Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs

by 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.

Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs

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.

Back-Button Fatigue

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.

Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs

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.

Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs

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.

Inaccurate Analytics

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.


Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs

Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

80 Responses to “Why External Links Should Open in New Tabs”

  1. Patrick

    Jan 31st, 2012

    What about the idea of allowing the user to choose wether or not to open a new tab? Since you can easily ctrl-click any link to open a new tab, but can’t easily override a link that is set to open up in a new tab, not setting this for the user allows for more choice for the user.

    • Gemma

      Feb 5th, 2012

      The user can still choose to do this for internal links. Many users won’t even be aware of ctrl-click.

      • Ralph

        Feb 12th, 2012

        I agree. If I point out to clients, friends, family or whatsoever that they can control how to open links with a right mouse click or with the short cut key, most of them say they’re not used to do it like that and that they’re fine with only clicking on a link. It’s already too complicated for them and they won’t remember the short cut key anymore.

  2. Tim S

    Jan 31st, 2012

    If only there was a way to open a window in a new tab for all. However, specifying _blank will simply open it in a new window for many people, since not everyone defaults to “new windows open in new tabs”.

  3. Martin Belam

    Jan 31st, 2012

    I’m incredibly surprised that you can suggest this course of action and not have written anything in your post about accessibility or screen readers? Why not just leave the user in control – after all, it is their experience, and they know best whether they like tabbed browsing or not, or whether it causes them a problem.

    • Jason Bratcher

      Apr 18th, 2013

      Speaking of accessibility and screen readers, I so totally fall in to that categoy.
      I’ve been totally blind since birth and use a screen reader in Windows (in this case, Windows 8) to traverse the interface and other apps, like FireFox which I just so happen to be writing this in; my main squeeze in the browser department (yes I use extensions and user scripts like the rest of you all).
      I try to watch the structure of websites as best I can, but an external link opening in this tab is a huge efficiency decrease for me, especially on pages with hundreds, if not thousands, of links to click, all with related information that has to be read and typed with perfectly dotted I’s and perfectly crossed t’s!
      In my case, when I say click, I’m referring to pressing the Enter key to activate the link, not physically clicking the left mouse button over it.

  4. Aaron

    Jan 31st, 2012

    What about giving the user the ability to decide what they want to do instead of forcing them to open in a new tab? If I’m done with the page I’m on and am clicking an external link, I want it to open in the same tab so that I don’t have to go back and close an extra tab. If I don’t want to leave the site I’m on (or want to come back when I’m done with the external page), I can easily open in a new tab myself (middle click or ctrl click). I hate websites they decide for me what’s best.

  5. Ash

    Feb 1st, 2012

    I’m not convinced of this at all. If a visitor wants to open the link in a new tab, they are perfectly capable of doing it without your help.

    By forcing the issue you’re stuffing with their default browser functionality and breaking the back button which can mess up people like my mother who don’t understand tabs. There’s generally no way to turn off this behaviour either so it can be especially irritating if it’s not what the visitor wants to do

    Any site worth its salt would also utilise client side caching to avoid triggering another request when the visitor goes back. I’d say if hitting “back” on your site is behaving badly, that’s indicative of a technical issue that might need fixing.

    Of course there’s times when opening a new window or tab is desirable, such as loading a supplementary resource like a manual, but doing it for everything is a really bad idea. If it was as good an idea as you suggest, it would have been built into the browser already.

  6. Sven Hofmann

    Feb 1st, 2012

    Very nice article. I really love the fact, that this kind of link-behaviour adjusts the analytics average time that the user is spending on my site. Never really thought about this.

    To solve this problem without big effort, there is a jQuery code snippet that will add a target=”_blank” attribute to every external link starting with http:
    jQuery(“a[href^='http:']“).attr(‘target’,'_blank’);

    If you want to go into detail even more, you can also add exceptions like this:
    jQuery(“a[href^='http:']“).not(“[href*='random.com']“).attr(‘target’,'_blank’);

  7. Michiel

    Feb 1st, 2012

    You made a nice case here, but there’s one thing that’s bothering me:
    Why would you force behavior for your visitors?

    Forcing your users to do one thing, means every other option will be barred. You can’t open the link in the same tab, even if you would want to. Why not leave the choice of where to open the tab in the users’ hands? If I want to open a link and want to continue reading where I am, I’ll cmd+click that link to open it in another tab in the background. There are multiple ways for users to open links in other tabs, don’t force the browser-behavior to change!

  8. dave

    Feb 1st, 2012

    Or leave it to the user to open the external (or any) link in a new tab either with the middle mouse button or ctrl – click the link.
    I have to admit i don’t know how this would work with keyboard-only users or with other input devices ;)

  9. Raitis

    Feb 1st, 2012

    I disagree – it all boils down to user preference and therefore we should allow to decide themselves. Users can open ordinary link either normally or in new tab, but they cannot open _blank link in the same tab if they wanted. User freedom shouldn’t be limited because site owner/designer “knows better” what user wants. It should be obvious if link is external or internal (by context or by design, for example, little pictogram after link).

