by anthony on 01/31/12 at 12:52 pm
When most designers design websites, they don’t pay much attention to links. As long as the link works and takes users to the right page, everything is fine. However, a great user experience goes further than that. There are certain links that should open in new browser tabs, and ones that should open in the same browser tab. It’s important for designers to know the difference.
Browser Tabs Have Changed Everything
Back then, many people frowned upon opening links in new windows. New windows were hard for users to manage. But the introduction of browser tabs have changed this. Instead of opening up new windows, you can now open links in new tabs. The big difference here is that browser tabs are easier for users to manage than browser windows.
When a new window opens, it covers the user’s earlier window. The user is left confused and wondering how to get back. But when a new tab opens, the user can still see their earlier tab at the top. Switching back to it is swift and easy. In fact, many users have multiple tabs opened at once when they’re browsing. The tabs metaphor is easy for users to understand. The way it’s done on browsers today makes flipping from tab to tab easy and seamless. Now that the browser has changed, the way designers target their links should change too.
Internal vs. External Links
Links that take users to another page on the same website are internal links. Internal links should never open in new browser tabs, but rather the same tab the user is on. Opening new tabs of the same website is redundant and confusing for users. If it’s the same website but a different page, the site’s navigation menu is still visible to users. They can simply use the menu to navigate back or elsewhere if they need. Keeping users in the same tab also helps them better understand the navigation flow of your site. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to open new tabs if the links take users to the same website.
External links, however, should open in new tabs. These links take users to a different website. Many designers make the mistake of opening external links in the same tab. There are many problems with this that designers need to know about.
When you open external links in the same tab, you create back-button fatigue for users. Every time the user goes to an external website they have to hit the back button to go back to your website. If they decide to click the links on the other website, they have to hit the back button even more times to get back to your site. This is a lot of unnecessary work for users.
Opening an external link in a new tab allows users to explore the other site as much as they want without having to hit the back button again and again to go back to your site. All they need to do is click the tab your site is on. There’s no excessive back-button pressing or long wait times.
Slowing Down User Flow
External links that open in the same tab can also slow down user flow. Many users who browse search engines or link sharing sites are looking for information. They’ll often click multiple links on a page to get information from different sources. Opening the external links in new tabs allows users to scan the page once, click on all the relevant links and start consuming and sifting information. The user doesn’t have to keep going back to the source page to continue scanning for more links to click. There’s less interruption in their flow.
When users do want to go back to the source page, it’s easy to do because the tab will stay open until the user manually closes it. The user doesn’t have to click the back button multiple times and wait for the source page to reload. They can easily get to it just by clicking the tab.
Overworking the Website
Opening external links in the same tab doesn’t just overwork the user, it also overworks your website. Every time the user goes back to your website it uses your site resources to load the page. You can save a lot of resources by opening external links in new tabs. If the user wants to go back to your website, they won’t need to load the page again. They can just click your site tab. This is fast and easy and doesn’t use any bandwidth. They don’t need to hit the back key or open a context menu to go back.
Many times users will click an external link in the paragraph of an article to better understand the article’s context. This doesn’t mean they want to leave your site without having finished reading the article. However, your site analytics will show a different story. If your external links open in the same tab, it’ll show that users are exiting your site quicker than they actually are. This is because the external link takes users completely off your site when the link opens in the same tab. However, an external link that opens in a new tab will still keep your site tab opened as the user visits the external site. Their time on your site ends when they manually exit out of your site tab, not when they visit an external link.
A user clicking an external link does not mean that they want to leave your site. You should not treat external link clicks as site exits. The only clear exit from your site is when the user hits the close button on the tab.
External Links Affect Your Site and Users
Links that take users to different websites should open in new tabs. Links that take users to a different page on the same website should open in the same tab. If you’re opening external links in the same tab as your site, this affects both you and your users. You not only experience inaccurate analytics and make your website work harder, but you also make your users work harder and slower. In a world today where links dominate the web, making your links open the right way is almost as important linking to the right page.