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I saw some sites having a <<back link on each page below the site top level that basically just invokes a JScript function that gets the browser history and navigates one page back. So it functions exactly as a browser "Back" button would.

To me it makes no sense - it just duplicates an already existing thing. I tried to talk to several web designers - they all claim that it improves navigation so that the user doesn't get lost. I always used the browser "Back" button and it just worked.

Is such link really helpful? How is it better than just a browser "Back" button?

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I personally hate back buttons / links on pages. –  PeeHaa Dec 2 '11 at 14:40
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I think this is more of a User Experience question. See these previous questions: Use previous page/back links or not? / Do users understand the browser back button? / Should we provide “back” button for mobile website? –  joshuahedlund Dec 2 '11 at 15:16
    
Feels more UX than webmasters to me as well, unless your question is really only about SEO. –  Ben Brocka Dec 2 '11 at 20:37

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Is such link really helpful?

As ChrisF noted, this is entirely dependent upon whether or not your site's audience benefits from the feature.

How is it better than just a browser "Back" button?

Most implementations look like this:

<a href="#" onClick="javascript:history.go(-1);">back</a>

The practice of hard-coding a Javascript "back" link into an HTML document is counterproductive in at least two cases:

  1. A user has Javascript disabled
  2. A user who just arrived at your site clicks the link and is taken off-site (which may result in the user leaving for good)

For these reasons, it is not a good practice to hard-code links which depend upon Javascript functions - instead, (if you decide to implement) you might check with Javascript to ensure that document.referrer is either null or contains your domain name before drawing the link with Javascript so users with Javascript disabled and users who just arrived are not presented with the link.

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An alternative method of doing this is to use breadcrumbs. Not only do they give your users an easy way to go back, but they show the hierarchy of the content which makes it easier for the user to find what they're looking for. Plus they're good for SEO as they:

enter image description here

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I prefer this method also. Browsers already have back links so there's no need to be redundant, and breadcrumbs give both users and search engines more useful options. –  joshuahedlund Dec 2 '11 at 15:30
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Back buttons are for people who don't want to mouse to the top of the page. Properly done, breadcrumbs are far more useful than a back button. In category navigation. I can jump back one level to find things related to this level, or two levels to find things related to the general topic. I've been using it for years in site design as it indicates where stuff is and its relationships, information not given by a back button. Primarily good for your customer and secondarily good for SEO. –  Fiasco Labs Dec 3 '11 at 20:26

The question is really "are your users comfortable using the browser's back button?".

If they are then leave the link off your pages.

If not then you need to keep it there.

The only way you are going to find this out is by testing the different pages and see which ones your users prefer.

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I agree it's always better to test. Even if you have data from a different project, different audiences respond differently. –  Joshak Dec 2 '11 at 14:45
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sure, measure this -- see where people go from page to page, if they are frequently going "back" to an earlier page, does it really hurt to have an extra way to get there? –  Jeff Atwood Dec 2 '11 at 20:33
    
@Jeff - I think you're misunderstanding the suggestion. If people are already competent enough to go back with their browser tools, then why would you add a redundant link? It conveys the impression that the site designer is unaware that all browsers have back buttons, and adds an unnecessary element to the page. If you add it (aware of its redundancy, but questioning the ability of your users to find the most obvious button in your browser), and they use the link, then you might have to add it. Otherwise, don't add it. –  Kevin Vermeer Dec 2 '11 at 20:54
    
@KevinVermeer: I could see your argument if most web applications weren't seriously broken WRT the back button. Having a back link allows a legitimate path recognized by the software. Using the back button more often than not results in a "This page has expired. Do you want to resubmit your information?" message. I hardly ever use the browser's back button anymore, unless I enjoy being charged twice for the same item. –  Robert Harvey Dec 2 '11 at 21:01
    
The browser back button is the most-used button in a browser, according to Mozilla I think. –  DisgruntledGoat Dec 3 '11 at 0:57

Such 'back' links are not useful.

As stated in the question, they merely repeat a function already available in the browser. More importantly, however, unlike the browser back button, users may be surprised by its behavior. For example, they might not expect to be sent back to Google when clicking a link on your site if they arrived there via a search. Such links do not add anything useful and can be confusing,

There is also considerable amount of UX research that indicates that most users are comfortable with the browser back button. So it is also redundant. But that is a lesser sin than being potentially confusing.

However, if the concept of going back is important to your navigation, there are numerous other approaches available that will not risk confusion, and do not depend on your user entering via the "front door" (so to speak). 'Breadcrumbs' being the most commonly used tool.

Breadcrumbs enable users to go "back" in terms of the sites hierarchy even if they enter via a deep link. They also provide immediate access to different levels of the site hierarchy without having to step through each layer. Finally, they also inform users of the site structure and thus facilitate discovery.

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When I see a "Back" link on a page, it usually has nothing to do with design or appearance. It is simply because the web site has broken the browser's back button. Typically, the site makes use of JavaScript or submission forms or some other complex behavior that adds state to the stateless HTTP protocol. Popping back to a previous page corrupts this state and leads to problems such as duplicate form submits. Rather than fixing the back button, web developers find it easier to add a "Back" link that gives them control over the transition and prevents the server from getting confused. Some evil developers go as far as trying to disable the browser's back button altogether! In short, there is no reason for a back button... unless you are a lazy web developer.

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