Hacking :visited

June 7, 2015

Listen to this blog post:

It’s been on my to-do list for two weeks now — adding a :visited state to my blog posts. I was inspired after reading this blog post by Joel Califa, and thought “Heck yeah. That’s a great idea. I can use it on my blog to represent links that haven’t been read yet.” But like most things on the Internet, it looked a lot cleaner from a distance.

What is :visited?

:visited is a pseudo-class that is used to style links which have already been accessed in the browser of a user. Basically when you can tell if you have already been to a link or haven’t yet (Joel’s post goes over this really nicely – I’d highly recommend checking it out). example image In the early days of the Internet, stylig visited links was extremely prevalant, and a great way to understand context of place in a digital space. We seem to have lost that practice, and I rarely see it in action these days.


It all started fine and dandy. I applied :visited to the links on the home page and then accessed the child h2 within them to change it’s text color. This was a test. To avoid annoying my audience, what I really wanted was :unvisited, or to display a strikeout, or checkbox, or an “Unread!” badge. I could do any of those with the :after psuedo element. Well upon trying it, everything broke. So I did some research and discovered a few fun facts from reading the fine print:

“For privacy reasons, browsers strictly limit the styles you can apply using an element selected by this pseudo-class: only color, background-color, border-color (and its sub-properties), outline-color, column-rule-color, and the color parts of fill and stroke.”

So you can only change color? Well, being the stubborn girl I am, I knew I could work around this. I first tried to inject style with JavaScript. That was fine – but it didn’t overpower the style logic embedded in browsers. The method getComputedStyle() is disabled for this pseudo class. According to the official Mozilla developer documentation: “the method getComputedStyle will lie.” Nice.

Then, I thought: maybe I can use the color: transparent to essentially hide the pseudo element content and only show the color when I want to apply them! I’m changing only the color, right? But when I did this, all of the pseudo elements (not just the visited ones) disappeared… Wat? … It turns out that the :visited tag will always pull its parent’s alpha channel. So, even trying rgba(0,0,0,0) will make everything disappear.

Why the Limitations?

So what’s up with this strict limitation anyway? Well, the way that :visited works is by walking through the user’s history to figure out what sites the they’ve visited. This means that a lot of information can be accessed about that user, and their identity could be inferred. In 2010, a lot of changes were made to limit access to this type of information. Under certain circumstances, the browser is more likely to lie and mark a link as unvisited.

It’s Not Over Till I Win

It ended up being a pretty simple solution. To get the effect I wanted, I first, gave every element with a blog title (h2 in this case) an :after pseudo-element and styled it to my preferences:

h2 {
  color: blue;

  &:after {
    content: '(unread!)';
    color: hotpink;
    display: inline-block;
    font-size: .6em;
    margin-left: .5em;
    vertical-align: middle;

Then I had to apply the :visited pseudo class to all of the links in the list and target a child element h2:after to effectively “hide” it. I’m “hiding” it here by giving it the same color as the background (white). If you’re not familiar with the power of the Sass ampersand, I’d recommend checking out this post.

a {
  display: block;
  text-decoration: none;

  &:visited h2:after {
    color: white;

Awesome! So we’re almost there. :visited is working. I’ve gotten relatively “hidden” badges. But then there’s this hover… I’m applying a lightgrey background to each list-item when hovering over them, and I need to make sure I don’t give away my pseudo-element secrets when hovering. So I simply just need to compensate:

// set global transition:
%transition-duration {
  transition-duration: .5s;

li {
  // applying uniform transition:
  @extend %transition-duration;

  // this is where I'm apply hover style:
  &:hover {
    background-color: lightgrey;

    // within the hover state, I'm also transitioning the h2:after color to match the background transition
    a:visited h2:after {
      color: lightgrey;

// return to the header to give it an identical transition:
h2 {
  color: blue;

  &:after {
    // applying uniform transition:
    @extend %transition-duration;

What About Accessibility?

You’re right. Since some screen readers do read pseudo elements, we’ll want to avoid hearing “unread” after every blog post title. That would be inaccurate. Also, fun fact: screen readers typically do this work for us. They note if a link has been visited or not right away before reading the link text.

To mitigate this, we can create a blank element as a placeholder next to the title with attribute aria-hidden="true" so that the screen reader doesn’t try to read it. I’m using a span tag next to the h2. The content of the header will still be read normally, but anything inside of span is ignored. A simplified example in broken Liquid:

{ % for post in posts % }
    <a href="{ { post.url | prepend: site.baseurl } }">
      <h2 aria-label="{ { post.title } }">
        { { post.title } }
      <span aria-hidden="true"></span>
{ % endfor % }

This will cause a need to make minor changes things in the CSS now. But a quick way to make that change would simply be to swap out h2 with span. Because we’re introducing a new element here, you don’t have to rely on pseudo-elements, and can even write the content or apply the visuals directly inside of the span tag: <span aria-hidden="true">(Unread!)</span>.

archive list

The downside is that none of the posts will be denoted as “unread,” but since it’s an enhancement anyway, ignoring the tag seems to be a better option than falsely reading it with every single header (which, as pointed out earlier, is redundant anyway).

So check out the archive and you can see what you’ve missed out on!