Googleâs search experimentÂ â where text links in search results appear black and not the traditional blue â is freaking people out, and with good reason. The blue link (underlined or not) has been around for so long that it’s become borderline dogma for web design.
For as long as there has been a public Internet, links or, more accurately, hyperlinks have been blue and often underlined. In 1993 (or ’94), at the dawn of the modern World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who is often regarded as the father of the Internet, chose blue underlined text because, it is believed, it stood out from all the black text surrounding it.
The earliest web browsers, including Mosaic, used blue link text. Berners-Lee, though, did not invent hyperlink text. That concept goes back another 30 years to roughly 1965 and Ted Nelson, who came up with the term âhypertextâ and, while a professor at Vassar College, used it in the title of a paper, The Hypertext Proceedings of the World Documentation Federation, 1965.
Nelson is a brilliant technologist (though not a programmer), prolific speaker, writer and famously spearheaded the ill-fated Project Xanadu, which actually predates the term âHypertext,â a universal hypertext library that was intended to be a better Internet organizing principle than the World Wide Web.
You’re asking the wrong question
Now in his late 70s and working with The Internet Archive, Nelson also still posts regularly on Twitter, which is how I tracked him down. I wondered if Nelson had any thoughts on Google’s experiments with black links and sent him an exploratory email that read, in part:
You’re often recognized as the father of hyperlink text, so I was wondering if I could chat with you today about the origin of hyperlink text and, more specifically, the default style (blue, often underlined).
To my surprise, Nelson answered quickly, but was not inspired by my query. He wrote.
No time to chat. Today’s web has so little to do with my concepts that there is no possible answer to the question.
Undeterred, I tried a different angle.
That’s fair, but in your original hyperlink concepts, were the links always blue and, if so, does that have more to do with early computer programming than a stylistic choice?
This turned out to be a poorly considered question and, in hindsight, his response makes perfect sense.
Links were visible straps between pages.
Color screens were not on the horizon.
Your thoughts area (sic) really trapped in today.
Sorry, but cannot reply again.
He was right, of course. Iâd sent him an embarrassingly myopic query. For Nelson, hyperlinks were about organizing and connecting associated information. It was before the dawn of the Internetâs predecessor Arpanet (1969)Â and decades before we saw the web as an information superhighway. Whatâs more, a computer screen in 1965 was monochromatic â usually black and white or black and green. At best, you could represent hypertext by underlining the text. Colors were impossible.
By 1994, though, Berners-Lee was blessed with color screens. Most of his early screenshots include blue links and an image of the Mosaic Browser, the National Center for Supercomputing Applicationâs cross-platform web browser used blue links and, when you opened it, actually explained what you were supposed to do with the blue, underlined text:
Each highlighted phrase (underlined or color) is a hyperlink to another document or information resource somewhere on the Internet. Single click on any hyperlinked phrase to follow the link.
As for Berners-Lee, whom I tried to contact for this article, he really doesnât know where the blue came from. In a lengthy FAQ that Berners-Lee on The World Wide Web Consortium, he explained:
There is no reason why one should use color, or blue, to signify links: it is just a default. I think the first WWW client (WorldWideWeb I wrote for the NeXT) used just underline to represent link, as it was a spare emphasis form which isn’t used much in real documents. Blue came in as browsers went color â I don’t remember which was the first to use blue…
My guess is that blue is the darkest color and so threatens the legibility least. I used green whenever I could in the early WWW design, for nature and because it is supposed to be relaxing. Robert Cailliau made the WWW icon in many colors but chose green as he had always seen W in his head as green.
Even though Berners-Lee clearly preferred green, the folklore that he chose blue because it’s the darkest color (aside from black) persists.
What is certain though, is that blue links have been the default link style on the web for more than 20 years. Beyond aesthetics, itâs shorthand for âclick here.â Links inside paragraphs of gray text serve as online escape portals to more valuable or interesting text and graphics. Hiding them behind similarly colored text, as Googleâs search experiment appears to do, may be a bridge too far for many. However, considering Googleâs vast influence on our collective Internet experience, it could start a link revolution that weâll be powerless to stop.
A Google spokesperson more or less confirmed the existence of these tests with this official comment,Â “We’re always running many small-scale experiments with the design of the results page. We’re not quite sure that black is the new blue.”
As for the fathers of hypertext and the Internet, they appear to be staying mum on the matter.
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