Should you or should you not have links open in a new window/tab?

Screen capture of backbutton dropdown window
Firefox's back button will let you go back
several steps. View enlarged image.

Last week's entry on outbound links spawned a lot of discussion, including the question of whether one should have outbound links open in a new window (or tab depending on the user's browser and preferences). Although many others have already written about this topic, it comes up often enough that I think it is worth discussing. Disclaimer: links that open in a new window or tab—when that wasn't my choice—are a pet peeve of mine, but I will attempt to explore the topic objectively.

What is the intended purpose of having links open in a new window or tab?

Those who recommend having links open in a new window do so with the intention of making it easier for users to return to the original site. Anyone who surfs the Internet knows that it is easy to get lost down a rabbit hole of links. For example, if I provide you with a link to Chuck Palahniuk's Web site, you might:

By now, the theory goes, you will have either forgotten where you were before or forgotten how to get back. If I'd set the Chuck Palahniuk link to open in a new window/tab (this is the only link on the page that opens a new window), you could just go back to your original window/tab and you'd be back where you started. Of course if the link opens in the same window, and you are using a current browser such as Firefox, you can simply click the down arrow next to your back button to navigate back through the series of links you just followed.

So which is better? Is it easier for a user to go back to a different window or to just use the back button?

I've always found it easier to use the back button. With one click I can go back and read another interview or I can choose to go all the way back to the original blog. To me that seems far easier than wading through a sea of windows, or looking at an array of tabs to find the one you want. But everyone is different. In researching this article I discovered a Get Satisfaction page in which a user actually requested that links on Pownce open in a new window. Two of the responders agreed that they would prefer new windows, while two others (including Pownce/Digg designer Daniel Burka) disagreed. I saw these differing opinions in many places.

Where does that leave us? Preferences vary, so unless you survey the users of your particular site it may be difficult to determine if your audience likes or dislikes it when a link opens in a new window. Pownce was able to solve the problem by giving users a setting that lets them pick which behavior is the default while they're on Pownce. But that's not an option for most sites and blogs. With that in mind, I think it is most appropriate to leave it in control of the user. If a user wants to open a link in a new window he can do so by right-clicking (Windows) or ctrl-clicking (Mac) the link in question. I often open links in a new tab if I know that I'll want to flip back and forth between them. I just don't want them opening up new tabs spontaneously.

Standards and accessibility issues related to opening links in new windows

If you're in the pro new window camp, I've probably not yet changed your mind. But there are more issues to consider.

W3C HTML and XHTML Recommendations
The traditional way to have a link open in a new window is to include target="_blank" in the link. The target attribute is not included in the recommendations for HTML and XHTML strict, therefore sites using target with a strict doctype won't validate. From what I've gathered target is not included because not all browsers support the attribute, particularly when it comes to browsers running on mobile devices. (This may change in XHTML 2.0 as the attribute may serve new needs as mobile browsers evolve. A valid alternative is to use javascript.
W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG)
According to the WCAG Success Criterion 3.2.5, "Individuals who are unable to detect changes of context or may not realize that the context has changed are likely to become disoriented while navigating a site. For example: individuals who are blind or have low vision may have difficulty knowing when a visual context change has occurred, such as a new window popping up. In this case, warning users of context changes in advance minimizes confusion when the user discovers that the back button no longer behaves as expected." To avoid this confusion they recommend that users should be notified if a link will open in a new window and if possible be given the choice to not have it open in a new window.
Kant's Categorical Imperative: What if everyone did it?

While writing this I kept having a vision of wandering the Internet in a world where every external link opened a new window or tab. In this vision it was only a matter of minutes before there were so many tabs open in my browser that I had to use the left and right arrows to scroll through them. Worse yet, instead of tabs windows began spawning as quickly as Tribbles and suddenly my desktop was impossible to navigate. This made me think of Kant. In his first formulation of the Categorical Imperative he states that one should "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." While this idea was meant to deal with issues of morality, it's easy to see how it could be applied to lesser situations such as links opening in new windows. If links always opened in a new windows it would pose significant usability challenges.

