I went to the desktop to look up something on Google last night (notice how I worded that in a way that no one does to respect a certain web giant’s trademark), and was surprised to not see something: lines beneath the links.

Link underlines have been gradually going extinct on the web for a while now. Google was a big holdout, a strong indicator that those lines were still found to be, by a company that doesn’t muck about with such things, too valuable a cue to throw away. (Though even it had put a toe in the lineless water, removing lines on all but the main entry links, and, for some reason, “Previous” and “Next” in the pagination.)

Apparently, no longer.

My initial thought was: Jakob Nielsen will not be happy about this. The clarity of links has always been paramount in his usability tips, which were still insisting that links be blue long after designers started applying other colors. Google’s murder of the underline cannot go over well in that camp.

More surprises. I guess I hadn’t checked there in a short while, because (a) the traditional URL, useit.com, is now rerouted to a sub-page of the Nielsen Norman Group site, which (b) has been redesigned and looks of this decade, and (c) has links that aren’t underlined.

Turns out the evidence that Nielsen has given up on underlines is not just visual, and not really new. An Alertbox from back in 2004 (though the article itself, like every Alertbox I looked at, now bears the date Oct. 31, 2012 — which is, um, less than usable) pushes underlining hard in the summary, but backpedals in the text, stating that underlining links is “not always absolutely necessary” and “essential” only in a few cases of color choice and accessibility focus.

The Culprit: Clutter

So. Underlined links are dead. Long live non-underlined links.

Question: Why? Why did we all collectively dispense with such a useful tool?

The closest thing to a reason I can find is a belief that underlining clutters the text, damaging readability. Even Usability.gov refers to this off-handedly, while retaining the still-strong case for underlining:

Simply put, there’s no guessing when links are presented consistently. Links are easy to find because users understand that underlined text means that it’s a link. The underlining draws their attention. When you remove the burdens for users, you prevent delays and speed access to desired content.

The contention that underlined links create “visual clutter” is less strongly supported. The best the site can do is testify that that distinctly colored links sans underline tested satisfactorily.

Show Me the Evidence

Trying to research this, I found lots of statements that removing underlines removes clutter. I found no recent actual research or evidence. (I did find older tests, which confirmed the value of underlining; but to be fair, a more recent test would account for whether the mass of users have grown accustomed to non-underlined links.) The government of Queensland, Australia, states that too much underlining can cause problems for people with reading disabilities. One could guess there’s research behind that?

Whatever the reasons, the stripping of underlines from links by web designers passed a tipping point long ago. Some stauncher than I will continue to insist it is absolutely a best practice, but far more people would agree that underlining links makes a site look “old,” and thus suspect.

I have no evidence for that. It’s just a hunch. Which is all that the supposed tie between underlines and clutter may be. But here we are.

Almost, anyway. When I went back to Google today, the lines were back. But that’s just a fluke of public testing; it doesn’t mean Google suddenly decided to put the brakes on the trend. I got the peek behind the curtain. That we’ve fully arrived at a destination of links without lines is clear, even if why isn’t.