Today I read this blog post on the difference in link and button in HTML and why it matters. I've learned much of this before, but I want to make sure I am remembering the fundamentals correctly while I make suggestions about accessibility improvements on the site I work on.

Key differences

Buttons (<button>) and links (<a>, also known as anchors) are intended to be used for different purposes in HTML, and they have different ways that you interact with them.

The starkest difference between a link and a button to me is that a link navigates the user to a new resource, taking them away from the current context (internal links are the only wrinkle here). A button toggles something in the interface, like a video player; or triggers new content in that same context, like a popup menu using aria-haspopup. (Marcy Sutton)

Button Link
Used for toggling an interface or interacting with the current page Used for navigating to a different page (or deep-linking in a complex client app)
Focusable by default Focusable if the `href` attribute is present
Can display `:focus`, `:hover`, `:active`, and `:disabled` Can display `:link`, `:visited`, `:focus`, `:hover`, and `:active`
Click with the space bar Click with the Enter button
Can be `disabled` Can be made unusable with `tabindex='-1' and `aria-hidden='true'`

Accessibility/Design Considerations

  • If something is words in a box ('looks like' a button), will it open a new window? Should it be triggered with the space key or enter key? Users should be able to tell without having to try both and find out.
  • Marcy Sutton suggests pushing back on designs that involve making something that is semantically a link look like a button. I'm not sure yet if it's a big enough accessibility issue to merit the massive changes this would make to the design of certain sites like the one I'm working on.
  • Screenreader users should hear that something is a link if it will take them to a new page, so they know what will happen if they choose to click it.
  • "If a screen reader user calls tech support and gets instructions to "click the button" in your UI that's really coded as a link, they may have trouble finding it." (Marcy Sutton)
  • "Also consider voice interfaces: if you say a command to click a button but it's really coded as a link, you might have problems, no?" (Marcy Sutton)