Where are all the visited links?

Something I’ve become aware of lately is the near extinction of the visited link state. In a recent comparative review of six industry-related government websites, only one site displayed visited links. And even then it was only on content text links, rather than the main site navigation. I have to admit, it really surprised me; after all, it’s hardly a technically advanced site feature!

But it’s more widespread than a handful of government sites…

Over the past few months I’ve reviewed a stack of sites for The Mc Farlane Prize as well as the more recent AIMIA awards, and I’ve been quite amazed by how few of the sites incorporated visited links.

Let’s not forget that these sites are submitting their work to be judged for “excellence in web design” (The McFarlane Prize), “showcasing the industry’s best innovations and projects” (AIMIA).

Now I don’t mean to infer that these sites aren’t of the “excellent” category simply because they don’t highlight visited links. But what’s going on?

In my last post, James Edwards asked me about my thoughts on “the crossover between Usability and Accessibility”, and I think the visited link is a great example of that.

From a usability perspective, visited links are useful because they show us where we’ve been and they help us to understand where we can go. Visited links are essential on large websites where it’s difficult to remember the exact pages we’ve already visited. It makes browsing and searching for content faster, more efficient and less stressful.

From an Accessibility perspective, visited links act in the same way. Imagine a user who has an acquired brain injury, or someone with a cognitive disability. Reducing the memory load of a user by highlighting visited links improves the accessibility of a site and is also one of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

So what’s the reason these aren’t being implemented? Is it purely a design decision, or is it that they’re out of vogue?

With more and more developers and designers gaining an understanding of user centred design practices, and an increase in user testing, perhaps we’ll see the re-emergence of the visited link… Or is that just a bit too 1.0?

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  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ andrew.k

    I certainly agree that styling visited links in a different manner is helpful (regardless of cognitive ability) but my question to you is this — Should we be making the visited links stand out more or less than the unvisited links? I’ve read arguments from both viewpoints (‘help track where you’ve been’ vs. ‘encourage further exploration’) but I’d like to hear your opinion on the matter. :)

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    Yes, they’ve definitely fallen out of fashion. I get the impression that a lot of designers don’t like the ‘spotty’ appearance that two tone links create. A bit like not wearing a seatbelt because it wrinkles your shirt too much.

    There’s another issue I find hard. Generally you tend to make the visited link color less contrasty or perhaps less saturated than the normal link — on a content site you usually want to de-emphasize content they’ve already seen.

    However in applications like forums and auctions, often users are looking to re-locate threads they were interested in earlier — they want to know what has happened since the last time they were here. In other words, the visited link is more important, and we should ideally emphasizing it to help them.

    So, if you have forums and content on the same site, the balance can be pretty delicate.

  • Themaninblue

    I think it’s mainly a design decision. Sometimes I get Photoshop files which I’m meant to code into CSS verbatim, and after talking to the designers, they don’t really give two hoots about whether people can find/distinguish links.Just as long as they’re slightly different and look good with the colour scheme.

    This usually means that visited links are forgotten all together, or rationalised away in a skewed aesthetics vs. usability value weigh-up. It’s the same with underlined links.

  • http://diigital.com cranial-bore

    I sometimes find it hard to think of a (visited) colour that is suitably different from unvisited links, and also fits in with the colour scheme. That’s a pretty weak excuse, but I suspect it’s why a lot of sites don’t bother with the feature any more.

    I think Alex W is spot on about when to (de)emphasize visited links.

    By the way Lisa, you don’t mean to imply that those sites aren’t excellent. Inferring is done by the reader/listener, implying by the writer/speaker :)

  • http://www.deanclatworthy.com Dean C

    Yep I haven’t used it either in quite some time and it’s simply a design decision. I don’t like the idea of having contrasting link colors on my page. Yes, it’s sacrifices usability, but I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my designs :)

  • http://www.dotcomwebdev.com chris ward

    Mozilla.com does it best. Same blue/purple thing going on, just toned-down a little.

  • http://www.bn23.com b0rdslide

    I’ve almost always set normal/active/visited links to the same colour in the sites that i’ve had a hand in designing. Simply for the fact that almost everyone who hasn’t had a web-related background that I’ve sat down with at a computer has been confused by the varying link colours (not least clients who don’t understand why their design isn’t coherent). Maybe it’s just that so few sites use it now so users never actually pick up what the varying colours may be infering.