Naturally most sites don't open everything in a new window or tab. If they did we'd all be swimming in windows. Instead, most site designers choose to open new windows only in particular circumstances. Some designers do this only for external sites while others reserve the technique for opening up .pdf files. While I'd still prefer that links open in the same window, giving me the choice of whether or not to open them in a new tab, I understand that many may disagree. Most people have committed one way or another with few remaining undecided. But, whatever your preference may be, I hope this discussion will help the next time you're debating where a particular link should open.

Learn more about opening links in pop-up windows or tabs
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16 Comments »
  1. I agree that most sites should not open external links in a new tab/window. The default behaviour actually gives me the option to use the middle mouse button to open a new window, but only if I want to. Conversely, there are a few web applications that should open all external links in a new window. Webmail, RSS readers, WYSIWYG editors should override the standard behaviour in case I forget to middle click and lose my work by leaving the page.

    Comment by leedsweb — October 28, 2008 @5:49 am

  2. I only open new windows for links to external resources. I want visitors to be able to use the resource, but still not leave my site.

    Comment by Rich — October 28, 2008 @9:37 am

  3. I like to use new windows when the user is presented with a list of sites to visit and perform an action on those sites. For example our Financial Aid page links out to FAFSA, Stafford Loans, Master Promissory Note, etc. and we ask students to fill out forms on each of those external sites. I think using external links here is ideal because there will be form issues if someone were to try and use the back button to get back to our site. I also use a new window when linking to our accrediting body's site. IMO their site has extremely poor usability (for student visitors) so why should I lose a potential student to a site like that where they're likely to get lost?

    Comment by Brad — October 28, 2008 @12:31 pm

  4. I follow the same thinking as Rich. I do it because when I am reading an article I have a bad habit of following the link to glance at the resource and that resource may take me another place... I sometimes forget where I started (lol) and have to search to get back to finish the original article I was reading. OK, I am drain bamaged :)

    Comment by TomG — October 28, 2008 @10:40 pm

  5. Tom, I go down the rabbit hole all the time. I'll go look for a recipe for apple kuchen and 30 minutes later find myself reading about Leni Riefenstahl or some such. The back button works well for me. If instead a new tab opens up, I then have to move to the new tab, the back button doesn't work there, I end up with a slew of tabs and have to keep deleting them and going back to the original. I guess we all have different surfing habits, but I like having the choice of whether or not to open a new tab.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — October 28, 2008 @10:58 pm

  6. I agree with Rich and Brad. Links that open external resources should open in a new tab or new browser window. On my web page I have tried to identify these links with a trailing [...] as most operating systems have standardized on this protocol for identifying menu options that will open a dialog box. I open external links in a new browser window as a way of distinguishing my material from this other source. I also think that this method ensures that my site remains stylistically intact while also providing the same level of stylistic integrity to the other page my visitor is jumping to. I also agree that this practice is imperative when a visitor navigates a link which opens a form (shopping sites for example) because it is possible to get caught in a form submission loop where one cannot merely back out of a form because the form data must be sent to the server. In these instances a user must double or triple click the back button to quickly exit the form before the validation routine launches. It is much simpler in this case to be able to merely close the browser window. I think the target="_blank" is a great feature of HTML. It allows a web designer to be conscious of when a new browser window may be more convenient without having to resort to JAVA. I like the use of the small JAVA popup windows for help and policy information but I think having a way inside of the tag to specify that a new browser window is best for this link is valuable for HTML. As with anything overuse can be bothersome. Yet not having the option is also bothersome.

    Comment by John Storhm — October 29, 2008 @2:41 am

  7. Starting from the bottom & working up:

    @John Storhm:
    You end with "Yet not having the option is also bothersome"--and yet the position you advocate is precisely the opposite, to take choice *away* from the user (me), and force what you *think* is the correct behavior (which in Heidi's case, it is not). I'm thinking there's more than a little bit of conflict here between the designer PoV and user PoV.

