Should Links Be Opened in New Tabs?

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Providing a positive user experience is the most important thing you can do when designing a website and creating content. Everything else falls by the wayside — as an overarching strategy it encompasses everything from design, to content, to marketing.

When it comes to user experience it is often the little things that can make a big difference. That is why I have a little bit of an obsession with whether or not links should be opened in new tabs. It may sound like a minor issue but it can in fact make a big difference to how people perceive your site.

With that in mind I want to revisit that very issue. It is something I have discussed here on the ManageWP blog before and at the time I felt that I had come to a strong personal conclusion. However, my mind has recently been changed and I would like to share a fresh perspective with you today.

The Usability Argument

To be honest, I believe that the issue of usability remains largely the same. Opening links in new tabs is still a matter of user expectation — did they want the link to open in a new tab, and did you deliver to their expectations?

The problem is that you can never truly know. Whilst one might have one felt fairly confident that opening a link in a new window would be perceived as a nuisance in the past, the age of tabbed browsing is now well and truly upon us. If this study conducted way back in 2009 is anything to draw conclusions from, the vast majority of people are entirely comfortable with tabbed browsing and use it on a regular basis.

Tabbed Browsing
Tabbed browsing is now mainstream.

But just because someone uses tabbed browsing does not mean that they therefore have no issue with you choosing whether or not a link should open in a new tab on their behalf. I think that “power users” would argue that they are capable of making that decision for themselves.

So there is essentially no objectively right answer. One cannot be “wrong” for opening links in new tabs in the same way that they cannot be “right” for opening links in the same tab.

Focusing on the User Experience

Mouse
Don’t underestimate the click.

I recently listened to an excellent Podcast episode by Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income simply called “The Click“. In it Pat put forward a simple yet rather compelling argument for a selective approach to opening links in new tabs. He essentially split links into two layers:

  1. Those that people can click on to discover further information relating to a topic but do not signal the end of their intended “involvement” with that page.
  2. Those that people click on to complete a desired Call to Action and/or that signifies the end of their intended “involvement” with that page.

Four examples of the first kind of link can be found in the body of the post above. All four of the links so far are supplementary to the post itself — you could click on them to find out more but they are not integral to the main point of this post. Pat argues that these links should always open in new tabs, so that when a reader is done with those external resources they can return to where they were in the article.

The second type of link encompasses just about anything else — basically a link that would be clicked on either to navigate away from the post due to disinterest, or to take a desired action. Examples would be navigational elements (such as category links) and calls to action (such as a subscribe link at the bottom of a post). Pat argues that these links should open in the same tab as by clicking on them a reader has essentially decided that they are done with the current page.

The Best Approach?

To be honest, I am drawn to Pat’s thinking in spite of my previous conclusion that links should always open in the same tab. It seems relatively intuitive and should afford a clear benefit in terms of keeping the reader engaged with your site. I like the idea of certain links being supplementary — a sidetrack or temporary diversion from your post — and it makes sense for them to open in a new tab.

So I have decided to adopt this fresh approach. I’d love to know what you think about it — do you think it’s best for the user, and do you think it’s best for you? Let us know in the comments section!

Photo Credit: jaudrius

Tom Ewer

Tom Ewer is the founder of WordCandy.co. He has been a huge fan of WordPress since he first laid eyes on it, and has been writing educational and informative content for WordPress users since 2011. When he's not working, you're likely to find him outdoors somewhere – as far away from a screen as possible!

19 Comments

  1. Javier Yep - SEO Expert

    Hi, I personally like to open links on a new tab or window, because we can keep an eye on the site we are originally reading. This is very useful specially when you are reading a “How To” document/article ensuring that we keep the track we need to complete all the steps described on the original site. Of course this point of view is mine and has to do a lot with usability matters.

    Thank you for your article, that’s a good point of view.
    Javier

    1. Tom Ewer

      No problem Jaview, thanks for commenting :-)

  2. Taswir Haider

    Interesting article.I think links should be opened in a NEW TAB. This way the reader can revert to the post without hitting the back button.Links opening in NEW TAB is more important for posts which has a lot of internal links.

  3. bopdesign

    It depends on the kind of links. If it’s a link to an external website, then it should open in a new tab/window. Same for PDF files and other similar file types. Internal links that are linking to other pages/posts on the same domain should open in the same tab/window. This just makes the most sense to me.

    1. Tom Ewer

      I’d be curious to know why you think this is the best way (beyond simply that it makes sense).