    Has anyone else had a similar experience? I honestly can’t remember any site I visit that uses a different visited link colour and it certainly never affects my browsing habits.

  • http://www.trulybored.com Gamermk

    I feel like this post is giving me mixed signals. You want us to change the colour of visited links, but Sitepoint doesn’t do it themselves.

  • http://www.bn23.com b0rdslide

    Gamermk: Actually, the links within the content do change once they have been visited. However, from what I can see links in all the main navigation areas stay the same.

  • http://blog.heuristicdesign.co.uk Hal9k

    I don’t really find the colour necessary to distinguish against links I’ve visited. I just remember; it’s not hard to do.

    Though if there are long lists of links, colour can be invaluable to decipher one from the next.

  • http://www.birnamdesigns.com birnam

    When I redesigned my site I took a tip from Paul Boag and integrated check boxes into the links in the main navigational menu and a few other places. I think b0rdslide has a great point that many users can find the multicolored links confusing. Using checkmarks is much clearer and still gives your site the usability benefits.

  • http://www.trulybored.com Gamermk

    I realize that Sitepoint does implement some parts of this visited link idea, but I am more interested in this usability blog taking a stance on things rather than just asking us questions.

  • zuneone

    I don’t like to see visited links in a different color, I find this offensive. Hover changes are best in my opinion.

    This is especially if you don’t clear history frequently. It makes a site look tattered and distasteful when visiting again another day.

  • guenter

    Different link colors probably add more noise to a site, and the additional information isn’t – in most cases – worth the noise. With Michael Krug’s term in mind stating a limited cognitive energy budget a user is willing to invest into a page, it’s not so much a design question than one of energy saving …

    One more thought: Does any real world gadget give you the information if you had pushed the button before? It only shows the pushed state (on or off) and not its history.

    I’m using the browser history, yes, and the back button history, yes, but I don’t remember that I felt the absence of a visited link color.

    Really interesting idea to mark important or heavily uses links other than their not so prominent brothers (often pushed buttons get flat and older). Yes, there is a hierarchy in link importance on a site.

  • http://www.realityedge.com.au mrsmiley

    One more thought: Does any real world gadget give you the information if you had pushed the button before? It only shows the pushed state (on or off) and not its history.

    What is your definition of history? Take just about any real world gadget that has buttons like a TV remote. If you push the buttons long enough, they start to wear and the type starts to rub off the surface of the button. Technically, this button has “history”.

    Seems to me the only argument I’ve heard so far is one of asthetics bar the one test about user expectations and understanding. I don’t think athetics should ever come at the expense of usability unless the media in question is all about the design presented.

    Forgive my lack of knowledge on this, but how do screen readers etc treat visited links? Changing colours etc isn’t going to help much unless there is hard information for it to detirmine its state. Can screen readers even read style sheets and make equivalent inference from them?

  • malikyte

    I absolutely LOVE this example of visited links in a navigational context. It’s a site in the portfolio of Green-Beast.com, home of Mike Cherim. He’s quite good at keeping up with accessibility issues and the link, whilst still making things seems aesthetically pleasing.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    Gamermk: Actually, the links within the content do change once they have been visited. However, from what I can see links in all the main navigation areas stay the same.

    Although it’s hard to get the balance right, we’ve certainly always used a visited link text color on SitePoint.

    In my view, top level navigation items like tabs or navbars are a slightly different case. Although a tab or a navbar may be, at heart, just a bunch of glorified text links, their task is different and I think can be treated differently.

    Firstly, whether it’s for better or worse, the motivation for making more graphically complex nav items (like a tab) is to make then consciously different from standard text links. Some would no doubt argue that that is wrong in itself (Hi Jacob), but if you are going to create something different from a garden-variety text link, it’s reasonable to assume the rules for it are different.

    Secondly, generally tabs/navbar items are numerically limited to 5-8 items, making the users’ task of differentiating between which one they used far less onerous than remembering which of, perhaps, hundreds of listed threads/articles.products they viewed earlier. While there may still be some benefit, it’s less compelling in those circumstances.