  10. juan

    Feb 1st, 2012

    Do yo ave a research to back up your claim? Tabs dont confuse grandma when she is browsing a website? What if a browser doesnt support tabs? How about users browsing the web with the help of a screen reader?

    Who exactly gets back button fatigue? In addition, if our main concern is the user experience, then we should not shortchange their experience due to our flawed analytics tools.

    Great user experience decisions are research based.

  11. Charles Meaden

    Feb 1st, 2012

    The challenge is for browers such as IE8 which don’t open a new tab, but rather a new window which harms rather than helps the user experience

  12. Andrew

    Feb 1st, 2012

    Why External Links Should NOT Open in New Tabs

    Savvy Users have Changed Everything

    Users are getting more and more used to how the web works and how to use their browser software. It’s true that if you ask the average person on the street what a browser is, they’re likely to say Google, but that doesn’t mean that when they open up “the internet” they don’t know what they’re doing. Using the web is part of the daily routine for millions of people, and those people are knowing more and more about how to use their browsers. People who know how their browser works know that they have the freedom to open links in another tab.

    What About Old People?

    Some people are not frequent users of the internet; they aren’t browser experts. The tabbed interface means nothing to them, and is only a confusion. They look at a browser, and when they click on something, they go somewhere. When they want to get back to where they have been, they use the Back Button. For this reason, opening a new window commits one of the cardinal sins of Usability: DON’T BREAK THE BACK BUTTON.

    I’ve done UX testing on a good cross section of the population, but my favourite person to test on is my dad. He’s an “I am not good with computer” sort of person. When a site opens a new window, and he wants to get back to where he was, he cannot get back. He experiences extreme frustration, and stops web browsing. There have been several situations where he has been browsing to make a purchase, gotten frustrated, and left the computer to go to a store in person. That website lost a sale. This is a repeatable pattern; non-savvy person gets frustrated, closes entire window, does not finish call to action.

    I’ve also done UX testing with people who have disabilities. The most frequently checked disability is sight loss; new tabs can present almost insurmountable problems to people who have poor sight. They cause confusion, frustration, and break the fundamental back button. The same is true for people who have cognition issues, or low sight, or manual dexterity issues.

    Back Button Fatigue

    This is not a real thing. People understand the back button, and are frustrated when it doesn’t work. Savvy users can open in a new window, or use bookmarks for navigation; if they don’t want to use the back button to navigate, they don’t.

    Saving Website Resources

    This is not an issue for a well crafted website. Your resources should be cached and have proper expires, and will load almost instantly and cost very little overhead after a back press.

    Inaccurate Analytics

    This is actually completely backwards. If a user is not *reading* your site, but has left it to read something else, your analytics should reflect this. They will then return to your site and finish reading. If you use external links, you end up with less useful information about how people are using your site; you over-report the time that people are spending on pages, and do not have an accurate representation of what is happening. Consider these user stories:

    Story 1

    Dave goes to http://www.acmewidgets.com and starts reading a stellar article about Acme’s latest widget. After reading for minutes and getting midway through the article, there is a link to a wikipedia page that explains the science behind this widget. Dave opens this link, and it opens in a new tab automatically. Dave reads this page for 15 minutes, then closes that tab. This returns Dave to Acme’s page, and Dave continues reading for 10 minutes, then closes the Acme Widgets site.

    Analytics show: Dave on site for half an hour. Time Dave spent on site: 15 minutes.

    Story 2: Similar set up. Dave reads the article for 5 minutes, then clicks on a link, which opens in the same tab. He reads that link for 15 minutes, then returns to the site and reads for a further 10 minutes.

    Analytics show: Dave on site for 5 minutes, then left, then returned for 10 minutes. Time Dave spent on site: exactly as analytics reported.

    Overreporting your analytics is a bad idea. It give you false confidence and decisions based on bad data can give you bad results.

    It’s All About Freedom, Baby

    The bottom line is this: as a UX designer and developer, you have to consider several different users, and how they can interact with your site. Going out and talking to people about how they interact with a site is very helpful, but it’s even more helpful to observe how people interact with a site, and what causes frustration and what does not. A User should be free to do whatever they want with a given link; open in a new tab, open in the same tab, whatever they want to do. The basic groups to consider here are:

    Super Savvy users, Super Savvy users who are disabled: they’re already middle clicking on things they want to open later. I’m guessing that Anthony, the author, is in this group, because the flow described here is one for a quite savvy user. This group doesn’t care if you open new windows or not, unless you specify to open a new window *when they want to open the link in the same window*. Then they experience frustration.

    Medium Savvy users: they don’t necessarily know to middle click, but they know how to navigate. When something opens in the same tab, they know to use the back button. If something opens in a new tab, they can switch tabs. They’ll take whatever you throw at them. They may experience frustration if they click on a link, and have to go back, or re-navigate to your site; this is typically a fairly mild, momentary frustration.

