The coloring of visited links

For some reason it just hit me that it really was a long time ago since I used any specific color for visited links in a web site. How so? I guess in my case that at work I usually work with corporate web sites, intranets and their likes, so a color for visited links has seldom been applicable in those cases. For this web site, I have chosen to have just one color for links (within texts; navigation items have other colors), so it hasn't happened here either. As I thought more about this, it eventually led to the question: Is a different color for visited links actually of any usage? Surfing around on the web, it seems that it becomes less and less common, as opposed to the advent of the web, when all of them had it. I don't know if it's out of negligence or if it's a deliberate decision, and also I'm not sure what conclusions usability studies have come to, but spontaneously, right now, I think that, often, there's no need for distinctively marking them up. The reason is that, even though it reflects that within the last week or so, I've clicked on some of the links, I usually can't remember where they led. I click a lot of links each and every day, so there's no chance to map up the entire Internet in my head. In a case such as Google, at first it seems a good thing that the the search results I've previously clicked are colored differently, but then I soon realize that even though I apparently have clicked those links, I don't know if I was content with the web sites they took me to or not. So, from there on, my actions can take two paths: either click on the same links again, hoping that they actually gave me the answer I was looking for, or just viewing undesired results yet one more time, lured on by the false pretense that I at one time was satisfied with them just because the web browser shows me that I've been there before. And from a design perspective I think a web site feels more consistent and, basically, good-looking if links have the same color, visited or not. A different color for them would just be yet another color added to the web site color scheme, and it might give an impression harder to grasp. I have to admit, though, that these are just thoughts. I have no actual facts to back up on standpoint or the other, there are just ponderings going through my head. Do you know what's best for usability? What are your thoughts, weighing in all factors?
Posted in CSS,Developing,Google,Technology |

14 Comments

  • Steven Clark says:

    Robert, I think from a usability perspective different coloured visited links would be more usable than not as a general rule, although context would have a great deal to do with the answer.

    I particularly find them useful when someone has a long list of resources – say 20 presentations on web standards or something – and I am going through them either systematically or in an ad-hoc way. If the list is not displayed in that way it gets very difficult to not miss and sometimes repeat links when I'm visiting them and returning to the list.

    I have to admit on my site I don't use visited but I have on some clients sites in the past to reasonable effect from a usability standpoint.

    I see your point about the design factor but its also a common view on why they can't provide skip links visually… so I don't know. I think a lot of it comes down to context and judgement call on the specific project. Also, I've tended to say to myself it is one of those things which can so easily be tweaked – if it is identified as an issue then its a 10 second find and fixer. So sometimes it just never eventuated as being identified.

    If I were visiting a large government site like a Business Access Point – mmm definately give me visited links. The circularity of some larger government / corporate sites makes me hit red within about 3 – 4 pages when the cycle starts. Australian Bureau of Statistics might think of using them (my recent experience). But maybe its their IA that is confusing me too.

    Accessibility? While displaying information using colour alone is not good I think they do enhance the accessibility of a page (or some pages) for some users perhaps.

    So they're worth looking at using. I'd recommend using them but with the caveat that it really depends on the information on your site (and feedback). For example although blogs have lists of archive by month I rarely troll them one by one myself, and articles may only have one or two links.

    Just my 2 cents worth I guess.

  • I think it depends on the context of the link. If the content of the link doesn't change like a blog entry (not talking about comments here but content), then a visual indicator helps me to not revisit the link. I've also had the same problem you've had with Google.

    Instead of a different color, have you thought about strike through? The first time I saw it at CSS Zen Garden (Samuraai) it really made sense. Of course that's in the context of CSS Zen Garden.

  • I find different coloring of visited links only to be useful in the "list of links" setting. This applies especially when the link content is not easy to remember, say a list of 100 fonts linking to a preview of each font – the font names are not easy to remember so being able to visually differentiate which ones I've already previewed is useful.

    For general links on a site (navigation, footer, add comment, etc) I would agree that adding another color for visited state only causes confusion. I tend to avoid changing link color (or link style) for any reason within main content areas (except on hover, of course). This consistency helps to reinforce to users that text in this color (e.g. red) and with this style (e.g. underline) has an additional action associated with it.

