Secret agent techniques to hide links

Link visibility is critical for task success. Users need to find the links that match their task, quickly and with certainty. Until users reach their destination, the only thing they can do (besides search) is to click on a link. So they scan the page they’re on for links. Links that support users’ top tasks must be immediately obvious.

In our expert evaluations and usability testing of websites, we are sometimes astonished at how difficult it can be to find the top task links. Some sites almost seem perverse in the lengths they go, to hide links from users. It’s as if the links were secret agents, and the web managers didn’t want them to be ‘caught’!

So, rather than repeating design recommendations on making links visible to users, we figured we’d put our tongues firmly in our cheeks, grab our cloaks and daggers, and highlight some of the best ‘secret agent’ techniques we’ve seen for hiding your top task links from prying eyes!


  1. Apply camouflage
    • Find ways to make the links blend in. For example, set your CSS to use a colour for links that is similar to ordinary text.
    • And don’t forget to do the same for ‘visited’ links, and even on mouseOver!
  2. Hide in the woods
    • Bury your links in paragraphs of text, so they’re hard to scan for.
    • Make sure the paragraphs are long and undifferentiated; that they look totally uninteresting, and keep links far away from where the action is.
    • Make the links wrap onto lines so they’re harder to read.
    • This works especially well if you also apply camouflage.
  3. Hide in places no-one ever goes
    • Place important links on the right hand sides of pages; in footers; and in locations that are ‘below the fold’ for most users.
    • It helps if you use some of the other techniques here to discourage them from going to those places – e.g. ‘Deflector Shield’.
  4. Hide links in plain view
    • The best place to hide an important piece of evidence is in a cluttered room. This turns the users’ task into a frustrating ‘Where’s Wally?’ exercise.
    • Include so many other less important links that the spy link can slip away unnoticed.
    • If you’re a skilled operative, you may be able to hide 6 or more of your most important links on the same page without detection!
  5. Advert-ize them
    • This one is counter-intuitive, but is derived from the best ‘do the unexpected’ stratagems of spies. The evil foreign powers expect you to try to hide, so do the opposite: dress extravagantly, spend money exorbitantly, drive flashy cars. They’ll never believe you’re a spy.
    • So what’s the web page equivalent? Make your links look like something that is trying desperately to grab attention – like an advertisement, say, or a banner. Use bigger fonts. MAKE IT ALL CAPS! WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!
    • This is also equivalent to disguising your top spy as a drunk in the street. You might think that he/she would stick out like a sore thumb, but in fact people will avert their gaze and quickly cross over to the other side of the web page to avoid them.
  6. Put them in a Witness Protection Program
    • Have your links adopt a false identity: use organizational jargon for your links, use cute names, or the title of your latest marketing program.
    • Place verbs at the end of links, not at the beginning. In fact, don’t use verbs at all – verbs are a dead give-away to a good counter-spy!
    • Sometimes, spies and informers have to fake their own death. Create an illusion that your links are dead: put them under “Past news” or grey them out so they look inactive; disguise them as ordinary text (see ‘camouflage’).
  7. Deploy a Deflector Shield
    • There are certain headers and page content that users have come to learn means ‘don’t bother looking here’.
    • ‘Welcome’ is one of those. ‘Welcome’ actually means ‘There’s no need to read or even scan any of the text immediately below this heading, because there’s nothing of interest here’.
    • Other powerful deflector shields include: ‘Important Notice’, ‘Read this first’, ‘All about the Minister’s Good Deeds…’, ‘Mission Statement’ – you get the picture.
    • To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You don’t need to see his identification … These aren’t the links you’re looking for … He can go about his business … Move along.”
  8. Send in the clones
    • This one is a little risky, because users might click the right link by mistake. Only to be used in desperate situations.
    • Have at least 3 links scattered around the page, all identical, going to different pages. Only one of them is the real McCoy.
    • The more clones you use, the greater the chance your link has of evading detection.
  9. Create a diversion
    • One key technique for hiding links is not to touch the link, but to manage attention, the way magicians do, away from the important information.
    • Include other items that look clickable so the link is more difficult to find. They might need to be close to the real link, but just far enough away for the connection not to be made.
    • Put things on the page that distract the users’ attention, like blinking or motion-graphics.
    • Add the ‘Send in the clones’ technique to add confusion to the distraction. A ‘Deflector Shield’ doubles the power!
  10. Turn links into ‘Sleepers’
    • Sometimes an agent just has to go underground for a while, until things cool down. What you have to do is to dull down your links, send them to sleep.
    • You know your best links are verbs. They star in action movies, after all! Users arrive on web pages trying to do things, so they’ll be hunting down your best verbs – the ones that match their task.
    • So turn your verbs into nouns. Make them look like information, not actions; make them look like nerds, not action movie stars. Nouns send people to sleep. They’re static, they don’t match users’ carewords, they’re not action-oriented.
    • Users (like paparazzi or counter-espionage agents) will stop hunting your links if they’re dull and live uneventful lives. Bo-ring!
  11. Apply a ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ (SEP) field
    • Users who arrive on your website are task-focused. Very task-focused. Anything that looks remotely unlike what they’re looking for will be overlooked.
    • “[an SEP] relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.” See’s_Problem#In_fiction for more on this one.
    • This is not as difficult as it sounds. Just employ some of the techniques outlined above, or find new ways to just tweak the link out of expectation or desire. Just a slight mis-match with what users want to do can cause them to completely overlook a link.
    • A great thing about SEP fields – according to Life, The Universe and Everything – is that they “can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery”


Of course, the more of these techniques you apply, the more successful you’ll be.
Happy hiding!

Our Customer Carewords techniques identify your users’ top tasks, in the users’ own words, that you need to use, to make your links visible to users and improve their top task success. Give us a call (613) 271-3001 or email us.

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“It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.”

Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think




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