    Medium-Savvy users who are disabled: New tabs and New windows are *the single worst thing* on the internet.

    Non-Savvy users, Non-Savvy users who are disabled: new tabs are scary. The back button is broken. Nothing works the way I want it to work. I’m closing this whole internet and going to the store or watching TV. New tabs are causing extreme frustration.

    In Conclusion

    Making the web accessible should be one of your highest priorities as a UX designer. Everyone needs to be able to do everything on the internet. It’s not about being fair (though accessibility does aim to be fair); it’s about getting people to do what you want them to do on your website. The bottom line is that making an accessible website isn’t particularly difficult to do, and it will increase your bottom line, whether that is more traffic, more money, or more users.

    All links should be left alone to be opened however users want to open them. If you are trying to control how your users experience the web, you’re doing a disservice to them and to your website. You’ll erroneously inflate some of your analytics, and you’ll frustrate a significant portion of your user base.

    Other resources:

    Nielsen: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9605.html

    Webcredible: http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-usability/new-browser-windows.shtml

    • roel

      Feb 9th, 2012

      Extremely good answer. I like your “Users are getting more and more used to how the web works and how to use their browser software. ”
      I need to explain that to everybody. We are not 1996 anymore where only Computer Science students are using Netscape.

      Had a good laugh with “opening internet”. Think you and I are having the same dad. Who spends is time reading, buying and downloading things from the internetS.
      :)

    • Corey Machanic

      Feb 12th, 2012

      Spot on, Andrew! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and experiences. I’ve had this debate a number of times over the years, and finally, it has been well articulated—by you. Too bad your comment isn’t the featured article.

    • Cheryl D Wise

      Feb 12th, 2012

      Very well said.

    • CPOThemes

      Feb 21st, 2012

      Agreed, this is an excellent response. Bottom line is, you should not force user to do things your way, but instead give them more options if possible.

      This is especially true here, since you can force a new tab with Ctrl+click or the wheel mouse button, but you cannot force a link to open in the same tab if it’s set to a new window.

  13. Tom

    Feb 1st, 2012

    I don’t agree with this, sorry!

    Observing people recently in user testing, tabs are no different to new windows – I’ve seen a significant minority of users who don’t realise they’re in a new tab, and don’t understand why their back button is broken.

    I don’t think the old rule should change: Let users make their own choice about when and where to open new windows or tabs. I’m an advanced user – I can cmd-click a series of links and then manage tabs. My mum gets confused when she doesn’t have a linear series of pages related to the clicks she has performed. If and when she learns about the concept of tabs, she can start managing them herself. Either way, not forcing deviating behaviour on a user, and giving them control, is the right thing.

    In terms of people leaving our sites, making analytics inaccurate etc – we just have to get used to it. That’s just how people browse. Unless you’re Amazon or Ebay, websites as distinct destinations don’t really exist any more – pages on our sites are just clicks from a google search, or a social media link – visitors will stay or revisit if your site fulfils their needs – trying to trap them there won’t make any difference.

  14. Bill Judge

    Feb 1st, 2012

    I largely disagree with this assessment. You need to consider the following:

    1. Visually impaired users will still struggle with multiple tabs. Many perfectly sighted and able-bodied users will also continue to struggle because the response isn’t necessarily consistent with user expectations. Additionally, while tabs may be easier to manage than multiple windows, they remain at least as challenging as a single window experience.

    2. Users are conditioned to use the browser’s “Back” button. Outside of the address bar, it’s the most used control on a web browser. If they want to return to a site, they’ll simply use the “Back” button. There’s very little interaction cost involved.

    3. You’d violate one of the most fundamental design heuristics — user control. Let them explore and choose on their own accord.

    Stating that targeting external links in new tabs is the “right way” to do things is both presumptuous, and inconsistent with most of the empirical usability data and prevailing guidance I’ve seen to date (provided you’re not talking about non-Web files).

  15. Jez

    Feb 1st, 2012

    I disagree so much. It should be the users’ choice.

  16. jcubic

    Feb 2nd, 2012

    I personaly use Control key to open link in new tab. And for me the proper behavior is to always open link in the same tab/window.

    Is this tested somehow that it will work better?

  17. Edwin Waelbers

    Feb 2nd, 2012

    Did you test this theory with actual users?

  18. Tom Coombs

    Feb 2nd, 2012

    Excellent article, thank you.

    I think there are probably cases where the rule breaks down, e.g. a supermarket corporate site with an ‘internal’ link to their online-shopping site, might seem internal but has a totally different navigational structure etc.

    I also wonder if there’s a difference between tech-savvy users, for whom tab manipulation is easy work, versus the non-savvy who might benefit from a simple back and forth.

    I hadn’t thought of that analytics issue. Good point.

    Great stuff, thank you.

