In Defence of Visited Links

There are three reasons people visit a website:

  • They are looking for something
  • They trying to accomplish something
  • They have five minutes to kill before their next meeting

Too many sites only remember the last, and they think people have two hours and not five minutes. Too many sites think the visitor is dying to be entertained, even if they are coming to a tax-preparation site, and festoon the place with animated gifs and zooming navigation.

Let’s say that’s not you. You aren’t here to entertain. You know what your site is: it’s a site with tons of information. Or tons of stuff. And people have come on a quest. And you want to help them.

So let’s look at an example of a quest. Let’s say I’m looking for a scarf for my scarf-losing husband. (looks cold, doesn’t he?)

I decide to try, because I like the store’s customer service. I always feel taken care of there.

When I arrive I see they have divided the store into departments, though they don’t label it as such.

Nor do they have to. Most websites offer navigation across the top of left side, and that is all that matters to me, the user. I really don’t care if they are called departments, sections or clothing bins, as long as they hold scarves.

category navigationSo I try the men’s department, look in accessories, look in outwear, look under gifts under 50 dollars, look under best sellers, look in… waitaminute, did I look in accessories??? The category list all is the same color, and nothing has changed as I dug through the categories….

When hypertext was created, some one came up with three ways to display a link: an unvisited link, a visited link, and an active link each had its own unique color.

Designers have taken active links to the next level, by introducing fancy rollovers that change the background color when the user passes his mouse across it. At the same time they have almost completely demolished the visited link. Almost all commercial sites now define the visited link to be the same color as the unvisited link.

When you are searching for something, and methodically going through the categories, you need a way to know where you’ve looked as well as a way to determine where you might look next. I nearly gave up on Nordstrom’s, thinking that I had looked everywhere, because I thought I’d already looked in accessories.

And I would have missed this lovely scarf. Only 15 bucks! A bargin! I can buy three so he can keep losing them….
screen shot Nordstroms

So you, you smart site designer who knows that people go to when want to play a a holiday game before their meeting with finace, but don’t want to mess around when they are trying to get something bought by December 17th, the last shipping day to get it there by xmas, and still haven’t gotten the chance to run to the deli for a sandwich before the team get together… you’ll help us out and bring back the visited link, right?


Add Yours
  1. 1
    Beth Mazur

    Minor nit. I’m not sure what links looked like when hypertext was created (hello, Ted Nelson), but in early browsers (who remembers Mosaic?) there was no active link, just a visited link (purple) and an unvisited link (blue). I think Nielsen has given up on having folks use these standard link colors (it was a top ten mistake on in both ’96 and ’99), but you are certainly right that keeping visited and non-visited links different would seem essential to usability!

  2. 2
    Jared Spool

    Our data shows that distinguishing visited links from unvisited links is critical to success. We’ve seen lots of users revisit areas because they didn’t get clues. It’s obvious, when you’ve watched as many folks as we have, that the showing visited links is critical.

    We’ve found this to be most horrific when images are used for the navigation links instead of plain-old links. Here, they often aren’t even underlined, let alone changing color for representing the user’s history.

    Our discussions with designers is that they feel that the change in colors can be problematic to the consistency of the design. This is one reason they apparently set visited links to be identical to unvisited links.

    That being said, we haven’t seen any difference in our measures of users’ perceptions of whether a site “feels professionally designed” when the links are set as normal versus when the designers muck with the colors.


  3. 3

    Hey Jared,

    I think I’ve sat through fewer tests than you have, having come to it later, but I’ve definately put in my time in the last two years, and I’ve noticed three things:

    1. Users not only don’t recognize the standard link colors, they don’t know what they are. *Any* colored text in a sea of black text is suspected to be a link

    2. Underlines do not matter to perception of “link-ness” if other indicators are there (such as color) and they slow down reading.

    3. vlink is vital when users are going through a *lot* of stuff in a *lot* of containers. If there are fewer baskets, it becomes less important.

