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Where Have All the Visited Links Gone?...

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Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the visited link –- once a staple of website design -– has all but disappeared from many websites.  And eCommerce websites are some of the worst offenders.  In fact, of the Internet Retailer Top 10 Retailers for 2011,  only three (Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and Dell.com) include a visited link color.  And a quick survey of the Internet Retailer Top 10 Retailers for 2011 suggests that the overall percentage of eCommerce websites using a visited link treatment is well below 30%.  Compare this with Jakob Nielsen’s estimate that 74% of websites were using different colors for visited and unvisited links in 2004.

What’s the big deal?

Alright, so fewer sites are making use of a visited link treatment – why does it matter?  Why is the visited link so important?

The benefit of the visited link has to do with the difference between recall and recognition.  In recall, a user first has to retrieve past information from memory and then identify the correct item.  Recognition, on the other hand, only requires the identification of the correct item from a number of possible choices.  Therefore, in many cases, recognition should be faster and more accurate than recall.  The visited link enhances recognition in website navigation by providing cues as to where one has already been.

Jakob Nielsen has been arguing for the use of the visited link color since 2004. And it continues to be the number 3 pet peeve on his 2011 version of the Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design. So why aren’t people listening to him?

One of the primary hurdles to wider use of a visited link color likely is the notion that visited links are ugly and detract from a website’s visual design.  Beyond aesthetic concerns, the visual clutter caused by a mix of very incongruous link colors on a website could actually cause more usability issues than it solves.

What are my options?

A few years ago, a number of people were actively exploring alternative methods of indicating visual links – options that might be more aesthetically pleasing and usable than a link color. Simon Collison explored using background images to place checkmarks next to visited links.   Others explored a strikethrough font for visited links. And some even experimented with more advanced page manipulation for visited links, such as hiding article summaries after the article has been viewed.

Unfortunately, complex styling of visited links opens a security hole that can allow a website to determine a user’s browser history. So called “history sniffing” can then be used for targeted advertising, and potentially to track users. Therefore, most of the major browsers no longer support the creative treatments described above. For optimal cross-browser support it’s best to rely on the tried-and-true color change for visited links.

When using color as the visited link indicator, it’s common to use a more muted version of the primary color (thus making the link look like it is worn, or used). It’s also important to ensure there is a significant difference in the brightness of visited vs. unvisited links, in order to make the difference perceptible to color-blind users.

Zappos_Visited_LinksA number of sites are now using visited link colors that are aesthetically pleasing. Zappos, for instance, uses the visited link effectively in both category navigation and product selection. Though a stronger brightness difference between visited and unvisited links would enhance the usefulness, the color change for visited links is effective, while still visually appealing. Additionally, the idea of providing helpful cues enhances the Zappos brand, which is all about helping the customer.

Are you sure I need a visited link color?

Certainly, there are situations in which visual indication of visited links may not be necessary.  For example distinguishing visited links may not be critical when the site is small, or when the available navigation options are clearly distinct (e.g., the top-level categories on most eCommerce sites). However, there are some compelling reasons for including a visited link color in your site navigation.  Here are just a few…

Products Listed in Multiple Locations within Product Hierarchy:

Walmart_Category_NavOn Walmart.com, the baby clothing category is duplicated in two locations in the product hierarchy, and it is named differently in each location.  Imagine going to look at baby clothing one day and then coming back the next day to find that cute baby dress you liked. Would you know where to look?  Fortunately, when you visit either category, Walmart.com marks both categories as visited.  Therefore, though you might not remember which path you took to find the dress, the visited links would give you confidence that either path would correctly lead you to your destination.

Visually Similar Products on Product Thumbnail Page:

Amazon_CamerasAmazon.com sells millions of products – which sometimes can be a little overwhelming.  Suppose you were browsing a list of digital cameras on Amazon and you decided to click through to view the details of the camera. If you then clicked back to the product thumbnail page, how difficult would it be for you to determine where you left off browsing, if it were not for the visited link color?

Product Lists that Update Regularly:

Powells_Books_BestsellersOn Powells.com, the bestseller list is updated hourly, meaning that products come and go on a regular basis. Therefore, the product you saw an hour ago at position #2 may no longer be in the same position (or even on the list!).  Given that this feature likely is intended to help people discover books with which they’re not familiar, the use of a visited link color helps people to remember whether or not they have viewed a given book (since the user might not remember the book’s title).  Additionally, if a book were to appear on multiple lists (e.g., best sellers, highest rated, new this week, etc.) the visited link color would be helpful in identifying previously viewed books across different contexts.

…When will we ever learn?

Though the disappearance of the visited link has happened without fanfare, you should be aware of its impact on your web browsing experience.  Specifically, pay attention to the cognitive effort you have to expend on sites without a visited link color, just to keep track of where you’ve been.  You’re sure to develop a renewed appreciation for the visited link.


Kevin Simons is a Senior Information Architect in Fry's User Experience Design group.


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