    Tom

    • James Royal-Lawson

      Feb 2nd, 2012

      The analytics issue decribed in the article is basically wrong. Exactly what is considered to be a visit varies from vendor to vendor – but if we take Google Analytics as an example, then it won’t make a blind bit of difference to your stats if links are opened in the same tab or new tabs.

      All activity on a site with a 30 minute period (since GA changed how they measure a visit in August 2011) is counted towards the same visit. Irrespective of whether you’ve split your visit up by looking at another site or closing the tab, or even the browser…

      All will be the same visit unless you enter using a different source (and the back button doesn’t count as one…)

  19. dave

    Feb 2nd, 2012

    I understand the objections, but I side with anthony on this one; the concept that external links open in new tabs is effectively a Web UX standard, and savvy users should expect it by now. For non-savvy users who don’t know what to expect, new tabs are better, as explained in the article.

    Another argument is this: external sites might not respond properly to the back button, which will leave users both frustrated and unable to return to your site, which is bad for business. (One could argue that a good site shouldn’t link to sites that break the back button, but that sort of rule isn’t enforceable on a big site with many different people publishing content.)

    • Cheryl D Wise

      Feb 12th, 2012

      Dave, can you site any research in suppor of your statement “that external sites open in a new tabs is effectively a Web UX standard”?

      I rarely encounter sites that oepn links in external windows whether those windows are tabs or not. When I do I tend to avoid the site in the future.

  20. Michael

    Feb 2nd, 2012

    Wow. What about usability? What about the people who want to control their own browsing experience? And what about the less savvy users who still aren’t comfortable (or even properly understand) the concept of tabs? I deal with these people a lot (usually the elderly) in my line of work.

    What you’re suggesting is that we disregard savvy users who want to control their own user experience and also frustrate less savvy users who will be left wondering why they can’t get back to the web site they were on because the back button ‘stopped working’.

    Well as long as the browser isn’t ‘overworked’ and the stats are more accurate – then who cares about usability – Right?!

  21. Dominykas

    Feb 3rd, 2012

    What are you talking about? There’s no such thing as “savvy” or “non-savvy” users! Only the software can be “non-savvy”. And since we don’t have to be “politically correct”, let me use the correct word – only the computers can be “stupid”, especially when they try to do stuff I didn’t ask for, e.g. open new windows without my permission.

    When that happens, I think to myself “oh, you naughty little stupid computer”…

  22. Mark Wales

    Feb 3rd, 2012

    I’ve got to disagree. In a lot of the testing I’ve done on regular computer users many (perhaps the majority) are completely baffled by tabs – its not a concept they understand – particularly given that they don’t appear in many other programs. Because of this, much of the time they won’t even notice a new tab has opened. So when a page opens in a new tab these users get very frustrated when the Back button “stops working”. It usually means that they’ll not get back to the site that they were on previously. Assuming users will understand any concept other than the Back button is a mistake.

    However, it could easily be a setting in browsers (“Open external links in new tabs”). That way people could opt into the behaviour. But forcing it on all users would be a mistake.

  23. Gunnar Bittersmann

    Feb 3rd, 2012

    The distinction between “internal” and “external” links is a very site-owner’s point of view, not the one of the users. The users care about the information they are looking for; in most cases they don’t care who owns the website containing that information. From the user’s point of view, it’s just one Web. Users don’t navigate from website to website, but from webpage to webpage. If the next webpage belongs to the same website (comes in the same or similar layout), fine. If the next webpage belongs to another website (comes in a different layout), also fine. Therefore, the concept “internal” vs. “external” links is highly questionable.

    You wrote, “many users have multiple tabs opened at once when they’re browsing.” Yes, I do have, most of the time. And often I have so many tabs opened that they don’t fit in the bar, i.e. not all of them are visible, I have to scroll. Hence “when a new tab opens, the user can still see their earlier tab at the top. Switching back to it is swift and easy” is just not true. “Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer’s carpet. Don’t pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks”, says Jakob Nielsen. I think the same holds true for tabs.

    Without @target attributes set, the user can easily open a link in a new tab if she wants to (on some sytems, just by clicking the middle mouse button insted of the left). With @target set, it’s much harder for the user not to open a link in a new tab. Let the user decide; do not set @target.

    One thing I could image to do for users who indeed prefer “external” links in new tabs is an unobtrusive JavaScript that does the following:

    if a cookie has been set
      read the user’s preference from that cookie
    else
      on first click on an “external” link, present a dialog that asks for the user’s preference
      store the user’s decision in a cookie

    if the user’s preference is new tabs
      set @target=’_blank’ for all “external” links in the document
    else
      do nothing!

    This still lacks the option to undo a decision other than deleting the cookie. Uh, and replace cookie with local storage if you like.

  24. John

    Feb 3rd, 2012

    Two of the reasons stated in this article for automatically opening external links in new tabs are things that users do not know or care about.

