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Comments February 24, 2007

Visited Links

Filed under: Web Site Design — Dave Rathbun @ 11:04 am Comments Off 

Web designs seem to no longer include altered colors for visited links. Is this a good or bad thing?

There are some links in phpBB that are styled so that unvisited links have the exact same presentation as visited links. These include forum names (on index.php) and the topic titles at the top of viewtopic.php. Other links are styled so that visited links do get a different color… such as the topic title on viewforum.php. What’s the difference? Was it a good decision, and why?

Is there anything really wrong with blue and purple links anyway? ;-)

If you go back to one of the early concepts for the world wide web it was all about documents and linking. There was no e-commerce… there really wasnt much of e-anything at that point. If one person set up a document that linked to another related document, you could click it. If you clicked back to the original source document, the link you just visited was a different color (purple) to show your click history. And it made sense. :-)

Today we have web sites that are much more sophisticated. In some cases there aren’t any visible “links” at all, as the entire web site has been replaced by a flash application. But on sites with links, do you see your click history? Or do you have to remember?

I spent a long time designing my photography web site before I came up with a design that I really liked. And by the way, I was using “rounded corners” way before they became stylish. :-P The design as it stands today was originally released in 2002. Today it seems that rounded corners are all the rage; look around at various blogs and websites and you’ll find all sorts of rounded corners… but I digress.

My photography web site has a fairly deep structure. There are several man “top” categories, each with a theoretically infinite number of sub-pages. For example, one of the top categories is Trips. Within that category I have broken my photo pages into groups by state (location). Since a lot of my photography is done in national parks that’s the next level of detail. Once you navigate to a specific national park there are generally articles about various areas within that national park. And it could go on from there.

So the design decision that I made was to put the top-level menu options on the right side of the screen. I realize that is a departure from the normal left or top navigation, but I went through a lot of different choices before finalizing that decision. The page hierarchy is displayed as a folder-type structure, much like you might see when navigating your computer. The main category links do not change colors… in fact until recently they were actually images rather than text.

Page links do change color, and I even left them at the default blue / purple color scheme. Here’s a screen shot showing what I mean:

Navigation Example

There are several examples of link handling in this page. First, there are breadcrumbs just under the page logo in the top-left corner. Those links are designed to show your navigation path and let you retrace your steps back up one step at a time. I think yahoo.com was the first site where I ever noticed this technique being used many years ago, and I think it’s a great interface choice. Those links will be blue or purple depending on your visit status.

Next, there are the main category links on the right side. These links are styled to be white (on a black background) and they remain white whether a user has visited them or not. These links are not really for content, and as a result they never (or very rarely) change. That’s the reason I made the decision; these links are structure rather than content, and as structure links there is less value in knowing if you have visited a specific page or not.

Finally, and this is something I am quite proud of, the page hierarchy is displayed as folders. Here is a close-up of that area:

Folder Menu

As you might notice, the current page (Delicate Arch) has an open folder icon and is not clickable. There is no need to click on that link, as that’s the page you’re currently viewing. OTher pages that you have visited are purple (standard) and unvisited links are blue. By the way this menu is completely dynamic; there is no hard-coded HTML anywhere in the site. Everything is driven by database tables and managed via back-end admin screens. If I ever want to add a new page I simply upload the content of the page and determine where it belongs in the hierarchy. Everything including the site map is then auto-generated from the database content. As I mentioned, I’m quite proud of this site. :-)

Back to the design choices made by phpBB stylists and others. When do you make the links change colors? As with my photography site, links that provide structure (forum names or category names) that do not change often retain the same color whether they have been visited or not. Links for content (topics) do change, at least in the standard subSilver layout. That seems consistent. And if it’s consistent then frequent visitors to your site will benefit.

So what do you do? Do you show your visited link history, or do you hide it by styling visited and unvisited links with the same attributes?

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