Patched Chain Link

The Many Faces of the Hyperlink

The World Wide Web is built on links. It thrives because links are everywhere. There are links to the various pages on individual sites. There are links from one site to another. There are links in e-mails to websites. There are links in PDFs and documents and presentations to Web pages. Chances are, you used a link to get to this article. Yet, when it comes to setting up a website, styling and consideration of links is often overlooked. Or worse, specific choices for links are made that end up hurting the usability and interaction of your website.

Link states and their selectors

A link isn’t just an element with one look. It has five different states that can be styled with CSS (and to some degree basic HTML, but you should be separating your styling from your content). Here are the different link states and their associated CSS selectors.

a:link
The link state is the basic state for a link. It’s the blue, underlined text default. A link that hasn’t had and isn’t currently having any action on it should look like this.
a:hover
The hover state is what happens when you move your mouse over a link. Typically, this involves a change in color or decoration. The mouse cursor also changes.
a:focus
Perhaps the most often overlooked state, the focus state is to keyboard navigability what the hover state is to mouse users. When a link is focused on using the keyboard, or after being clicked, it will use the definitions of this state to style it. Default styling generally puts a dotted outline around the element.

You can change the color, style and width of dotted outline (or remove it altogether, although that’s not recommended) in CSS with the outline property (ex. outline: #f00 solid thick;). In newer browsers, other elements can have outlines as well (allowing for double borders), although IE will only display an outline on links only.

a:active
The active state controls how the link appears right after being clicked (while the action is taking place, such as requesting a new page). This gives feedback to the user that their click was registered by the browser, and that something is happening, even if it isn’t readily apparent. The default for this is typically a red text color.
a:visited
If a user has viewed the destination page, the link is considered visited. This is important feedback for the user so that they can know which pages on your or external sites they’ve already seen, thus not needing to click on the link. Default styling of visited links usually colors the link an eggplant or dark purple color.

Each one of these selectors should have a different style. Why? It’s all about usability.

Usability

The Internet as we know it—that is, the one available to the public—was born right around 1992. That was 18 years ago. (Think about it, the majority of students in this years incoming college freshman class were born that same year.) In that time, visitors have come to expect certain things on the Web. For instance, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you see blue, underlined text? You said “a link,” didn’t you. Blue, underlined text has become synonymous with a hyperlink. People see it, instantly recognize “ooh, a link!”, then click on it if they think it looks interesting to them. They die a little inside if it doesn’t do anything. They rejoice if it takes them to another page. That is usability.

Usability: the ease with which a visitor can accomplish basic tasks on your site. Navigation is the most basic task on the web, after reading content.

If you’re only willing to put a minimum amount of consideration into link styling in your design or development, the best thing you can do is dont do anything to the browser defaults. Ok, so maybe those colors would be a little difficult to read on say, a black background, but at least users would understand that they’re links.

Users need to know four basic things:

  1. Specific text is actionable (that is, it is a link)
  2. They are hovering or focusing on it (taking action will do something and they’re clicking on what they intend to)
  3. Something is happening once they’ve clicked on it
  4. Whether they’ve already seen the destination

If your link looks like plain text, no one is going to try to click on it. They don’t have any cues to know that they can take action.

If your link doesn’t change when the visitor is hovering or focusing (via keyboard), they can’t be sure that when they click (or hit enter) something is going to happen. What if they do click but cause something else to happen? That’s bad usability. These two states (hover and focus) are perhaps the only two that I can consider ok to have the exact same styling. Both states indicate that pressing a button (on the mouse or keyboard) will activate the link. If you remove the default outline for the focus state, make sure to do something else that makes it very obvious to a keyboard user that the link is being focused on. Some browsers, like older versions of Opera don’t do anything with the focus state, and others, like IE6, end up meshing focus and active together, so having slight differences between hover and focus might be best for browsers that get confused.

If nothing immediately happens when a user clicks, they might think they missed the link or it is broken. They need feedback to know something is happening in the background, especially if it takes a noticeable amount of time to request the new page.

If they’ve seen a page on the site already, they might not want to visit it again right now. Or, if they’re clicking on various links to read after they’ve finished scanning your content, they might want to know if two links go to the same location. If your visited links look exactly the same as unvisited links, users have no indication of this. Give them some.

Consistency

I’m sure plenty of Web designers are cursing at me right now about stifling their creativity, saying “that color scheme looks like total dog-poo with my design.” And I totally understand that sentiment. You can style your links differently than the browser defaults. I do it. But if you do, at least keep it consistent.

If links on your website are say, bold orange text with no underline, people will probably pick up on the fact that bold orange text with no underline are the links on your site. But if you also use bold orange text for some other type of emphasis, people will be confused when they try to click and nothing happens. Or if another link is suddenly italic red text with an underline, they might think they’ve visited the link, or it’s not a link, or who knows what. It’s unlikely that they’ll click on it. Consistency is key. If you want your users to memorize a new paradigm, make sure you always use your new paradigm.

And please, for the sake of all things holy and unholy, don’t use blue, underlined text unless it is a link. (Or if you are a sadistic developer who takes pleasure in frustrating and confusing your users.)

Exceptions to the rule

There are always exceptions to the rule. The major one here has to do with in-site navigation. Obvious site navigation, like menus and footer links can be styled differently than normal hyperlinks. If users expected your navigation to be blue underlined text, the Internet would be a far more homogeneous place, and that would be boring. When you have obvious menus, your users are going to understand that those are links to other pages in your site. But when you have links within your content, they need to know immediately that they are looking at a link.

A side rule to this: don’t link to external sites from your site navigation without clear indication of what is happening. That is really jarring, and a good way to get people away from your website so that they don’t come back. Site nav links should almost never open in a new page, either.

What link styling strategies have you found work best for you?