    Users don’t know or care that their browser may be making some network requests and therefore overworking the web site after pressing the Back button.

    Users don’t know or care about the site’s analytics. It’s true that the information from these data could be used to improve the site for its users, but mostly this information is for the people publishing the site, not its users.

    Focusing on what users care about will help produce good user experiences. I’d like to read an update to this article with results based on user testing, that is, watching what users actually do, rather than just opinion.

  25. gxg

    Feb 4th, 2012

    Wow, a lot of people disagreeing with this article, I see! I for one completely agree with it and am currently using this practice on my blog.
    I really don’t understand the argument about user choice. As long as they are on my site, they should behave by my rules, that’s why there are policies for comments and such.
    Besides, you all seem to assume that the users will look at the tiny tooltip with the target address and start thinking: “Oh, wait, this link is going on another site, I should press Ctrl to open it in a new tab!” – really, who does that?! It’s much better it this thing is taken care of by the site owner, who already knows if the link is internal or external.
    I can’t remember how many times I clicked on a link while I was halfway through an article only to have it load in the same tab, taking me away from that article, losing time to hit ‘Back’ and to wait for the original page to load. Is this really better UX because it respects ‘user choice’?!

    • Devin Miller

      Feb 7th, 2012

      I completely agree. I find it extremely annoying when I’m reading an article and click on an external link and it opens in the same browser. i always think, “Great, now if I hit the back button, the whole page will have to reload.” I’m much more inclined to keep reading the original post if the links open in other tabs.

      I really like this article and agree with your stance!

      • Cheese

        Jan 23rd, 2014

        Well, for one, most browsers keep that page one-step back in history completely cached. So there isn’t a “whole page will have to reload”.

        This is for anyone who might be convinced by your non-argument.

    • Caitlin

      Feb 10th, 2012

      Or you could use common sense and say, “Gee, I want to view this link but I also want to continue reading this article; ergo, I should open this link in a new tab.”

  26. Gemma

    Feb 5th, 2012

    Although I can see the logic on both sides, I’m painfully aware that it’s mainly opinion.

    Has anyone actually conducted tests for each argument recently? If so, please post the results!

  27. Rogier

    Feb 5th, 2012

    Also consider Safari for iOS as an example of a browser with limited tabs.

    On my iPad, I can open a maximum of 9 tabs. If I open another, the first will ‘drop off’ and disappear. So I want tight control over when to open new tabs.

    • roel

      Feb 9th, 2012

      I good solution to that is not opening new tabs, but safari allowing more than 9 tabs. It is a limitation putting us back in 1993. But that is a problem all current mobile devices are giving us. Wait until they become more powerful and still mobile.

    • Mark

      Oct 11th, 2013

      I agree with most of the commenters here. Not only do I not like it when sites force their links to open in new tabs or windows, I consider it extremely disrespectful. The underlying motivations imply that users are stupid, can’t make decisions for themselves, and can’t distinguish between different sites.

  28. John

    Feb 7th, 2012

    This problem is precisely why I created this jQuery plugin awhile back: http://smple.com/link-control/. May need some updating, but I like the concept of user control as well.

    • Janne

      Feb 10th, 2012

      I liked the overlay version of your plugin. The inline version made me puke as it moved the content. Overlay version could be useful for people how don’t know other means to open external links in new tab or window. However for people who know how to open the link in new tab there should be a possibility to do so with the original link. In your overlay version this is not possible. You have to move your mouse to overlay links to open them up. Maybe the solution is the overlay version with only external link in the overlay part?

      I strongly agree with the fact that user should have the power to choose if she wants the link to open in new tab or window. The problem is that in many cases user has no easy way to see if the link is external or not. Maybe there could be some standardized small icon next to external links that would tell user that this link takes you to external site. Then user could choose if she wants to open the link in current tab or in new tab.

      I would also like to point out that you also have to consider mobile users. I for example have no idea how tabs work in my mobile phone and I do consider myself quite experienced with technology.

  29. Mike

    Feb 9th, 2012

    I don’t agree with this talk of “it should be the user’s choice”.

    Any link to an external site should be opened in a new tab.

    Forget flow, forget the back button abuse. What if the site you have linked to has since decided to post illegal content? Why would you allow that to be opened in the same tab as your site and have it look like you are the one to blame for what they are seeing?

  30. Dom

    Feb 10th, 2012

    In my experience there are a number of scenarios where using the Back button is unwanted..:

    1. HTTPS environment – often this can result in a browser error message, and require a complete reload of a page where this may not be advisable (duplication of transaction, loss of field data entered, captchas changed etc)

    2. Flash/AJAX environment – clicking back results in the previous page’s Flash or AJAX content starting again from the very beginning, not where you may have been within the journey.

    3. Randomly-selected content includes – on a page where some content elements contain randomly selected content (e.g. Facebook’s “People you may know”), leaving the page and then returning via the “Back” button will result in losing the first content set, as it will be replaced by another different random content set.

