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Websites of today contains a variety of links including logo link, global and local navigation links, supplementary or related links, other header links, footer links, inline related links and more. We learnt from Jakob Nielsen that Not Changing the Color of Visited Links where the third worst mistake in web design (updated 2011):

A good grasp of past navigation helps you understand your current location, since it's the culmination of your journey. Knowing your past and present locations in turn makes it easier to decide where to go next. Links are a key factor in this navigation process. Users can exclude links that proved fruitless in their earlier visits. Conversely, they might revisit links they found helpful in the past.

Most important, knowing which pages they've already visited frees users from unintentionally revisiting the same pages over and over again.

These benefits only accrue under one important assumption: that users can tell the difference between visited and unvisited links because the site shows them in different colors. When visited links don't change color, users exhibit more navigational disorientation in usability testing and unintentionally revisit the same pages repeatedly.

This statement is still valid, we want to let the user know where they have been, as much as possible. But that doesn't work for all links. The global navigation - certainly not, but inline relational links, most definitely. But where do we draw the line? Which links should change color when visited, and which links should keep their original link color?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The more I think about this issue, the more I come to the conclusion there is no good reason to not highlight visited links. Your graphic designer may not think it's aesthetically pleasing to change the color in the main menu or the tabs, but your visitors will love you when you do.

Parts of the website may feature links that aren't really navigational, like the options in Amazon's faceted navigation. I don't expect what I click there to be back-traceable through :visited coloring. They're more like action buttons. Same goes for links that open and close an accordion or open a fold-out menu (like microsoft.com's mega menu): not really navigational, so don't change color when clicked.

You do see a lot of large sites that do not color :visited links in the menu or anywhere else. Microsoft.com, Dropbox.com, etc. I bet they've got good reasons for this. And it's not like the sites are all that hard to navigate. So, yes, you can probably get away with not coloring :visited links. Doesn't make it right.

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Sometimes links are used as a lightweight alternative to tabs or navigation menus. In these situations, there is large variation between good websites in how they handle it.

Dropbox is an example of a website that uses links as navigation elements, and as expected, they do not change colour once visited (even though I visited many of these links before taking the screenshot).

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However Wikipedia also uses links as navigation elements, but chooses to mark those links as visited.

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There isn't any right or wrong answer here, but my recommendation is that when using links as navigation elements, they should be treated as navigation tabs or menus - even if they look like links.

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The wonderfully simple page and link model has been "under attack" for a long time, first from Netscape's frames fiasco and lately from Ajax and the trend toward apps instead of pages. So now there are mainly two models in use on the web, the older page model and the newer app model. I think methods to make these models compatible are still being worked out and not even the big players like google and yahoo have a handle on it.

So I don't think there's a good answer to your question. There seems to be a style, that you point to and I am trying to home in on, of a limited set of app-style pressables (tabs, buttons, navigation thingies) that frame and manage a document containing traditional links in its text flow. But I think this approach might not scale into complex applications.

I just examined Yahoo Mail, Gmail and Twitter (high visibility, high volume, high dev resources) and they all just seem to disregard the issue of managing visited link colors, I can't find any visited link indications on those website/applications. Colors are used on those sites, just not to indicate visited links.

A traditional document-centric webpage is obviously enhanced by visited link indicators, while it may be somewhat useless, even confusing, information on a complex application oriented webpage, but when we're somewhere in the middle we're flying by the seat of our pants. The important thing is that we're aware of the usability impact of losing the visited-link-cue when we decide to lose it.

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+1 for the App/Pages distinction. I think you're right in your reasoning. –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Apr 13 '13 at 5:41

Consider whether you have a highly-sectioned site where user must, or typically, browse through most of one or more sections.

If so, you can consider a wholly-different strategy of displaying a progress bar to provide feedback about over browsing completion.

mockup

download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

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