The strange death of the underlined link

Here's something that's been annoying me somewhat of late. Not all that much, but just enough to prompt me to write a little post about it.

Underlined links: what's happened to them? Perhaps I don't get out enough but it seems to me rare indeed these days to encounter a site that abides by the traditional usability principle that links within body copy should be underlined. I'm not talking about links within menus, or in lists, or list item headings, where underlines can safely be jettisoned, but about links enmeshed in content that might otherwise be hard to discern.

It used to be considered a cardinal usability error to remove underlines for links like these or, if one insisted on going against the grain, at least to style them with a border, or make the text bold. Now, however, it seems entirely acceptable, indeed standard practice, simply to rely on colour.

Tired old bourgeois that I am I don't see what's so wrong with the underline. Does it really look so clumsy? Is it something to do with responsive web design, a concern that underlines interfere with the readability of shorter sentences on smaller displays? I don't understand it. There seems to be some residual guilt about dropping underlines on the part of some designers: it's very common to see underlines appear only on hover. The idea here seems to be to confirm that the coloured text appearing in the middle of a sentence is indeed a link, lest there were any doubt. A curious compromise.

It seems to me - old fool - that the value of underlines is no more or less than what it's always been: a simple, easy device for ensuring links within body text are easy to identify. A straightforward usability gain that makes little sense to give up.

Fortunately it seems that most designers who chose to remove underlines are aware of the possible consequences for colour-blind users unable to discern greens and reds: I don't often see non-underlined links using these colours. Blue seems to be the most common choice. But using blue generates new problems. Blue doesn't stand out all that well against the black or dark grey typically used to colour body text. The Guardian and A List Apart are a couple of well known sites, for example, where the links - blue in both cases - scarcely stand out at all.

Et tu Jakob?

I remember robust discussion some years ago when Jakob Nielsen argued that body copy links should not only be underlined, but should always use the default link colours: blue for unvisited links, purple for visited.

When it became clear that hardly anyone agreed with him about link colours Jakob quietly dropped that particular insistence, but his most recent post on the topic stuck by the injunction that links should be underlined:

To maximize the perceived affordance of clickability, color and underline the link text. Users shouldn't have to guess or scrub the page to find out where they can click.

Wise words I thought at the time, and still do. So it was with surprise and a sad shake of the head that on revisiting it just before writing this I found that even Nielsen's site has dropped underlines. Including, I must regretfully inform you, in the post where he advises against doing so. Let us never speak of this matter again.

A stirring conclusion, a brave resolution

For what it's worth I shall continue to underline body text links on all sites I design. It seems obvious to me that it makes things easier for the user. And underlined links are a distinctive characteristic of the web. There's no need to apologise for them. A web page isn't a printed page: it has its own aesthetic. Underlines are native to the medium. They are beautiful by definition. Let them stay, and let a thousand flowers bloom…