Semantics Over Aesthetics: Use Destroy Buttons Instead of Destroy Links

December 31, 2011

I was coding away this afternoon, and I introduced a destroy link to my codebase. It looked something like this:

  <%= link_to "Delete", widget_path(@widget), method: :delete %>

Every time I write something like this, it makes me think twice. The problem with this code is that it heavily relies on JavaScript and jquery-ujs to trigger the right action on the server (An HTTP DELETE request). Anchors are semantically only capable of linking to URL's with a GET request.

Here's why writing a link this way is bad:

  • It relies heavily on javascript. Any user with a non-JavaScript capable browser will not be able to exercise this action.
  • It can be followed by a bot if you're not careful. Search engines and other bots might catch this link and attempt to follow it.

Sometimes, I'd write a link with a manual route so that I could use a proper link. Something like this:

  <%= link_to "Delete", delete_widget_path(@widget) %>

After properly configuring routes and a controller, this issues a GET to the widgets controller and destroys the widget via a delete instance method. This is even worse for a number of reasons:

  • It violates RESTful conventions. A GET request should generally not cause writes to your domain objects.
  • It circumvents a bunch of Rails countermeasures and makes you succeptible to exploits. Things like cross site request forgery protection aren't run on GET requests. That means a malignant user could try to impersonate another user by hijacking their session.
  • This link is even more succeptible to bots following it if you do not include a rel="nofollow" attribute.

With a desire for other opinions, I turned to twitter and had a great conversation with some smart folks. We were debating on how HTTP should not constrain a user's experience and that there should be an accessible way to markup links that issue a DELETE request. Ultimately, it boiled down to a decision between using a link as opposed or a button and/or form element for this type of interaction. Kevin's tweet really hit home for me.

A button would look something like this:

  <%= button_to "Delete", widget_path(@widget), method: :delete %>

Buttons and links look very different natively, but that's not HTML's fault. Browsers interpret them differently, making for very distinct renderings.

Delete Button Vs Link

The markup or the HTML standard is not at fault here. The browser makes a certain assumption of how you want a button to look vs. how you would like a link to look. If you're practicing sound web standards, aesthetics and presentation should be the responsibility of your CSS. So, I created a SCSS/SASS mixin to make a button look like a link.

  input {
    @include link_like_button;
    color: blue;

Which looks much truer to form (note I've added color: blue in addition to the mixin):

CSS Driven Button Vs Link

So in conclusion, don't use a link to trigger write or destroy actions, especially for aesthetic reasons. You can override the styling opinions of the browser to make a button appear to the user like a link.

As an aside, Twitter can be such an awesome place to learn a thing or two. Since investing in community is part of our company values, we spend a lot of time there. If you're new to Ruby or the Rails community, it is a great way to learn purely through osmosis.