Are the days of the underlined hyperlink over?

Google search engine results page screenshot

Google screenshot

The world’s biggest website has made a major usability decision. As part of a series of tweaks, the hyperlinks on Google’s search engine result pages are no longer underlined.

It has caused a small stir, with the Verge announcing that with the update Google “says goodbye to 1996”. That is a bit extreme. Usability orthodoxy might still tell you that links should normally be underlined, and any browser will display an underline by default. But increasingly it seems as though underlining hyperlinks simply isn’t necessary.

When we were working on the design of the Study at St Andrews website, we had a big discussion over whether we should get rid of underlining on hyperlinks. On the one hand, underlining looks ugly. But on the other, it makes it easier to discern the hyperlinks.

What swung the decision for us was when we looked at the BBC website and found that the BBC almost never underline their hyperlinks. The BBC is an organisation that clearly needs to ensure that its website is usable and accessible to all, and you have to say that they achieve that.

What we did notice is that many links on the BBC website appear as bold text. In addition to colour (which may not be seen by a colour blind person), it provides a further visual clue that it is a link. So we opted for the same approach on the Study at St Andrews website: no underline, but a different colour and always presented as bold text.

Interestingly, the Accessibility section of the BBC website still does underline its hyperlinks, which suggests that they do view it as an accessibility issue. But obviously not too much that they would underline links across the entire website.

The other gold standard for us to look up to is Gov.uk. They do still underline their hyperlinks, although interestingly they are experimenting with removing the underlines on certain links.

If you look at more or less, underlines are indeed absent. Even the Nielsen Norman Group website doesn’t use underlines, suggesting that it probably is not much of a usability issue.

So it looks like the days of the underlined hyperlink are over.

As a result, I have tweaked the design of this website to remove underlining on links, and display most of them as bold text.

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