Why your news site should never automatically open external links in a new window
A question that I used to get asked time and time again in the comments underneath techie blog posts on the Guardian was why the site didn’t open external links in a new window. And I get asked variations of it elsewhere, so I thought I’d just take five minutes to set out why, on the 21st century internet, forcing links to open in a new browser windows is wrong.
You know how whenever you watch a DVD it is really annoying to have to go through the whole unskippable warning about piracy? And how much you resent the studios for taking control of your DVD machine and rendering the fast-forward button inoperative?
That’s how users feel when you unexpectedly foist a new browser window on them without warning.
Be polite, and leave the user in control of their own computer. If they want to open a link in a new window or new tab, there are plenty of ways for them to opt to do that. Give them the choice.
Don’t fight the future
In the olden times of the internet, connection speeds were slow. That meant you didn’t want to unnecessarily reload every bit of the page, especially elements like the navigation. One solution then was framesets. You’d end up with a whole load of kludge in your code remembering which links needed to load which bits of which page into which frame. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was dumb and not terribly future-proof.
And that’s exactly the same kind of kludge you are putting into your site right now if you are adding
target="_blank" to your links.
Imagine a not-too-distant world where you are manipulating your device mostly by touch and voice, and the whole document paradigm might have vanished. Operating systems might not have “new windows” in the future, just as browsers didn’t used to have tabs.
It screams of paranoia
Opening up an external link in a new window basically shouts out “Darling, don’t leave me!”, with your site sobbing in the background like a jilted lover.
Have confidence that if someone found your site useful as a resource - and clicking a link suggests that your choice of link looked useful to them - trust that they will come back again.
If nothing else, it is completely skewing your analytics. “Hey, we’ve got amazing dwell time on our pages because our audience are so engaged” beams the marketing manager, blissfully unaware that a large chunk of that dwell time is pages sitting idle in orphaned windows after the user has been directed to a new one.
It is disrespectful
You might think the previous three reasons have been a matter of opinion, but by far the most important reason not to spring new windows on your users is accessibility.
Opening new windows disrupts the flow of behaviour that a user might be expecting or find most desirable. Consider a user who may not be entirely blind, but has visual difficulty, and/or someone with poor motor skills. You’ve just forced on them the extra burden of navigating between windows on a machine that they’ve almost certainly specifically set up to meet their accessibility needs, not your vanity in not wanting people to exit your site. Respect the fact that visitors to your website will come with a variety of accessibility needs, and work with them, not against them.
“Before users follow a link they should know if it is going to open a new window. People can become lost or confused when they don’t realise a new window has opened especially those who use access technology. It may not be obvious that this has happened, and that keyboard commands, such as BACKSPACE to return to the previous page, will not work.
Only launch a new browser window from a link if it is really necessary. For instance, if the link destination will take users out of a secure website, then it may perfectly valid to open a new window so that users won’t be put to the trouble of logging in again.
Warn users about any links that would open new windows by:
a) Multiple links - placing a message before the first link is reached, saying which group of links are affected, for instance, ‘All links on this page will open in a new window’.
b) Single links - by adding the words ‘New window’ to the link text.”
Why would you think that you know better?