    I don’t think there can be a rigid “it must be done this way” set of rules – surely the outcome of each situation must be appraised as to which approach would provide least disruption to the user experience in that particular instance..?

  31. Caitlin

    Feb 10th, 2012

    I agree with most of the commenters here. Not only do I not like it when sites force their links to open in new tabs or windows, I consider it extremely disrespectful. The underlying motivations imply that users are stupid, can’t make decisions for themselves, and can’t distinguish between different sites.

    Someone above stated that most users don’t know they can Ctrl+click; not only do I disagree with this evaluation of the average user’s (in)competence, I find it extremely hard to believe that users are ignorant of a functionality that is entrenched in every aspect of modern UIs — the right click.

    If a user wants to make a link open in a new tab, he simply needs to right-click and choose “Open in a new tab” or Ctrl+click. If a user wants to make a link open in the same tab but the developer has intentionally disabled this functionality, the user has to copy the URL and use the address bar. While that is a rather simple task, those that aren’t technologically savvy probably won’t even think of this, and those that are will be very irritated.

    Furthermore, as some commenters have stated, this behaviour flies in the face of accessibility and cross-platform usability. With mobile browsers, forcing a link to open in a new tab is sometimes problematic. Some browsers (especially those on non-smartphones) just can’t open it. Many tab-based browsers have (annoyingly) set an arbitrary limit on how many tabs can be open at once. And in these situations, you can’t use an extra extension like Greasemonkey to avoid it.

  32. Martin

    Feb 12th, 2012

    Free will to the people. Whoever want links to open in tabs can do it. But they cannot prevent it when you force it.

  33. Germán Martínez

    Feb 12th, 2012

    I completely disagree with your post, users should have a choice.
    Also you are totally forgetting the mobile experience, what about mobile browsers which can only have a limited number of windows open at the same time?

  34. ArleyM

    Feb 12th, 2012

    “_blank” used to give me problems in w3c validation. I guess it’s cool now?

  35. Larry Boltovskoi

    Feb 12th, 2012

    What about click/doubleclick actions to open in current window or a new window? http://larrybolt.me/test/click_doubleclick.html

  36. Adam

    Feb 12th, 2012

    We’re going in circles. This option to open a link in a new tab is already both up to the developer and up to the user – ctrl+click is a new tab and so is JS functionality.

    Personally, on all my sites I use this jQuery snippet:

    $(‘a[rel=external]‘).live(‘cick’,function() { window.open(this.href); return false; });

    This is a non-issue and a silly article, all the functionality we need is already present in all browsers.

  37. Tom M.

    Feb 12th, 2012

    The comments were as interesting as the article was! The “Overworking the Website” issue can definitely be solved with cache.

  38. Marc

    Feb 12th, 2012

    I’m not too sure about this reasoning. For an experienced user it’s better to always allow them to choose. For a totally not experienced user it’s best to open everything in the same window, because they will only know about one window existence and probably about back button. Opening in new tabs is a middle way but maybe it’s not useful for anybody. I don’t know.

  39. Cheryl D Wise

    Feb 12th, 2012

    I hate, I mean really, really hate sites that open links in a new browser instance whether it is a window or a tab. You see I know how to use my browser which means anytime I want to open in a new tab I do so by right clicking and explicitly choosing to do so. Also, whether a link opens in a tab or a window depends on the visitor’s settings so just because you expect your new instance to open in a tab doesn’t mean that it won’t open in a new window. So confustion still exists especially for those who use assistive devices. Then there are mobile browsers that aren’t tabbed.

    Personally, I expect users to know who their browser of choice work and to be capable of making a decision on whether a link should or should not open in a new tab or window.

    Besides it is not uncommon for people to open multple pages of a site at the same time so the distinction of internal vs external links is completely arbitrary.

  40. Michael

    Feb 12th, 2012

    Why not open every link in a new tab, including internal links?

  41. Robby

    Feb 15th, 2012

    I really do not know how to make external links,if there any body can help it.welcome you visit our website.

  42. Rick Lowes

    Feb 15th, 2012

    I have to side with the people who are skeptical of this recommendation. I question the usability of this approach for non-savvy/infrequent internet users (i.e. breaking the back button) and also the accessibility of this approach as well.

  43. Sadia Komal

    Feb 15th, 2012

    I always checked option open link in new window / tab when publishing a post.

  44. Dave

    Feb 15th, 2012

    I disagree. I think it’s better to leave a decision like that to the user. If they want to open it in the background, they’ll middle-click on the link. If they want to open it in the same tab, they’ll left-click. If they don’t know about middle-click (or ctrl-click), well, shame on them. We shouldn’t punish the savvier users for a deficiency of the less-savvy ones.

    Back-button fatigue might be annoying, but it’s the lesser of two evils here, because it’s less annoying than having a website force an unwelcome decision onto you. Especially when that decision has the obnoxious undertone of “we think our website is soooooo fabulous that we can’t possibly imagine that you would want to leave it”.