  • Tommy Olsson says:

    For most sites, I think it's an important usability feature to change the colour of visited links. At least for links embedded within the copy text; for links in a navigation menu that appears on every page it might be better to keep the same colour.

    On forums like SitePoint, where there are hundreds of new threads every day, I find it absolutely invaluable to be able to see which ones I've looked at.

    The research I've seen on this subject indicates that most users find it helpful to see which links they've already visited. Elderly users and people with minor cognitive disabilities are two of the groups who can benefit most from this.

    If you're worried about the colour scheme, you can use a less saturated nuance of the unvisited link colour, as long as the contrast to the background remains sufficient.

  • Andy says:

    The visited links on Google are priceless. I use them all the time when I can't remember where I've been and when I forgot to bookmark the site.

    I believe Jakob Nielsens studies in this field has proven that there is a usability gain in having visited links turn up in another fashion.

  • Yeah I agree that visited links should be a different colour.

    In regards to the strike through that Tanny mentioned, I agree that it can be a good idea. I have seen other methods like tick icons that do look ok.

    I think it all depends on the design on which method you go with however.

  • Personally I don't think that striked links are a good idea. Imagine that you return to a site thats full of links looking for a specific one that you liked.

    I would think that it would be rather difficult to work out which the good one is because you can't really read the text.

    Get the idea :>

  • I agree with Tommy and Andy – I'm always using the visited link style to remember which result in a Google search I actually went to, or to quickly scan forum posts to see which I haven't read yet. It's also useful when surfing blogs – when something new has been released and everyone is linking to it, I can immediately tell whether or not I need to follow the link, or if I've seen it already.

  • Gerben says:

    I think browser need to change the way they store visited links. If a page is viewed for only 2 seconds before the back-button was clicked, browsers shouldn't store this page in their history.

    Visited links are very useful on social network sites like magnolia and digg. This way if you've already visited the page via one site, you don't have to spend any clicks on it at the other site.

    But for most business sites I think you're right that they don't add very much.

  • Eric Shepherd says:

    I have been using gray for visited links lately – it doesn't distract from the color scheme of the site, and it's more clear than a slight desaturation of the primary link color. Leave the rest of the treatment the same – underline, bold, etc. I think cnn.com is doing this now, and I find it pretty helpful.

  • Megan says:

    I like grey for visited links too (#666 usually). I think it is important for users to know where they have been, especially on a large site. I rarely use them on navigation menus but always in body text. There are many cases, as mentioned above, where users may not know (for sure) that they have already visited a particular link. It also saves a little cognitive effort in remembering which links have been clicked.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Thanks everyone for great and thought-worthy comments, and also for (I think) new/seldom commenters adding their thoughts! I wrote the post in a somewhat provocatively manner, because I hoped that you would defend different coloring for visited links.

    I agree that there are cases when it is indeed a good thing, but other situations where it doesn't help at all. And, as all seem to agree about, this goes for links in the copy text and such cases. Changed color in a web site's navigation would just be weird in almost all cases.

    I've noticed the strike-through examples and tick images following visited links too, and I like the creativity (although strike-through can, as displayed by Ross above, become very unfit).

    And yes, just slight color changes for visited links, usually gray-ish, can actually look good and help the visitor.

  • Kenneth Sundqvist (E says:

    Links are one of the things in web design where I absolutely put function before form any time (that I can), and I pity anyone who doesn't.

    I can't even begin to imagine how many times I've cursed the person making the decision to not style visited links in the body or a list navigation — or set the link colour so close to the text colour that they can only be spotted by the underline (you included, Robert). And a completely different hue is terrible too — like :link is green and :visited is red!

    Visited links should be set in a duller look than its not visited state, as it's proven to be the easiest to understand (according to a study which I can't locate now). If you don't want a desaturated and brighter variant of your link colour you can use a neighbouring colour to achieve the dulled look (such as the classical blue to darker purple).

    Locating links and understanding them should not be something that your visitor has to think about, but sadly link styling is one of the worst skills amongst web designers (amateurs and pros alike).

    Recommended reading: Guidelines for Visualizing Links, by Jakob Nielsen in 2004.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Kenneth,

    Thanks for your input!

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