Playing “Where’s Waldo?” with Your Links is Not a Good Idea

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Our designers and developers do incredible work on our websites. They make them lovely to look at and delightful to use, so why don’t our clients like links that are blue? (Sorry, it’s Monday morning as I write this, and I couldn’t resist trying to tie in a rhyming cliché.)

But it’s true. Our sites are beautiful, and some clients insist that links be hidden in the text without any color or underlining that would identify them as links. They feel that the look of the page is diminished by the change in text style.

When my children were small, the Where’s Waldo? books were popular. They loved to try to find Waldo among all the colors and shapes on the pages. But visitors to your website are most likely not looking for Waldo; they’re looking for specific information. So why do we make them search for links in the name of aesthetics?

Which is more important? Looks or findability?

We in Marketing Communications (fka AgencyND) know in our guts that it’s wrong to hide links, but what do others say about it? To find out, I did a little research. And the experts (Nielsen, et al.) say

If you actually want people to click on your links, then you have to make it obvious that they can and should be clicked.

Baymard Institute, Formatting Links for Usability

We know that visitors to websites don’t read the entire page on first site; they scan the page, looking for information of interest.  We encourage lots of headers and bulleted lists in order to make the page easier to scan. Why wouldn’t we point out relevant information that is linked to by making it stand out?

What do the experts say about link formatting?

Experts don’t always agree on how to make the links stand out.

  • Some say the links must be blue, with different shadings indicating status (unclicked, clicked, active).
  • Others say color doesn’t matter at all—that underlining is the way to indicate links.
  • Some say that either way is okay, as long as the method of showing links is consistent within the site.
  • Still others call for a standard among all websites for usability purposes:

Users get confused if link colors are [non-standard]. Result: Users waste their time figuring out where to click, while spending less time reading and interacting with the sites. Even worse: Users may give up finding they content they are looking for.

Bohmann, Against Non-Standard Link Colors

Thus, the research and general opinion of usability experts seem to recommend we:

  • Underscore all links, no matter the color of the text.

…Only 27% of the sites [100 top American eRetail sites] still use the ‘standard’ blue color for unvisited links….We can therefore conclude that blue/purpose ‘standard’ no longer exists…the main way of characterizing a link is not by using a particular color, but by underlining the text itself.

Carton, Should hypertext links be blue and purple?

  • Make links easy to spot and distinguish as links.

Text link wording should also be emphasized to make it easy to read. Formatting can be used to make links bold or underlined and stand out more so they are not hard to find, allowing visitors to easily find web page links. Good wording and formatting of navigation links give websites better usability.

Factors Affecting Website Usabilty

  • Indicate status of links (unvisited vs. visited vs. active) by saturation of color in order to help visitors keep from clicking repeatedly links they’ve already visited.

…Knowing which pages they’ve already visited frees users from unintentionally revisiting the same pages over and over again….When visited links don’t change color, users exhibit more navigational disorientation in usability testing and unintentionally revisit the same pages repeatedly.

Nielsen (usit.com/alertbox/9605.html)

Changing the color of visited links has been part of Web browsing since … 1993, so it’s completely standard; almost all users understand it….Further, empirical observations from user testing have identified several severe usability problems on sites that violate this convention.

Nielsen (Useit.com/alertbox/20040503.html)

  • Blue is (probably) the best color to use for links.

Since the inception of the Internet, the color of the hyperlink had been blue. Because of this, Internet users had been “trained” to think all blue colored words on a webpage as hyperlinks. Because of this, the blue-colored hyperlink has a higher probability of being clicked than other hyperlinks of other color.

The Best Color of Hyperlink

In other words, make it easy for visitors to quickly scan the page and locate links in which they have an interest and be able to tell which links they visited already so they don’t go in circles. As anyone who has taken training from me will know, one important key to a successful website is

Keep your visitors happy!

So how do you keep your visitors happy with regards to links? Share your ideas and results!

 

I say “probably” because you can find experts who say that red is clicked on more often than blue. There may be some accessibility issues associated with red, though, especially if the link is indicated by color only and not underlined. (But that gets back to the mantra of “never depend on color alone” for the Web since many users have difficulty distinguishing certain colors.)

