This seems to come up every few days, so I thought I would put yet another post out into the world to try and point out everything that is wrong with this practice. This has been well documented and studied, so if you’d rather read something with more data and examples, I definitely encourage you to read Opening Links in New Browser Windows and Tabs.
First, what are we talking about? #
When you make a link on a web page, it is possible to provide an attribute (target) that tells the browser to open that link into a new tab or window. This is not the default. The default behavior is to stay in the same context (tab) that you are already in. With the default experience, the user has the option to right-click (or long press on a mobile device) on the link and decide if they’d like to open it in a new tab. If you code the link to open in a new tab though, the user does not have any choice about what happens, the link will open outside of their current context.
Why is this bad? #
The main objection to coding your links like this is that it is taking control away from the user. In the default case, they can choose to open in the same tab or a new one, but in this case that choice is removed. To quote Jakob Neilsen, this is a “user-hostile” action.
Why would a user care? Well, moving to a new tab breaks one of the fundamental forms of navigation in a browser, the back button. As I move through a series of links on the web, I’ve been trained to understand that I can click on the back button whenever I want to go back to the previous page I was looking at. Breaking this behavior is confusing for the user, and the work (cognitive and physical) to go back to the previous page has increased.
This is especially true on a mobile device that has a back button always present in the same location, making it much easier to use than to go up to the little tab icon and try to find the content you were on before. In my case, that icon is a smiley face, which is what Chrome on Android shows when you have more than 99 tabs open.
In addition to being more effort to go back, it is more importantly inconsistent. I didn’t ask to leave the context I was in, and now I must realize that for this specific link the rules have changed, and I can’t use the back button like I could for the last n links I clicked on.
Ok, so that is terrible, why do people keep building links this way? #
The argument is generally that we don’t want the person to leave the site and by leaving the original page open, we are making it easier for them to come back.
As I discussed above, we haven’t made it easier at all. We have our original page still open but getting back to it has become a bit more difficult. If the user wanted to keep it open, because they were opening a set of resource links to read later, then they could choose to open the link in a new tab. They’d know exactly why it opened in a new place and where to look to find both it and the original page (in their tab list).
Is there ever a good reason to do this? #
There are times when a user would appreciate having something open in a new window, which is why the browser allows them to do that for any link. The key is to determine if the positives outweigh the negatives in your particular use case. If you have a link with some helpful information on how to fill out the 20th form field in a loan application, it makes sense to open in a new window (or perhaps in a sidebar/popup in the same window) so as to not lose any of their work. If the user is going through a multiple step tutorial, that might be a good scenario for a new tab.
In any of these cases though, you should clearly indicate what is about to happen. Adding text to the link like “(opens in a new tab)” communicates to the user what will happen when they click on it. Imagine in the loan application scenario, without that message a user could be scared to click on the help link out of fear that they’d lose all their work.
In addition to the two posts I already mentioned (The Top 10 Web Design Mistakes of 1999 and Opening Links in New Browser Windows and Tabs), this page from Washington University in St. Louis has a good explanation of the accessibility side to this discussion and a set of even more reference material: Links Opening in New Tabs - Diversity & Inclusion