    @Heidi: I generally agree with you about the down-the-rabbit-hole thing (and unwinding through the 'back' arrow stack), but I personally find that most often, I'm firing off multiple outbound links from a single page into separate tabs. Again, the only way we can both be happy is if we have the choice, I.e. the web designer has _not_ forced the separate-window/tab on one of us.

    I agree with "leedsweb" that some web applications should open all external links in a new window/tab--they key here being "applications", not "pages"--things like Gmail, or non-trivial forms that have state that may be difficult or time-consuming to restore when navigating away & back.

    Comment by Jim Nauer — October 30, 2008 @8:15 pm

  8. Jim, I use tabs a lot as well, I just like it when the choice is mine. You've stated the main issue quite clearly, "the only way we can both be happy is if we have the choice, I.e. the web designer has _not_ forced the separate-window/tab on one of us." That's a point that doesn't seem to be getting through, if we have two options, which we do, and we know some users prefer option A while others prefer option B, then the most practical solution is to use the option that offers users the most flexibility. In this case that would be having the links open in the current window so that users can decide whether to simply click or to open in a new tab or window themselves.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — October 31, 2008 @1:53 pm

  9. My two cents to the topic of opening links in new windows: I have noticed that eldery people who are fairly new to the computers find it easier when links are opened in new window. As, it is clear that if you close one window, there are still some remaining. However, if you audience is younger people (geeky techies), then opening a link in a new window is big no-no situation. People who are confident with computer find it annoying to be out of control (if they want to open a link in a new window, they know how to do that without your help, and if they don't want - then you are forcing them - which is not good). Adam, Sweet Things to Say

    Comment by Sweet Things to Say — November 4, 2008 @5:57 am

  10. I don't like it when a link automatically opens in a new window or tab, especially when it makes your browser automatically close on you. If I really wanted to open a link in a new tab or window I'd just right click and click on either "Open Link in New Window" or "Open Link in New Tab".

    Comment by Web Designer — November 4, 2008 @1:24 pm

  11. I have tried both methods and the results in sales were nearly identical with both linking methods. I personally prefer to have external links open in a new window/tab but always keep internal links on the same page.

    Comment by email templates — November 5, 2008 @3:14 pm

  12. I believe that most pages should open in the same window, so then you have the choice - If at any point you do want a new window or tab when opening a link, you'll learn to hold control while clicking, or middle click, that's if it really bothers you to keep losing that page/blog/app you wanted to return to later. If links are set to open in a new window, the reader will not have the choice of keeping things tidy unless they are web-savvy enough to work out how to open a target="_blank" link in thesame tab/window. That's what I reckon anyways. M

    Comment by Company Formation — November 10, 2008 @9:07 am

  13. I think that webmasters and users have different views of how links should work. Also, i think the sophistication of the user determines their response to links opening in a new window.

    Comment by SEO Expert — November 13, 2008 @1:26 am

  14. I used to open all off site links in separate windows because I wanted to keep people on my site. After a discussion with a friend, several things occurred to me: the most commonly used button in a web browser is the back button. Opening a new window essentially breaks it's functionality. A new window can confuse some users too (really). If my content is good, that will keep people on my site more than anything else. The final and main reason I stopped opening off site links in new windows: it is not XHTML compliant. If you open links in a new window, your code is no longer standards compliant.

    Comment by Funny sms — November 13, 2008 @3:36 am

  15. From the SEO standpoint I believe having a page open in a new window or tab won't make any difference whether the person stays or leaves. The bounce rate metric is calculated by the number of page views within the 29 second time frame. If there is only one page viewed within that time then it's recorded as a bounce. The visitor who is really interested in exploring your site won't mind clicking the back button. Better yet to help your visitors navigate through your site, use breadcrumbs and clear page titles.

    Comment by SEO Training — January 6, 2009 @1:19 am

  16. I have had a very strong opinion about this topic for several years, that is, until I read this post and some of the above comments. I have always kept all internal site links to open in the same page/tab and have external site links open in a new page/tab. However, I am very intrigued by what Funny sms has to say on the topic; bringing up the point of the back button. I guess this really comes down to the technical competency of your visitors.

    Comment by Buy Backlinks — January 9, 2009 @4:05 pm

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