    This is why on my site I chose to make my metanavigation a single color, but my regular navigation reflect visited, allowing users to know what links they’ve already followed and which they haven’t (especially important if you are exploring the archives by category)

    I’ve chosen a soft blue and purple reminiscent of the standard link colors, and I’m happy with it, design-wise.

  4. 5
    mark bernstein

    Visited link colors — or, more generally, “breadcrumbs” (since using colored text for links isn’t always a good idea) are VERY important. Their importance grows significantly as the reader spends more time on site.

    This ties to my one quibble with the posting: there’s a FOURTH reason people spend time on web sites:

    – to look for something
    – to accomplish a task
    – displacement activities
    – to learn something

    The learning in question might not be “educational” — it might be “what do these guys sell”, or “is this Web log something I need to read”, or “what can this story teach me about love?” But the fourth category is often the MOST important to the Web writer/designer, because these are the people the site can recruit and influence. They’re your future customers.

    It’s the learners — the serious readers — who spend lots of time on site, and they MOST need visited links. Otherwise, unexpected recurrence may lead them to premature closure — to the (false) conclusion that they’ve learnt everything the site offers, that it’s time to give up and leave and try elsewhere. Visited links warn people that they’re about to backtrack and help them plan their future route; backtracking isn’t bad, but unexpected backtracking, in hypertext as in the streets of a city, is almost always disruptive and unsettling.

  5. 6
    Jared Spool


    Everything is going to depend on the nature of the site and the nature of the interaction with the user.

    One of the things we forget is that people are very adaptable. (Every time I look at the way people live in places like Afghanistan, Texas, and the streets of Boston, I’m amazed at how people can survive in seemingly intolerable conditions.)

    Many users coming to web site pages know that links will be presented to find more pages. So, they don’t need blue underlined links. They’ll search around and find the links that make sense.

    That being said, our studies do show that users take more time and are distracted when the links are something other than blue and underlined.

    When a user has to move a mouse over an element to see if Netscape gives them the finger, they’ve stopped concentrating on the content and are now concentrating on the design of the page. While some amount of conditioning may allow users to keep their concentration, any breakage in that concentration does prevent the phenomenon of Flow from occurring (assuming you’re a Csikszentmihalyi fan and believe in Flow).

    We’ve observed that links that aren’t blue or underlined are more often missed than those that are. We’ve seen that users take slightly longer to identify them. We see them take longer to decide to click on them.

    You are absolutely right that underlining slows down reading. In fact, from a psychophysics perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to choose worse choices than blue and underlining. Goodness knows why Tim Berners-Lee did. (He himself doesn’t seem to be quite sure.)

    So does having links in the middle of the text (like I just did above). This is because when users come across a link in the middle of the text, they have to make a decision.

    (Did you stop reading my missive and move your cursor over the link to try to figure out what I had linked to? Did I give you enough information to decide whether to click or not? Maybe you did and never found out what I’m writing now!)

    The importance of visited link color is that it gives information. Unfortunately, most links are not really descriptive of the information they bring you to. (For example, I could have brought you to Csikszentmihalyi instead. How would you know without the vlink color giving you a clue?)

    There’s a lot that’s supposed to happen on a near subconscious level in design. When we start mucking with the subtleties, we don’t see that we’re forcing decisions and action to a higher level, thereby slowing people down and distracting them.

    You won’t notice it in just a few tests without special equipment. (We’ve used eye-tracking devices for a lot of this analysis.) But it’s there and it can grow to be insidious.

    Design is about doing what your gut tells you. A well informed gut helps make better design decisions.


    p.s. Penelope is absolutely right. He’s damn cute. I can see why you’d wanna keep him warm.

    p.p.s. Your spell checker suggested that Csikszentmihalyi be changed to Existentially. I think there is some deeper meaning to be gotten here.

  6. 7
    Jared Spool

    I wasn’t going to say anything about this when Christina originally posted it, but since Mark commented on it…

    I didn’t put it in my last missive because it is a very different topic/thread.