Top Considerations for Choosing URLS

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Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame
Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame

Boy, we’re lucky to be at Notre Dame!

No, seriously. Besides the fact that we work at a premier university, if we’re wanting to make sure our websites have a fighting chance in the bit world of the Internet, just having the “nd.edu” brand adds to the value of any Web address we can think of for our various departments and programs.

But that aside, how do we pick out the best URLs for our new sites?

Well, the answer I give today is different from what others would have said two, five, or 10 years ago, and will be different from what I might say in another year or two. Search engines are adapting to the “new world” of SEO and how Webbies try to get their sites noticed, and the rules will change as the Web evolves.

But right now, here is what the experts are saying we should consider when picking a URL:

  • Keep it short. Longer is more SEO friendly and more descriptive, but harder to type without errors and harder to remember. Also, current (2008) research[1] showed that long URLs tend to be ignored, with users clicking on shorter URLs more than twice as often.
  • Keep it simple. Easy to remember is a key.
  • Make it descriptive. If the URL doesn’t describe or somehow obviously relate to your site, chances are that your users will not remember it very long. (Will users remember that ace stands for Alliance for Catholic Education?  Or tas stands for Teachers as Scholars? Maybe so. Know your audience and how they think.)
  • Make it memorable. It’s easier to remember impact than Economic Impact Report (impact.nd.edu).
  • Make it easy to spell (versus easy to misspell). Otherwise, reserve likely misspellings of the URL for redirects. (When deciding on a URL for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, we “argued” about whether users would misread or misspell the one chosen: advanceddiagnostics.nd.edu. Two d’s or one?
  • Make sure it’s not ambiguous. (Gee, do I spell out department-of-french? Or was it dept-of-french? Or was it just French?)
  • Make sure there are no “words within words.” Beware of accidentally running together words that could be taken apart in different combinations—For instance, Peterson’s Experts would not want to use petersonsexperts.com.
  • Use keywords when possible. Would your users be looking for you under department or French?
  • If you must use hyphens or underscores, which some argue helps search engines find the keywords easier, use hyphens. Although underscores are gaining in acceptance, hyphens still rule. Better yet, though, would be to leave out the hyphens since users tend to forget them and thus make errors when trying to type in your URL.
  • Use lowercase. For most of us, the use of capital letters in URLs will not make much different; most servers these days use Microsoft operating systems that don’t care whether you use upper- or lower-case lettering. Also, search bots “learn” to tell the difference and route traffic to the site in spite of any capitalization issues. However, some experts feel that with the growth of open source software, the problems with different cases will increase. Thus, at Notre Dame, we avoid the case issues by defaulting (through Conductor) to all lower-cased urls, including subpage names.
  • Make sure it’s not spammy. If you think your URL might be considered spammy, check it out at http://www.seomoz.org/labs_tools/spam-detection/ before requesting it.

Consider the following URLs in use by Notre Dame. A lot of thought and discussion went into choosing these URLs, and the final choice was often a compromise. Choosing the correct URLS is not always as easy as one would think.

What would you have chosen as a URL, based solely on the criteria above?


Department/Program

Current URL
Alternative SEO-Friendly URL
(much longer)
Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics advanceddiagnostics.nd.edu advanceddiagnosticsandthereapeutics.nd.edu
Alliance for Catholic Education ace.nd.edu allianceforcatholiceducation.nd.edu
Department of Applied and   Computational Mathematics and Statistics acms.nd.edu appliedandcomputationalmath.nd.edu
Applied Investment Management aim.nd.edu appliedinvestmentmanagment.nd.edu
Notre Dame Magazine magazine.nd.edu notredamemagazine.nd.edu
Robinson Center rclc.nd.edu robinsoncommunitylearningcenter.nd.edu
Strategic Research Investment sri.nd.edu strategicresearchinvestment.nd.edu

What’s your least favorite URL? Most memorable? Have you experienced choosing the wrong one? If so, how did you work around that? Let us know!


[1] 2008 MarketingSherpa eyetracking heatmaps show short URLs are clicked 2.5x more often than long URLS (http://searchengineland.com/supercharge-your-urls-for-maximum-seo-impact-14006)