Where are all the visited links?

Lisa Herrod
Lisa Herrod

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?