  45. Loman

    Feb 17th, 2012

    Sorry, I have to disagree.If click a link, I want to follow it in the same tab. If I want to open the link in a new tab, I klick the the middle mouse button. Please stop using target=”blank”

  46. Bharat

    Feb 21st, 2012

    Whenever I add an external link to my blog post, I simply use (target=”_blank”) tag, it helps in many cases including above ones.

  47. Evan

    May 11th, 2012

    Even after reading the responses with those who disagree (and there are some valid points, I will admit) – I must say that I still fully support the idea of setting links to automatically open in a new tab.

    There is a lot of talk about letting the user have the choice; that by using (target=”_blank”) you are forcing them into an experience that they don’t want.

    There is also mention of keeping a variety of users in mind, from the super tech savvy to the “I don’t even know what a tab is” group.

    Let me address both of these thoughts.

    While the super tech savvy undoubtedly know about the ctrl/cmd click option to automatically open a new tab – it is also undoubtedly more convenient to not have to worry about that every single time you click a new link. Inevitably, you fail to do so a few times, thereby causing annoyance when the link loads into the tab you were trying to read (even if only slight, this can have an adverse effect). I know for me, when I’m going through a site and discover that they already have the links set to open in a new tab, I find myself much more relaxed and happier with the site in question. For the savvy user, it is less of “forcing an experience” on them, then it is making their experience smoother, pleasant and, most importantly, more efficient.

    I did a quick survey before issuing this response (no, it is not the most scientifically executed survey, but I wanted to get some responses to get an idea of what people thought) and this one stood out to me the most:

    “I often have multiple projects where I do online research, and prefer to have different windows open to reflect that. By setting a new link to open in a separate tab I can continue through whatever content I was reading and delve into the link afterwards without losing my train of thought. I tend to become distracted if I have to chase after a link that opened by itself in a new window or become annoyed if it opens in the same tab.”

    And in that survey, 88.2% of respondents agreed with him – the link should open in a new tab.

    Now, what about the non-tech savvy, the users with disabilities, the older generation; having the back button broken confuses the heck out of them, doesn’t it? Thus, you are forcing an experience onto them that they do not want.

    This may in fact be true. They may indeed get confused. They may indeed get frustrated and not like the idea of a new tab opening. But, to employ an often used expression, you cannot please everybody.

    It’s just a fact – there is no possible way to please everyone. This segment of people want this. This segment of people want that. But, this segment likes it better this way.

    With this in mind – I say open links in new tabs as you must focus on the largest segment of people – the moderately to highly tech savvy. In general, people using the Internet (especially in 2012 when it has been so widely adopted – according to a survey by Pew, 80% of adults 18+ use the Internet) at the very least, have an understanding of how links work. I have never seen an adult get up in arms or utterly confused if a link opens in a new tab rather than the current tab they are in.

    (I would be interested in knowing how often adults get truly frustrated by a new tab opening to the point of abandonment. Also, I would be interested to know if tabs are really confusing. Sounds like the making of a good study to me).

    My overarching point here is that most Internet users get it. People understand how the Internet, how browsers, how links work. It’s not a mystery anymore (before you point out the fact that if people get it, then why shouldn’t they choose for themselves, read on).

    For me, and for the majority of the users, I believe that new tabs provide a much cleaner, efficient experience allowing one to quickly access the new link or be back at the other one (not having to wait for it to re-load and scroll back down to the exact point you were at). Even to those that are initially opposed to it or confused by it – over a short time – will understand that it is ultimately better. It’s like a lot of other things in life, sometimes you have to be forced to do something (e.g. eat vegetables, exercise, study) in order to understand the long term benefits.

  48. Tracey

    Jul 10th, 2012

    Evan, are you really saying that your considered response to comments which rightly raise the issue that this may that provide a confusing, frustrating or even inaccessible browsing experience for people with disabilities or less IT-savvy older people is… ‘you can’t please everyone’?

    For some people this is not about ‘want’. It is about ‘need’.

    • Nancy

      Jul 26th, 2012

      Tracey wrote:
      “Evan, are you really saying that your considered response to comments which rightly raise the issue that this may that provide a confusing, frustrating or even inaccessible browsing experience for people with disabilities or less IT-savvy older people is… ‘you can’t please everyone’?”

      That’s not how I read it. When Evan responded with…
      “While the super tech savvy undoubtedly know about the ctrl/cmd click option to automatically open a new tab – it is also undoubtedly more convenient to not have to worry about that every single time you click a new link.”
      …he is saying that the less IT-savvy folks would prefer to have the link open in a new tab but don’t know how. So by opening it in the new tab automatically, he is assisting them.

