When designers don’t use a consistent method to distinguish links from other content, the site becomes very hard to use. For some reason I’ve been seeing a lot of this recently, with the worst offender not only using black links with black text (a definite no-no) but a style sheet mouse over that doesn’t work in Opera. The mouse pointer doesn’t change into the little hand. That means that even when I put my mouse over the link, there is absolutely no indication that it’s a link. I have to make a leap of faith, hoping that there is a link.
Finding links on a page should not be hard. Inexperienced users of the web should be able to recognize links with very little effort and yet for some reason, links can be harder to find than an easter egg. Relying on the location of a link to identify it as such is usually a bad idea since there is no standard location for navigation on a web site. When a new visitor arrives to your site, they don’t know whether you have links on the top, side or bottom so consistency of colors is the easiest way to find links.
You should never use the same color for a link as you do for normal content within the same background color. You’re almost guaranteed to cause confusion by doing it. I’ve been enjoying the usability discussion over at dive into mark but when I tried to find where his permanent link was I scrolled up and down the page with no success. On a whim, I tried putting the mouse over the title of the entry and lo and behold it was a link. I put my mouse over a heading within the content that had the exact same size and color but it wasn’t a link. There is no way to tell it was a link without putting your mouse over the text.
In summary, make it easy for users to find links and they’ll thank you for it. If not, you’ll be getting an email from me (similar to the one I sent Mark) suggesting you reconsider your link color choice.
Update: Mark just responded to my email and has taken my suggestion. He’s added both an underline to the date as well as a single character image with descriptive alt text. It’s much easier to find the permanent links now and I’m encouraged by his willingness to accept suggestions. Kudos.