The Explanation of Magic Links and How They Work

What Are Magic Links?
Denys Romanov Denys Romanov 24 november 2022, 10:00 729
For beginners

The average email address is linked to dozens of accounts on different platforms. Assuming the average email owner adheres to good security practices, each account should have strong passwords that are hard to guess.

However, remembering dozens of unique passwords is difficult, and that’s why some platforms offer a form of authentication that doesn’t require passwords — a magic link. To send magic links, the primary thing you need is a suitable email service provider, e.g., UniOne, that’ll enable you to deliver messages to users’ email addresses.

How Do Magic Links Work?

Of course, they are not literal magic. There’s a clear mechanism for how they work. It is a unique link that a platform sends to a user’s registered email address. Clicking that link takes the recipient directly to their account on the platform without needing to input any password.

Here’s the workflow for this type of link:

  1. A user visits a website or application.
  2. The website asks for the user’s email address, which they provide.
  3. The website generates a unique token to form a magic link and sends the link to the user’s email address.
  4. The user clicks on the link, which logs them into their account on the website.

This type of link works similarly to a one-time pin (OTP) for authentication or a "forgot password" email. It provides a way for users to access their accounts on different websites without remembering their passwords for each one. You just need to have access to the email that you used to register on a website, and you’re good to go.

For example, Slack, a well-known workspace collaboration platform, uses magic links to authenticate users. You can provide your registered email address, and Slack will automatically generate a link and send it to that address. Click on that link, and you’ll go directly to your Slack account without having to input your password.

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When Magic Links Are Used

1. To Prevent Password-Based Attacks

Enterprises and individuals are now more susceptible than ever to hacking activities, and one of the main attack vectors hackers use is stealing password credentials. You can implement magic links so that every login will have to be authorized from the email address of the account owner. This way, a hacker won’t be able to log into an account.

2. Infrequent Logins

If you have a website or application that demands the user to log in just every so often, you can use magic links instead of passwords. It cuts down the friction required for an account owner to log into your app. This use case is best suited for mobile apps, where users tend to remain logged in for long periods.

3. Device Authentication

Many apps require users to confirm when they log in using a device they haven’t used before. This feature is to ensure that it isn’t a malicious actor accessing the user’s account via a different device. You can use magic links to smoothen the device authentication process. Just send a link to the user’s email address for them to click and confirm their login.

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Optimizing Your Magic Link Emails

1. Use a Relevant Subject Line

The subject line is the first thing the email recipient sees in their inbox, so make it clear what the email is for. Use a relevant subject line like “Confirm your login”, “Let’s make sure it’s you”, “Confirm your email address”, etc. This way, the recipient will easily identify the email and follow the provided link.

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2. Highlight Your Identity

Use your brand’s unique colors and logos in your magic links and be consistent. One of the main security issues brands currently face is hackers impersonating them to steal information from customers. Using a consistent brand identity enables the recipient to confirm that your email is legit and follow through with the suggested action.

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3. Use Personalization

Personalization implies using users’ data to create more targeted emails. The data could be their name, location, interests, etc., and should be data the user provided with consent. You can insert the name of the account owner into the subject line and body of the email, e.g., “Angela, confirm your login!”. This increases the chances of the recipient interacting with your email and keeps them engaged with your brand in the long run.

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The Security Implications of Magic Links

1. Insecure Emails

Magic links help to prevent password-based attacks for individuals and organizations. However, hackers also attack mailboxes and sometimes they do succeed. For reference, the U.S. FBI received nearly 20,000 complaints of compromised business emails in 2021. If the email credentials of someone in your organization get compromised, hackers might break into your network using the links.

2. Lack of Clear Security Standards

Magic links are a relatively new concept, so there’s a lack of firm security standards for enterprises to follow when implementing them. The most common security feature is to set the expiration time for the links, but this isn’t enough. Inconsistent practices across different websites and applications create cybersecurity and compliance risks.

3. Spam

Email providers are stringent when it comes to filtering incoming emails for spam. Hence, legit magic links may end up in the spam folder of the recipient’s mailbox. If they don’t check their spam folder, they’ll keep requesting additional links, creating a security issue if the email has been compromised. To avert this, always remind the user to check their spam folder.

Conclusion

Magic links are an innovative way to improve the user experience on your website or application. It streamlines the login process for people who have accounts on your websites, and users tend to appreciate the option.

It’s hard enough to remember unique passwords for multiple websites, so why not make it easier for your users? There are many user authentication software tools that make it easy to implement magic links, e.g., Okta and Auth0. You will also need a reputable email service provider, like UniOne, to send the links to your users’ email addresses.

However, it’s not always advisable to implement magic links due to security risks. For instance, if you handle sensitive data such as health and financial records, you should stick to password authentication. If you handle consumer and entertainment apps, then magic links are ok.

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