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Backlinks should be context-rich

Backlinks should be context-rich

Summary of “Backlinks are bad links”

Sascha wrote in their article[1] that “good linking” means that a link is placed manually and gives the future reader a reason to follow the link. This understanding of “good linking” (as opposed to “bad linking”) is, purportedly, more meaningful once a Zettelkasten is more mature such that the system of notes has “unlock[ed] its true productivity”. Sascha developed this point into a larger point about backlinks, since backlinks are often automatically generated and lack meaningful context, therefore lacking good reasons to follow these links and blaspheming the strength of other links in the notes system, as well as introducing visual noise which could manifest in the expensive opportunity cost of following backlinks needlessly and interrupting valuable lines of thought.

Ultimately, Sascha stated that backlinks are more about creating links than connecting knowledge.


This is both interesting and partially valid. Links are powerful and shouldn’t be used haphazardly lest they become meaningless. Also, backlinks are likely less relevant to the specific thoughts in a reader’s mind while reading a particular note, meaning that those extra links may somehow corrupt healthy lines of thought. Finally, backlinks are often auto-generated, meaning that those links are, by definition, less intentional than forward links.

Backlinks are part of a note

Still, backlinks do the helpful work of acknowledging connections to a particular note, which may be more helpful than harmful in terms of helping a note to more fully represent the concept being encapsulated.

Backlinks are intentional

In this way, backlinks are intentional because they’re simply a feature of the initial forward link they represent. This forward link was intentional, so the connection between the concepts is meaningful, even if that connection is represented in the connectee (not just the connector).

Backlinks should be context-rich

Forward links are meaningful because they exist in context. To ensure backlinks are meaningful, backlinks should be context-rich:

  1. Note titles should express note content
  2. Backlinks should provide some contextual data about the usage of the concept in question

Context-rich backlinks give readers reasons to follow them

If note titles are clear enough, they provide a filter whereby the reader can decide whether to follow a note. This may give the reader a reason to follow the note (or not to follow the note), or to seek out further clarification regarding the context of the current concept within the backlinking note. In practice, this could look like a tooltip which displays the usage context when the backlink is hovered.