    Christina said:

    “There are three reasons people visit a website:

    • They are looking for something
    • They trying to accomplish something
    • They have five minutes to kill before their next meeting”

    Then Mark replied:

    “there’s a FOURTH reason people spend time on web sites:

    • to look for something
    • to accomplish a task
    • displacement activities
    • to learn something”

    I would argue that in both lists, there was really only 1 thing:

    • to accomplish a task

    Looking for something, killing time, and learning things are tasks, among many others.

    Our research has shown that you can divide the world into Goals, Missions, and Tasks. A Goal might be to buy a car or to remove the headache caused by a malfunctioning vehicle.

    You can break the goal into many missions. Understanding the differences between models, finding out if a car is reliable, getting pricing information, finding a credible dealer, and acquiring financing are all missions for the goal.

    Goals can similarly be translated into tasks. What we see on the web is the execution in tasks. Design needs to understand, not just the tasks, but the missions and goals too. That’s when it succeeds the most.

    Also, I wanted to comment that often “learning” is undesired, but necessary. People often don’t have a task where they desire to learn, but the act of learning is necessary to complete the mission.

    If given a choice between learning or completing the mission successfully without learning, most people will almost always choose the latter. This is very important to understand in design. Anytime we can help users accomplish their missions without forcing them to learn will make them happy.


  7. 8
    Mark Bernstein

    Jared argues that there is really only one mission — to accomplish a task — and that learning is merely a step (possibly an unnecessary step) on that road.

    The problem with analyzing serious reading (including Web reading) in terms of “Goals, Missions, and Tasks” is simple: when we are doing difficult, important things, we don’t know what we are doing.

    We may think we know what we’re looking for. We might invent a plausible explanation if asked (e.g. by a researcher) to supply one. But this is a delusion, not to be relied upon, and not to be taken very seriously.

    For example, right now I’m visiting National University Singapore, working with a new University Scholars Program that is specifically inspired by the potential of hypertext and of the Web to create a new kind of tertiary education. I’m working on a bunch of papers, including one on Hypertext and Net Art in Singapore, so I’m reading lots of asian art criticism, Singapore web logs, journals, magazines. I could explain every link traversal I make if you asked, but I would be wrong; I’ll only know what I’m looking for when I find it. Once my research is complete, I’ll know it; until then, I’m guessing.

    People love to learn important things: how to love well, how to find prosperity or peace, how things work. What people don’t enjoy is being forced to learn distracting trivia — how to fill out section 37(b) of the order form. Learning the first is a joy, it’s only the latter that we want to avoid.

  8. 9

    Yes, my husband is a babe.

    Mark, you see to be taking a rather existential look at surf-behavior, but aren’t you putting the horse before Descartes? Do any of us ever know why we are here at all?

    I choose those three with simple logic: information seeking, because learning is wrapped into that… we seek information to enhance our knowledge.
    Accomplish a task… even though Jared is very right, that all three qualify as tasks, I wish to distinguish seeking behavior from non-seeking behavior, because from what I’ve observed, they are fairly different. seeking a scarf to buy is different from checking out, entering an appointment into a calendar is different from trying to find a photo of an example of sumi-e brush painting.
    And killing time is a very different behavior as well: loose, undirected, open, curious….

    I suspect if we could catalog these different behavior modes, we might be able to extrapolate a set of interface guidelines suited to each.

  9. 10

    The other issue you didn’t tackle:

    Is it a Hyperlink or an Underline?
    Will the Underline die as become truly digital (paperless and webspace over hard drive)?

  10. 11
    Dan Madigan

    Can anyone in this very helpful site help me with the idea of “Graphical Visited links”. I have gone to a huge amount of time creating a side-key in Fireworks MX with rollovers that reflect where the user is, but my boss also wants the side-key to reflect where the user was. I would really appreciate any ideas on whether a third frame in Fireworks can be created that is enacted after the user has left the corresponding page link.

    Thanks in advance

    dan madigan

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