages) will automatically shorten all URLs to be branded under Linkedin and the link is usually removed altogether and the content shared under an image card instead. This may also happen on Facebook and Twitter, although the conditions in which it is removed is unclear, it has to do with whether you are creating a card in your post or using an image post.

Is Link Trust a Bigger Problem With Big Brands or Small Brands

Both! Let me explain…

With small brands, you are almost always dealing with people that don’t know you at all, making trust a crucial step in the marketing process. I would say technically link trust is more important for smaller brands in that it will likely drive an immediate uptick in CTR. But…

With bigger brands, it’s actually more about being top of mind and the added brand awareness play. For that reason, a larger brand may not see a huge increase in CTR when switching to a branded URL shortener (because their audience already trusts them), but instead the brand should get a longer term lift in general awareness. Unfortunately that is hard to track, but nonetheless, it’s pretty straightforward:

If the user is seeing your brand name one more time, that is one more opportunity to stay top of mind.

[Tweet “If the user is seeing your brand name 1 more time, that is 1 more opportunity to stay top of mind.”]

So whether you are a large brand, a small brand, or somewhere in between, there is a clear value behind using a custom URL shortener.

3 Ways to Easily Increase Link Trust

So it’s not hard to turn this around and start increasing brand awareness and CTR on your posts. All you have to do is get a custom domain to use as your custom link shortener, connect it to Rebrandly, and start sharing branded links instead of generic ugly ones.

When creating those links here are 3 factors to keep in mind:

Legibility first, shortness last – Never use random URL slugs! It’s more important that users can read, understand, and remember the link than for it to be short. Don’t abbreviate or remove vowels when possible. Sometimes acronyms are OK, but try to avoid them unless they are very widely accepted.

Sell and describe the destination – You aren’t creating this link for SEO value, so you don’t have to include keywords in it, instead focus on selling why someone should click the link. If you can make your URL slugs more benefit driven, you could further increase CTR. But whatever you do, make sure you are describing the page they are landing on, as that will help ensure they stay on the new content once they arrive.

Use a different custom domain for different content types – If you’re sending people to your blog post, use a domain that relays that. If it’s to curated content, use a domain that relates that. Here at Rebrandly, if we share a blog post, it goes out under “Rebrandly.news” and if we share curated content it goes out under “noteworthy.xyz.” We’ve also got other domains for promotional content, time sensitive content, press releases, FAQs, and more.

Final Thoughts

Link trust can be important at all stages of the marketing funnel, but is absolutely the most important when dealing with cold traffic and the user acquisition process.

While link trust can never claim 100% of a users decision-making process, it will absolutely be a deciding factor for someone… Someone will be hovering over your link, hesitating to click-through, only to see a legible, possibly even funny, URL slug that tips them to make the click.

Taking a couple extra minutes to brand and share your links can be worth the extra effort. Within a couple of years we expect this to be an automatic feature of all social media tools and platforms, but we’ve got a ways to go to make that a reality.

Until then, keep branding and sharing.

So, what do you think? Are you building link trust with your users or just abusing generic short links and hoping for the best? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Originally Posted: 26th October 2016
Last Updated: 26th August 2020



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Maurizio Tiberi
COO at Rebrandly. Directing, administering, and coordinating internal operational activities of the organization in accordance with policies, goals, and objectives established by the CEO.