    Thirdly, with less items the chances of all those links being visited is quite high, making the information offered by the color variation of questionable value.

    For instance, there’s every chance you’ve been to Google, Google Images, Google News and the Google Advanced Search page in the past week. How useful is it to know the only thing you didn’t visit was Google Groups?

    Looking at the real world, both Yahoo and Amazon use a distinctive visited link color, but neither communicates your ‘tab history’ back to you. I would think that was standard practice. Are there any big sites that change their tabs/navbar after you visit them?

  • Lisa Herrod

    There appears to be a real conflict here between Design vs. Usability…

    Zuneone has raised an interesting point about hover changes; Colour is not the only way to identify visited links. However, hover changes rely on the user mousing over the text, which is a lot more effort than scanning a page with your eyes. I’m not for one minute suggesting you use ‘strike’ though ;) , but what about emphasising visited links or bolding an underline, for example..?

    Alex, that’s a fair call on your Google example. But I think what you’re talking about there, is a site where the user knows the site well and has established patterns of use.

    Let’s look at it from the perspective that the user has a low to medium level of web literacy, that the site content and terminology is unfamiliar to them, and that it is a very large site with a complex IA.

    Guenter your point is interesting, but I wonder… with a limited cognitive capacity, wouldn’t it be more useful for users to see where they’ve been, in comparison with the load required to remember where they’ve been (to either explore new paths or retrace steps)?

    All in all, this looks like a good case for a focused user testing sessions on navigation cues…

  • pureCaffeine

    I think it’s mainly a design thing – probably also a personal subjective preference too and in the absence of evidence indicating contrary preferences by users that’s all I’ve got to go with.

    How would you test this? I’d suspect that if you had to bring it to users’ attention (unless you can have scenarios involving revisiting pages) that the results might not be indicative of true user behaviour and preferences ‘in the wild’?

    Wonder what Amazon could input into this discussion – I know they’ve implemented a “Things you’ve recently looked at” box; wonder if they did some research into this and deemed that was more useful than visited links?

  • DylanButler

    It’s not a design issue – it’s a usability issue. Users should immediately be able to tell:
    a) Where they are at
    b) Where they have been
    c) Where they can go
    If you design cannot provide this, then it fails. These are the fundamentals of navigation.

  • watershed

    Lisa, thank you, you’ve brought to the fore something that I’ve been meaning to consciously review/address for a while.

    I’m aware that I’ve tended to let aesthetics or, to be honest with myself, just plain laziness gloss over this issue. And fundamentally, DylanButler has said it right.

    As a partial defence…

    There is the issue of commercial reality for designers of sites for small businesses or where the budget is ‘tight’. I go to some lengths to make my XHTML/CSS more accessible and hopefully more usable than my clients consciously appreciate or, for the most part, pay for!

    Yes, one might rightly say “How long can it take to add a couple of extra declarations for visited links?” But then, are we talking about only doing so for basic links within content, or also for primary and secondary navigation? Clearly, in an ideal world, one would consider all contexts, and test for it, but when one is up against a tight budget and might justifiably percieve oneself as ‘over-delivering’ already, where do you draw the line?!

    A flawed defence I know. Let’s just say you’ve added a resolution to my New Year!

  • Jermayn Parker

    For smaller sites are they necessary?? I agree that for larger sites or for activity sites (forums, auctions etc) they are necessary but other than that I would personally say that they are not important.

  • Lisa Herrod

    Ok so this is getting interesting.

    There seems to be a couple of key points that keep coming through around the usability (as opposed to the design) of visited links:

    Andrew.K asked :
    Whether visited links should stand out more or less than the unvisited links.

    Jermayne asked :
    Whether it’s necessary to identify visited links on smaller sites.

    I believe for design conventions to work effectively and in order to build trust in a system (be that the entire web or a single page website), there has to be consistency. If one site highlights visited links and another highlights unvisited links, how is the user to know which is which as they move from one site to the next…?

    With regard to small verses large sites, I don’t necessarily think it makes a difference. It depends so much on the user and their needs in accessing information, the type of content on the site, and even the browser history settings.

    With most things web, there are so many variables that surely a little consistency can only make things easier…

  • http://www.birnamdesigns.com birnam

    Personally I think that small sites should do it for the sake of consistency because large sites do it.

