March 15th 2002 - Issue 2002-3 - - eFOCUS

(Printing Version )

Should hypertext links be blue and purple? Could the Web gurus be wrong?

According to Gerry McGovern, hypertext links should be treated like traffic lights, and always use the same colors in a pre-established order: blue, followed by purple.

Obviously, for reasons of efficiency and, above all, safety, no one would ever dream of replacing the three colors of the traffic light system with colored neon lights, even if it did make them look better (Gerry McGovern "Web navigation: traffic light, not neon light design").

Both Gerry McGovern and Jakob Nielsen believe that it would be a mistake to use any colors other than blue for unvisited links and purple for visited links.

Although I agree with McGovern that the primary aim of site navigation features should be efficiency and that making them more flashy usually only confuses visitors, I don't believe that the colors chosen are all that important.

In my opinion, the main way of characterizing a link is not by using a particular color, but by underlining the text itself.

If the color was the main characteristic of a hypertext link, all we would have to do would be to make certain parts of the texts on our sites blue to let users know that they were clickable. Allow me to doubt the efficiency of this rather simple tactic.

In my opinion, the color means nothing if the text is not underlined. The color of a link can make users more aware of it, but it is only of secondary importance. Moreover, putting underlined links in bold can work just as well.

It is interesting to note that, on McGovern's own site,, the links in the center of the page are indeed blue and then purple once they have been visited, but that blue is also the color of the site's left- and right-hand columns. Choosing the color blue for its links is therefore totally in harmony with the site's color palette, and works well esthetically.

However, we also noticed that, for readability purposes, the hypertext links in the left-hand menu are white on blue! What's more, they do not change color once they have been visited.

Like the menus on McGovern's site, the great majority of e-Commerce sites have now given up using the standard blue/purple colors for links.

This was one of the findings of our study of the homepages of the 100 top American eRetail sites ("Homepages that Sell").

The study sample is composed of sites with browser-to-buyer conversion rates of between 2% and 30.3%. These sites are visited by 120 million users every month and are therefore totally representative of Internet traffic.

The results of our study show that, as far as hypertext links are concerned, only 27% of the sites still use the "standard" blue color for unvisited links. In other words, 73% of these e-Commerce sites now use links that they have customized in their own colors.

Example of customized links on (old and new version of the site):

We can therefore conclude that blue/purple "standard" no longer exists - in any case as far as e-Retail sites are concerned.

My second reflection concerns the question of whether visited links should change color or not.

61% of the sites in our study do not use different colors according to whether the links have been visited or not. Worse, only 13% of them still use the color purple for visited links.

I'm not trying to say that these figures demonstrate that the standards championed by Nielsen and McGovern should be given up for good, but simply to point out that it is quite clear that users today are not disorientated and/or disturbed if sites don't use them.

Moreover, when a user visits a site selling clothes, for example, he probably does not need to be reminded whether he has already visited the menswear, sweater or tie sections: he is perfectly well aware which categories he has already looked at.

The same reasoning is true for many of the main "repetitive" pages habitually found in the navigation structure of a retail site.

This leads us to question whether we are offering users a real service by changing the color of visited links or whether we are not, in fact, making navigation more awkward for them.

In fact, I would go even further than this and say that it can sometimes be counter-productive for a site to change the color of its links for certain categories (Best sellers, for example): the user may not revisit links if their color has changed, although the site's commercial success may well depend on these categories being regularly revisited.

Admittedly, my approach goes further than the usability aspect alone, since it is mainly focused on the eShopability capacities of e-Commerce sites.

Choosing the color of links on a retail site and changing the color of visited links is no longer merely a question of adhering to standards, but of deciding whether or not they fit in with the site's commercial goals.

I'm not saying that Nielsen and McGovern are totally right or wrong, but quite simply that we should be specifically approaching the subject of retail site usability from a new angle: eShopability.

On an information, a press or a university site, for example, the function of a link is to let readers know that an underlined text will give them access to another resource, either on the site itself or on an external site.

This type of link corresponded perfectly to the needs of the first sites that appeared on the Internet. However, the aims of these sites were quite different from the aims of e-Commerce sites today.

In the "informative" context, changing the color of a link is totally justified: it effectively reminds the visitor that he has already accessed the information connected to that particular link.

This is particularly useful for searching the site's archives, for example.

However, the things that make this type of site easy to use do not necessarily work so well on e-Commerce sites.

That said, each approach has its own merits and the two can sometimes be used together in a complementary way.

There is no point, then, in discarding one system or the other; it is much better to use them appropriately, not automatically, according to the aim of each particular site.

I believe that Web standards should evolve as users' experience grows. If we try and freeze certain criteria, by likening them to traffic lights, I don't believe we will be doing much of a favor either to retail sites or to users.

Source: Article Gerry McGovern


Extract from site