How Google's Redesigned Search Results Augur A More Beautiful Web

Google’s revamped search results page ditches underlined links. It’s a small tweak that means a lot to the web.

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.

Read more here.

Image: Google's redesign via Search Engine Land

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  • I personally have no problem with the new design, but since so many people don't like it I created a simple guide on how to revert to the old design.. (also brings back the underlined links to Google search). Hope this helps ;)

  • Josko Krneki

    Thank you for sharing your view but I personally think that this was a terrible idea from Google. I don't know how anyone can even imagine that underlined hyperlinks could have hurt reading comprehension in any way. Ask any power user who is known to skip through search results fast, or a dyslectic or a color blind person. We all love and need underlined links.

    Also, the study that you link to and that supposedly scientifically proves otherwise, is actually based on a research done in 1979 -- way before internet came into being.

    This article by Nielsen, one of the most known and quoted web usability gurus explains why links should be underlined:

  • the font size is HORRID!!! what are we, visually impaired?!? it's too damn big! I use google so much for the research part of my work that i've set my default Zoom in chrome to 90%, rather deal with every site being a bit smaller so that google's result page isn't so hard to read!

  • "what are we, visually impaired?!?"

    Yes, some people are, especially if you think of wearing glasses as visually impaired. Consider that the baby boomers, the largest population segment, range from almost 70 years old down to 50 years old. Do your eyes become weaker as you age? Definitely. Do baby boomers have disposable income? You bet. Do you want to alienate a huge cash flow because it's hard to read your font? Probably not.