    It’s like how “About Us” and “Contact Us” became the de-facto standard titles for those pages, and it actually hinders users to name those pages anything else. Or having the boiler-plate legal pages linked to from the footer. Or having the logo in the upper left. And so on….

    In my view, usability needs to assume that your site’s users visit other websites, and that their experience and expectations are determined by the internet as a whole.

  • Stevie D

    A key factor in whether showing visited links differently comes from how consistent and well-designed the navigation is. Sometimes I’ve been exploring a website and ended up going back to the same page several times, because it hasn’t been clear from the context that it was a page I’d already looked at.

  • http://www.electrixity.co.uk jakobw

    A bit late to the party, but for me the biggest reason to the drop in signifying visited links is the rise of the dynamic web. A different colour for visited links to a large degree harks back to the static web where a page was a static document. If you run a webshop, your product page changes all the time as new ranges come online, but the link stays – same with news and so on. The URL stays, but it’s simply not the same page anymore, as the content is dynamic. It could also be the other way around, where the content stays the same, but the URL carries a session/user id and therefore changes with each request.

    In modern, transactional websites the focus should rather be on consistency (use one name – ideally whatever your customers call it – for every individual page/section/product/etc and stick to it) and the context of the link – this should leave enough clues to the user as to what she will find if she was to click the link (and so help her make up her mind on whether it would help her achieve her goal).

  • GenealogyNut

    http://www.ancestry.com just updated their Message Boards. All of us Administrators of the boards HATE the change but one of the things we hate the most is visited links have the exact same setting as never viewed links. In a message board it is vital that one can tell what message you have reviewed and what you have not. Lots of admins have quit over this issue.

    I found this comment series interesting because it looks like the designers went with the em thing. No one ASKED us admins what we thought. The result has been people quitting their volunteer support over the boards.

    The Lesson here is DO NOT DO ANY DESIGN CHANGE THAT IS FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT TO STANDARDS without doing a thorough usability test base first. Even the folks visiting the boards are complaining.

    When you do research, you can visit the board multiple times a week. And you don’t visit one board but quite a few. I check over 50 boards every week. No way I can remember what I read and what I didn’t. The visited link was the way I knew quickly.

    And the fact that aggravates the @#$% out of all of us — the fix is to make a simple change to ONE CSS file. And they won’t do it.

  • Autograff

    I think Lisa Herrod is steering the discussion in the right direction, and Dylan stated it clearly and succinctly. It’s our responsibility to help people know where they’ve been, where they can go, and what their choices are at any given time. I don’t see the dynamic site as a reason not to use visited links. We build them all the time. As long as a session is active, the history is valid, and the links can be highlighted as visited.

    If we as designers can’t come up with a color scheme that separates visited and yet-to-be-visited links without making the page “spotty” maybe we’d better go back to school. Sure it’s a challenge, but it should be part of standard practice. It’s only one more color in the palette.

    We develop websites in Maine, USA, where the economy is tight and budgets are ALWAYS small. I guess I assumed it’s standard practice, as well as a good idea to put in the couple of lines of css necessary to distinguish between visited and unvisited links.

    The customers I have worked with who have low web skills have all understood and expected visited links. The site size doesn’t matter; if the page has more than five to seven links in evidence, why wouldn’t we remind our visitors where they’ve been? If you don’t specifically style them, the browser may turn them purple anyway! Then they’ll really be spotty…

    Our company’s habit is to leave the tab text links one color no matter what, but to color the tab/text when the visitor is in that section of the site (a “you are here” clue. Local navigation and inline content links get styled with “visited” colors. The only time I don’t do that, I can admit it’s laziness, time crunch, etc, not for a valid reason. Forums and ecommerce sites have more reason than others to color visited links, but I can’t think of nearly as many reasons not to provide them as I can to provide them.

  • Eric

    I’ve had clients request that I eliminate the different color for visited links. They didn’t understand the reason for distinguishing them, nor were they impressed when I explained it.

    This may be a case where changing design practices have “educated” website visitors in unintended ways. Once the visited link became a rarity, it also became less expected and understood by those it was intended to help.

    I don’t know if that’s good or bad — just a different perspective.