If you’ve searched anything on Google in the last day—and chances are you have—you might have noticed something different. The company's newly designed search results page has ditched the ugly yellow box around AdSense results (the paid advertisements that accompany searches), increased font sizes slightly, and, most notably, removed the prominent underlines that we’ve associated with hyperlinks since the rise of the web. (Underlined hyperlinks are so integral to historic web design, in fact, that web browsers underline links by default, meaning that designers have to add superfluous code to remove them.)
Google is not the first company to ditch the underline. Sure, Bing still uses underlined text in its results page—which is essentially a dupe of Google’s—as do we here at Fast Company. But for much of the rest of the web, to be underlining is to be quoting Seinfeld episodes as last night's must-see TV. For Google to eliminate underlines as well is simply the final nail in the coffin for this old web standard. But that step is necessary in an era when we navigate the web by other means than a mouse.
The underlined link had good intentions at heart. Hyperlinks have existed in some form since the '60s, invented as a way to cross reference electronic documentation. They made their way into the world's first electronic book "HyperTIES" and then to software inside the 1987 Apple Macintosh. Microsoft adopted the technology at the core of Windows 3.0 for its help file, and when the web needed an easy digital wormhole to span disparate pages, the hyperlink was ready and waiting. In these contexts, dealing with a world naive of digital technology, underlines made a lot of sense—they could be a way of signifying, "Hey, you can click me!" at a glance. But they were never a perfect solution.
Scientifically speaking, underlined hyperlinks have been found to hurt reading comprehension (even though enough exposure, research implies we may acclimate to them). Tastefully speaking, they’re atrocious and relatively meaningless en masse, adding visual clutter where properly set typography can almost always do the job of denoting significance better.
So what does it mean that Google’s results are no longer underlined? The company has declined to comment further, which can only lead us to speculate.
For one, it means that Google’s new design initiative driven by Larry Page—in which designers across Google platforms have begun casually collaborating to beautify products—has sunk into Google’s core. Now even Google's crown jewel, its search results, accompanied by that money-printing machine that is AdSense, have developed taste beyond the purview of the stereotypical Google engineer that champions testing above all else.
But taste alone is seldom enough to woo Google. Google would never, ever remove hyperlinks on its main page (and again, AdSense!) if it hadn’t tested the new design, and if the company weren’t completely sure that the design wouldn’t impact Google's ability to generate clicks. It's pretty safe to conclude that underlines are a superfluous marker, at least on Google’s pages, which we’ve all used countless times—especially when link text is still the same old shade of blue, filling the "hey, I'm a link that you can click" role on its own. (Oh, and not to spoil the party, but the pesky underlines still pop up if you mouse over them.) I'd also be curious if, without a box around AdSense results, users are more likely to mistake them as normal Google search results and give advertisers a click.
The bigger takeaway is that the web really is growing more beautiful, as it evolves from a series of indexed hyperlinks to a series of experiences where text and images blend seamlessly (see the NYT redesign), where people will use all manner of appendage other than a mouse to navigate (see the iPad and Google Glass), and where more and more of our content is curated by smart algorithms over smart clicks (see Facebook and Google Now).
The underlined hyperlink is dying largely because the hyperlink as we know it is an idea of fading importance—even to the company that’s built its empire by crawling and indexing them all.
Image: Google's redesign via Search Engine Land