Why your news site should never automatically open external links in a new window

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 23 August 2012

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.

Be polite

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.

The RNIB’s guidelines on the impact of opening links in a new window for blind web users are:

“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?

13 Comments

Funnily enough, I've become so used to links opening in new tabs that I get annoyed when they don't now... have to hit back, find the link again and open it in a new one manually, so I can continue reading what I was ready.

It's not just visually-impaired people who suffer from links opening in new windows either. I've got a great couple of video clips from usability testing where a user clicks a link that opens in a new window; user doesn't notice new window opening; tries to go Back using the browser button and is completely lost as to why they can't.

Great point about the stats - I'll be adding that to my list of reasons for the next time I get asked!

Hm Not sure if I agree. These are valid points but it will always come down to personal preference. I like new tabs/windows so I can switch between the two. It keeps your browsing organised. If the developer has set a link to open in a new window, it's probably for good reason, though not always the case.

To go against "target=_blank" would be to not embrace what modern browsers are capable of. Personally I add "target=_blank" if the link is relevant to the parent article to give the user the ability to compare/reference or 'read later'. That said, if we're talking accessibility and standards, yes, the user should be notified of the link opening a new window/tab.

Accessibility is always good to adhere to but let's face it, people are unique and have unique browsing needs. Either way, it's certainly a debate worth having. Thanks for bringing it forward.

Wow..it really annoys you doesn't it? Unfortunately Martin, I feel your irritation comes across more and dominates the first part of your article before you get to the respectable, non-opinionated content lower down, probably making most people leave your site thinking it's just rant-ridden. Maybe flip it around next time and people may stay with your article. These are the principles of journalism. Why would you think you know better?

Having a link open in a new window is not the same as having to sit through minutes and minutes of piracy notices at the start of a dvd. Those are minutes where you can't do anything. It takes just seconds to close a tab or window. That argument is more akin to being annoyed with your favourite magazine for printing an advert on a full page. It takes a second to turn that page and you're back to the content you need. Stick to the accessibility argument and your blog will have more credibility.

The opposite argument is true for me - it's really irritating when a site *doesn't* open another window for an external link.

For example, I'm reading an article about Apple vs Samsung, there's a link to some other site with details of the judgement - I just want to take a peek, whilst retaining my position on the original web page (since I've only read the first few paragraphs).

If some thoughtless web publisher has omitted target=_blank from their external links I will either lose my place on the original page, or I'll close the window of the external web page when finished and then realise I've lost the original page. Depending on the browser or device (e.g. Mobile) I will either then need to unclose the tab, or search through recent history to find the pageand reload again.

Ultimately it comes down to the expected workflow (i.e. whatever is the norm), so we just need to be consistent in our behaviour. In my experience of browsing the web, opening a new window for external links is by far the predominant workflow, so that's the mode I adopt.

Good UX is ultimately a combination of minimising the steps required to perform common actions and ensuring the action makes sense to the user. Opening a new tab for an external link ticks both of these boxes and also reflects the multi-tasking functionality promoted by most browsers these days.

Are we really still having this discussion in 2012?

I assume that my users are as capable of [right-click T] as I am if they want their links opened up elsewhere. Opening links in new windows is simply rude.

“Are we really still having this discussion in 2012?”

Apparently so - and apparently still with people who think their personal convenience trumps accessibility concerns. *sigh*

But the "accessibility concerns" come right at the bottom of a list of personal opinion that is so holier-than-thou that it renders your final point (which is valid and fair in and of itself) easy to discard.

That said, I always open links within a passage in a new tab. Always. But I always do so manually, rather than trusting the website to do so for me. I made the choice a long time ago that this is how I browse the internet. But I personally don't consider it rude if a site forces me to open a link in a new window. You don't speak for everyone with your first three points, and the use of "disrespectful" in the fourth just "screams of" desperation. Impractical, sure. Disrespectful? That just sounds like you're paranoid that we're not all going to agree with you and require being forced via guilt to believe that what you've said is correct.

There's some good points in your article, but they're hidden under a mountain of arrogance.

Mitchell, if point one - “leave the user in control of their own computer” - is arrogance, then I’m happy to be considered arrogant.

This depends on the market. People like my mother go crazy when their page changes to external sites. They are clueless with computers. The geeks hate when tabs open. It depends on the target market.

Great article Martin, you said it so well.

I think a few readers have completely misunderstood the point of your recommendation to not open a new window for an external link by default. The point is that we should not assume what the user preference is but we should allow the user to choose to open a new window if they so wish. It's about letting the user have control over their experience.

Keep up to date on my new blog