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Every research-driven publication I've read has always said that different colors for visited and unvisited links are markedly better, and having them are the main reason I child themed twentysixteen at cjshayward.com because Jakob Nielsen's original, and revised, top 10 mistakes in web design states that colors should look different. So does Steve Krug in a later edition of Don't Make Me Think!. How to mark visited vs non visited links says, "color coding of some kind is still advised to distinguished visited links.".

The last item I quoted links to a no-longer-existing cite, and was written in 2013. Which brings me to a question:

Every research finding I've read underscores the preferablity of visited and unvisited links looking different...

...but there are precious few sites make visited and unvisited links look different, even if one of the exceptions is Google...

...Which raises a question if the near-universal domination of single-colored links is so vast and so complete that separate colors are unfamiliar and will register with a user as a UX feature useful in knowing where you've been and where you haven't.

Have there been any recent studies about whether users are familiar enough with the cue of different colors between visited and unvisited links for the basic cue to register?

The trend is not complete; a comment on Visited links: expectations and accessibility lists Google, Reddit, and Craigslist as still having two colors. However, the twentysixteen theme does not even allow separate colors, even in an option that is off by default, and my defect was rejected on the assertion that it would break existing sites (a point I would contest for an adequately good implementation), even though Wordpress's own guidelines say "Two separate colors, please."

So will users still benefit from a UX feature that has come standard and for free since Netscape 1, or will the oddity of some links being a different color simply not register?

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    Just like most design decisions... it depends on the required functionality. Take this site for example. You wouldn't have different colours for the navigation menu on the left because there is no benefit to see what has been clicked before (most cases, a user will have visited them all and still need to use them). But the "Hot Network Questions" on the right does use it because it is useful to know which questions have previously been viewed. – musefan Jan 22 at 9:35
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I do like the way you bring this topic on the table :D This is a question from 3 years ago.

First thing I need to mention, because you mentioned it yourself: companies like Google, Reddit, Craiglist, WordPress (.org or .com) aren't references in the design good practices. The people behind the interfaces are still human beings who make a lot of errors in terms of design decision. For instance, Google keep blocking their "height" in contexts of a sidebar (in some products they have) for some links: translated texts in french don't fit in, and the text is truncated.

To get back to your question, the first things with visited aspect for links that come in my mind are accessibility, UX, and privacy point of views.

Short: I didn't find new studies around this topic.

Visited links and accessibility

This is into the WCAG 2.0 recommandation. But nothing is clear on the obligation to propose this visual state. The only thing that seems to be obvious from an accessible point of view is that:

  • Contrast between foreground and background must be enough (for every states)
  • Difference between the states must be clear enough

Best way to do so is to use tools like proposed here to pick the right colors.

Despite the color aspect, the browsers are supposed to give focus on the last focused element (the activated link) when the user hit the "back history" button. This allows the user to get back into their previous context of use. To combine this browser behaviour with good design practice, the :focus state must be obvious to help detach the focus/visited element from the rest of the page.

The UX point of view

This article by NNGroup about changing the color of visited links, written in 2004, is still worth reading IMO.

In short, proposing a visited state for links clearly depend on the context: are you in a context of high density links that must be sorted and visited once at a time for a validation task or whatever? If so, maybe you need this visited state.

If you are in a context of a more simple website with 3 or 4 links per page (where most of those might be button-like links), maybe you don't need this state.

I don't like the answer with "it depends" in it, but that's UX point of view, it always depends on something contextual 😁

The browser/privacy point of view

The browsers, such as Firefox, brought a technical limit around visited links. (more info) For instance, JS technique to get information about visited links will always give you false negative, for privacy reasons.

In CSS, you will be able to edit a limited amount of properties, such as:

  • color
  • background-color
  • border-color (and its sub-properties)
  • column-rule-color
  • outline-color
  • the color parts of the fill and stroke attributes

In short, you will only be able to edit colors. Here are also some technical notes from the WCAG about success and failure on the criterion.

My point of view (if it matters)

You should always find an in-between solution answering these questions:

  • Do my users need this into my specific context?
  • Does it match the level of privacy I wanna bring to my application/website?
  • If yes, does this colors difference's enough to make the difference between normal and visited link.

So yeah, again, sorry for that, but IMO it depends on your context of use. Best thing is to evaluate the need with actual users, if possible. Otherwise, use a distinguishable color for visited links by default shouldn't bring to much pain points for your users. I suppose…

PS. not really related, but this reading is good too.

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As you say Google teaches people that visited links change colour.

It doesn't take a lot of time on Google to figure it out ( and to realise it's useful ).

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