      I think most users would prefer links opening in a new tab (at least for links that go off site or to any page that doesn’t have a clearly labeled navigation to get back in one or, at the most, two clicks) ONCE THEY REALIZE THE ADVANTAGE (not having to wait for pages to reload to go back) and AFTER THEY LEARN HOW (to close the tab they are done with or to click over to another tab).
      But I am still on the fence about this because when they don’t know how to deal with tabs they have a functional barrier.
      But is this reason enough to not use new tabs when they make sense for navigation and page loading reasons? After all, Windows users all managed to adapt to clicking “start” to turn off their computers.
      *sigh*

  49. David

    Jul 30th, 2012

    Great article and comments… Similar to many of the other commenters, I disagree with the premise of the article based on research I’ve encountered. But if there is research to the contrary, I would certainly like to read it.

    I’m curious if Anthony (the author) has any feedback to the opposing views that have been presented. Are you aware of research supporting “open in new tab”–or have any of the comments here swayed your stance?

  50. steveax

    Aug 12th, 2012

    Well, one thing is undeniable, it’s a WCAG 2 failure to do as the author suggests:

    http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG-TECHS/F22.html

  51. Jason

    Sep 7th, 2012

    a link (internal or external) should behave like every other link.
    browsers define the way links behave, users learn this behaviour.

    if you ignore these learned behaviours the user will be confused und frustrated.

  52. B rad

    Sep 10th, 2012

    “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.”

    Agreed, but there are instances where this logic can potentially be flawed. If I’m listening to music on a band’s website I am, at times, reluctant to navigate away from the page I’m on because I know it will turn the music off. For this edge case, I think its best for bands, when having music play from their page, have it open up in a dedicated tab/window just for the music player. That way the user can continue surfing while still listening.

  53. Michael S. Rivette

    Dec 10th, 2012

    I am one of those users that HATES when external links open in the same browser window. While I DO usually select to open them in another tab, there are times that I may forget and get frustrated by the experience.

    For the people that say they disagree with the article and want the user to have the option, why not have external links open in a new tab as the default and then YOU choose to open it in the same window.

  54. Neil

    Jan 15th, 2013

    I’ve also given this same topic a lot of thought and even written two blog posts about this and came to the conclusion that letting the user decide is the best way to go.

    If they know they want a link to open in an new window they can do it themselves but if you force a new window, lots of users in my experience who grew up using browsers without tabs don’t notice that it’s a new tab but just notice that the back button no longer works.

    I’ve written a lot more about it on my blog, also thanks to “steveax” for posting that reply here about the WCAG2 guidelines.

    http://blog.neilnand.co.uk/2012/05/external-links-new-tabs-conclusion.html

    http://blog.neilnand.co.uk/2012/02/external-links-new-tabs.html

    I’d really like to do some research into this one day.

  55. Tinley

    Apr 9th, 2013

    Can anyone tell me the difference between an external link and a backlink? Some website analiser reports tell me I have enough of the first but none backlinks. How do I get them?

  56. Greg

    Apr 29th, 2013

    It’s definitely based on the user. I always make sure to set my URL targets to “_blank” as when I am browsing, I find a link halfway through an article, want to check it out so open it in a new tab. For some reason it annoys me when my tab is hijacked by another article. But then again I’m a huge fan of tabs. Other people aren’t.
    It’s a tough one to call.

  57. veggen

    Nov 11th, 2013

    What a horrible advice. The user know what they want, so let them do it the way they want.
    One of the first things I do is set my browser to ignore “target” attributes. Middle-click opens new tabs when I want it to. Simple.

  58. Follower Increase

    Feb 20th, 2014

    Great topic and explanation!!!

  59. Nicola Stratford

    Jun 4th, 2014

    We are struggling with this issue right now, because we have to account to the very highest degree for accessibility, given our audience, some of whom need to use screen readers because of visual impairment or cognitive disability. I want external websites to open in new tabs, but to have that stated along with the link and in the link alt tag. But we cannot find a firm standard to support any position – the various juries (Nielsen, WCAG, you and others) – mostly disagree on one point or another.

  60. Dave Scheirer

    Jun 19th, 2014

    In our usability testing we’ve found that opening new tabs confuses the user. They don’t recognize that a new tab opened and are disoriented when their back button isn’t active. If they wanted a new tab, they would have opened the link in a new tab. User disorientation/distress from forcing a new tab happens about 3/4 of the time when they want to go back. Only 1/4 of the people notice a new tab opening. As a result, we don’t force a new window or a new tab in links.

    Regarding back button fatigue, I’ve observed over 400 hours of usability testing and never seen it.

  61. Andrew

    Jun 26th, 2014

    What’s the go with external links that link to the same content in a new tab? i.e – Desktopwallpaper.net has a thumbnail & download button that that externalys links to a new page in a new tab. In the new tab there’s no download button and the clicking on the image opens yet another tab. In all: 3 tab have to be opened just to view or download one image from the same website. Is this for advertising purposes or just poor website development?

  62. max

    Jul 2nd, 2014

    nice article, most asia website love to open links in tabs, external or internally.

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