      1. bopdesign

        I believe it all comes down to people’s browsing habits. Your website’s target audience plays a role in this. Some are more computer savvy than others and some aren’t.

        Example: If you have a link to Google on a page and it opened in the same window, the chances are most likely higher that people will not hit the back button to go back to your page. Why? Because some websites now warn people that hitting the back button can do something bad to the page (like if you have to fill out a form for a purchase, etc.). These messages tend to stick in people’s heads and change their browsing habits. So it’s highly possible they’ll continue browsing and in minutes they’ll forget they were even on your website. However, if that same link to Google opened in a new tab/window and they continued browsing, when that tab/window gets closed, your website is still there to remind them that they got to Google from your website. And if they still want to continue browsing your website, it’s still there and they won’t have to hit the back button a million times or have to check their browsing history to find it.

  4. Kathleen

    Personally, it annoys me when pages open in a new tab because I can open it in a new tab if I want them to. However, based on a survey I did 5 years ago, my readers didn’t feel the same way and most aren’t power users. Since then, I’ve made all links open in a new tab.

    In their defense, most of my links are internal. My site is very niche and technical and I tend to use links to refer to related material to avoid repeating myself.

  5. Chitraparna

    I think links should be opened in a NEW TAB. This way the reader can revert to the post without hitting the back button.

    Links opening in NEW TAB is more important for posts which has a lot of internal links. Hitting back and forth will make the reader loser interest. What do you say?

  6. Brent Carnduff

    This is a BIG pet peeve of mine! I’m reading a great article, and there’s a great resource that is linked too – I click on it to read after I’m finished and . . . the article is gone. Even worse, I want to bookmark to keep one or the other, or both, but can only have one open at a time. PLEASE open links in a NEW TAB!

    1. Ryan

      Right click and select “Open link in new tab” and its done. You already have the option so why should those of us who don’t like new tabs have to have our experience hijacked?

  7. Marie at Rural Living Today

    Thanks–we really appreciated this post. We use a lot of links to outside resources that support our blog post topics and we’ll keep setting those to open in separate tabs. But now we’re going to reevaluate those that link to our own pages, shopping sites, and other end-result destinations.

  8. Thomas Townsend

    Of course now the user also their OWN control that simply OVERIDES yours. I use Fire Fox predominantly and I have mine set up to open ALL LINKS in a separate Tab. So really it does not matter much what the site is default to because, I and others dictate our own terms :)

    1. Tom Ewer

      Which is of course your prerogative!

  9. Chris Haught

    Great topic, agree with Pat, I used to think that if it was an internal link, same window, external link, new window. I like the idea of “end of involvement”. It is all about the user!

  10. Pierre.K

    In our french company, independantly of taking care of user experience, the lawyers impose opening any foreign page in a new tab or window, in order to minimize our responsability if the content of the linked page becomes improper.

  11. Bart

    I second Pat’s opinion. I fact this is the way I make links on my website for the past years.

    It’s all about the user experience.

    1) Open in new tab, if the information is like a detour and readers likely want to come back to the original page. This is the case for almost all links to external websites

    2) Open in same tab, if the readers is apparently done with the page. This is the case for navigational links on a website.

    3) The fine line is with the links that are in a text. Pat’s definition “relating to a topic but do not signal the end of their intended “involvement” with that page”, does a fine job here. In these scenarios, I opt for opening in a new tab for these links.

    It is all about the visitors experience. So all above is a paradigm, which can shift over time when what is considered a good user experience can shift with use of e.g. new technology, or adapting new culture ways.

    P.s. Almost browsers open a link in a new tab, not in new window. If this was not the case, it was a whole other ballgame.

    It is all about the visitors experience. So all above is a paradigm which can shift over time.

  12. Mindy

    It drives me crazy when I click on a link and it opens in the same window. What if I’m not done reading the article? My attention span is tiny, and by the time I’m done with the new link, 99% of the time I won’t remember to click “back” and finish reading the referral link. Now I always open links using right click (PC user) and open in a new tab, since that’s how I like it.

  13. Darnell Jackson

    Good topic Tom,

    I think no.

    Links shouldn’t open in another window and here’s why:

    A link is a referral. You don’t want anything to interfere with that referral. Check out drudge and notice how NONE of his links open new windows. Its all about the referral self or otherwise.

  14. Jenn

    Interesting article. Personally, I create my own ideal browsing experience by taking control of how links open – simply by automatically opening them in a new tab whenever I click on them by holding down the control or command key. And for my own blogs and websites, I code them so that nothing opens in a new tab/window unless the visitor chooses to launch them that way.

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