Note-taking and personal knowledge management are in the midst of a technological revolution. Gone are the days of flat Evernote text file, replaced by databases, interactive templates and Excel-like formulas. You know what else has gotten a facelift? The good old hyperlink is a relic of the past. Taking its place are backlinks and bi-directional links. This guide covers everything you need to know about Notion backlinks beginning with their history, covering inline/sub-pages and concluding with how to use them.
Introduction Notion Backlinks
Notion is an all-purpose productivity app that launched in June 2018 and armed with a $50 mm war chest of cash (from an eye-popping $2 Bn valuation in the midst of COVID) the company’s been growing its feature set like wildfire. And in an adjacent sphere of note-taking apps, Roam Research is leading its own innovation of “networked thought” (alongside Obsidian, MyMind and TiddlyWiki).
These apps have popularized the bi-directional link. Nat Eliason called backlinks Roam’s “best feature”:
This is the best feature I’ve found for discovering new relationships between information. It makes it so easy to tie pages together, and to help you get better organized.
And in September 2020, Notion jumped into the fray announcing backlinks, inline pages and sub-pages. Does this make Notion ready to compete in the land of networked thought?
What are backlinks?
Many of us (myself included) never thought much about hyperlinks. We know they’re blue and you can click ’em. And that if you want to return to your previous page, you just hit the back button.
In Maggie Appleton’s short history of bi-directional links she explains how this classic link (known as the mono-link) is “a one way pointer” that doesn’t retain any of the context from the referring page.
Conversely, the backlink or bidirectional link has “social awareness:”
It knows about other pages or ‘nodes’ that point to it, and can make them visible to people. This means we get a two-way conversation flowing between our web locations.
Here’s my explanation of backlinks (in the context of Roam):
And as you build your knowledge graph of notes, books, resources and tasks – the backlink exponentially grows the serendipity within your digital workspaces.
How to use Notion Backlinks
Using Notion Backlinks is easy as pie. You don’t have to do anything. Backlinks are created automatically . You’ll just see a little indicator on the top left of any page that shows that other pages link to it.
If you expand that icon, you’ll see the pages that were @mentioned or linked to (in clickable fashion).
How to use Inline Page Creation
Following Roam’s footsteps, Notion added a few new keyboard commands to facilitate the creation of new pages.
The double brackets (or [[)
In this update, Notion incorporated the most Roam-like feature: the double bracket. When you type the [[ you’ll be presented with a search bar and a new menu:
The double-bracket will let you link to any existing page in your workspace or create a new sub-page. First, you can create a sub-page within the current page (which is similar to the “/” slash command). Or, you can create it within a different page, which significantly improves your keyboard-based maneuverability.
The plus sign (or +)
The plus command acts similar to the double brackets, with one exception: it defaults to page creation first (whereas the brackets default to linking).
The difference between sub-pages and nested pages
I have to admit that it took me a while to figure out the difference between sub-pages (using [[ or + commands) and the good ‘ol slash (/) from prior versions. Thankfully, Shane Robinson set me straight. He explained that a nested page must live as its own block. Conversely, an inline page can be surrounded by text within the block (like a traditional hyperlink). Clicking on the backlink of a sub-page will send you back to the block, which improves the navigation.
Notion “Global” Blocks are still way more powerful
In fact, one of the most powerful linking feature isn’t widely known: Global Blocks. This undiscovered feature is probably by design, since it’s unofficial (like the numerous Notion integrations using the “unofficial api”).
This workaround enables transclusion: lets you reuse an entire block (a footer, for example) so that edits in one place will automatically pass through to the other blocks. Here’s a quick tutorial on global blocks:
But like anything unofficial, buyer beware.