Opening Links in New Windows – Increased Engagement or Angry Visitors?

Opening Links in New Windows - Increased Engagement or Angry Visitors?

When it comes to making those little tweaks to your website that can make a big difference, are you often left dazed and confused by the options?

I know the feeling. In fact, I experienced it just recently when I was trying to figure out “best practices” for opening links in new windows (or not). Such a choice may not sound like much, but it can make a big difference to key engagement statistics, such as bounce rate and time on site. It can also have a relatively profound effect on the user experience.

With that in mind, I decided to do some thorough research and present you with my findings in a straightforward and conclusive manner. What I discovered is that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to opening links in new windows. What I can do however is equip you with enough information with which you can make an informed decision.

It’s time to put your confusion to one side and understand whether or not opening windows in new tabs is right for you!

Usability

Let’s start by getting down to the core principle of usability and how it relates to web design. Ultimately, you should want to make your site as easily navigable as possible. What we are essentially talking about is control. Whenever a person is interacting with a machine, they want to feel like any outcome is possible only as a result of their input. One of the reasons we get so frustrated when a computer crashes is because we have lost control.

As soon as you start to take control away from the user, they are likely to become frustrated – which is of course the last thing that you want.

When you make the decision to open a link in a new window on behalf of a user, there are two possible outcomes:

  1. Your decision aligns with the user’s desire (i.e. they wanted the page to be opened in a new window)
  2. Your decision does not align with the user’s desire (i.e. they didn’t want the page to be opened in a new window)

If you wanted to approach this issue from an extremely rudimentary standpoint, you have a 50% chance of a positive outcome when choosing to open links in a new window. But there is in reality far more to the issue than that.

“The King of Usability”

Jakob NielsenIn this article I am going to be referring to the work of Jakob Nielsen on more than one occasion. He is someone we have referenced before, and with good cause – to many, he is the expert on usability.

Nielsen happens to have a well-formed opinion on the matter at hand, stating that “the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.”

Neilsen goes on to say that “Links that don’t behave as expected undermine users’ understanding of their own system. A link should be a simple hypertext reference that replaces the current page with new content. Users hate unwarranted pop-up windows. When they want the destination to appear in a new page, they can use their browser’s “open in new window” command.”

For those of you who scoff at the concept of removing the Back button being detrimental to the user experience, you may be surprised to learn that use of that particular button is more widespread than any other browser action, with exception to clicking on hyperlinks.

Effectively switching between multiple tabs is the domain of web-savvy types – there are likely to be readers of your site who do not even understand the concept of tabbed browsing. There is always the possibility that people will not return to your site because you opened a link in a new window.

The fact is, if you don’t want a link to open in a new window and you’re web-savvy, it is an irritant. if you are not web-savvy, it can be confusing, frustrating, and defeating.

Here’s the key to the usability argument: your intentions will not always match the visitor’s intentions. That being the case, you shouldn’t make assumptions on their behalf – you should leave the decision in their hands.

What Does Opening Links In New Windows Actually Achieve?

Many people enforce the opening of links in new windows without actually giving much thought to what the benefits may be. The instinctive assumption is that if your site remains open, that must be a good thing. But the matter is a little more complicated than that.

Consider this – if a user clicks on a link with the intention of never looking at your site again, they are almost definitely still going to close the window when the tab presents itself to them. Not only do they not want to look at your site again, they will be irritated that you “forced” them to leave the window open. That kind of negative user experience is never going to benefit you.

One could argue for the “forgetful” types – someone who (a) wants to continue browsing your site, (b) chooses not to open a link in a new tab so that they keep your site open, and (c) forgets to use the back button to browse back to your site when the time is right. I would argue that such people makes up a minute proportion of your potential visitors – and a irrelevantly small percentage of potentially engaged visitors (i.e. those who may return).

Your analytics might tell you that there is a benefit to opening links in new tabs, but such data can be highly misleading. Just because your site was open in a background tab for a few minutes before being unceremoniously discarded does not mean that you have actually gained anything.

So even if you put all of the potential negative effects to one side for a moment, is there really much in the way of a benefit in opening links in new windows?

The Status Quo?

Believe it or not, there is actually an argument grounded in the concept of usability that argues for links opening in new windows. That argument is that the practice is now so widespread that people expect links to be opened in new windows. Therefore, when a link is opened in the same tab, the user experience is diminished.

To be succinct, I don’t buy this argument for a second. In my own personal experience, I will select to open links in a new tab even if I suspect that something is going to open in a new window. Why take the risk that it opens in the same tab?

But that is just the opinion of one person – it would perhaps be more compelling to see what the big boys are doing. Consider Google – a site that links out to more external sites than any other in the world. Ask yourself this question – why does Google not open links in new windows? These are after all the guys and girls that test everything about their user experience to an incredible level of detail.

Although I was unable to find any research to back up my assertion, there is no doubt in my mind that Google has done extensive testing on opening links in new tabs, and have found that better results are achieved by allowing the user to make the decision. The same goes for the likes of eBay and Amazon.

Consider What You Are Trying To Achieve

If you are opening links in new windows because you hope it will keep more people on your site and increase user engagement, perhaps there is a more salient issue to consider – the quality of your site.

The key to running a successful blog is attracting regular readers and rabid fans. You do this by providing quality content, a great design, and an excellent user experience. If you are focused on these key factors, leave it up to the user to decide if they want to open links in new windows or not. But if you are keen on trying to squeeze every last drop out of who are likely to be half-interested users at best, set your links to open in new windows by all means.

I have been guilty of opening links in new windows in the past, but having researched the issue and written this article, I no longer will (unless the powers that be tell me to continue, of course!).

A Question

As a ManageWP reader you are technologically savvy and as such are not representational of the majority of web users, but it would still be interesting to know – would you prefer that links in the ManageWP blog open in the same window, or new windows? Let us know in the comments section!

Creative Commons images courtesy of Jakob Nielsen and Steve-h

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!

4 Comments

  1. GH

    This article shows the problems inherant in just assuming something without research. The author rightly looked for research on the Google question, but there wasn’t any available – fair enough, we can’t use research if it isn’t there. But he assumed it had been done, and assumes that is the reason they do what they do. However it is notable that Google do, in fact, supply the option of configuring it their results so that any result links we click on will open in a new page. They have provided that option for years. So they obviously believe some users will prefer that – as I do, that is how I have configured my Google search.

    So I wonder if the reason for their default option is simply that “The industry recommendation is always to open links in the same window, so we’ll do that as our default. But we actually think users will mostly want to keep the results list available at a single click, and open links from it in new windows, so we must give them the option to do that.”? Best not to jump to conclusions until we have proper research. However, I note that 2 out of the 3 commenters before me here preferred, or initially expected, external links to open in new windows.

    All the big social media sites, Twitter (millions of external links there), Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, all open external links in new windows so, as acknowledged above, everyone does it. It’s the norm!

  2. mgb

    Facebook open all links to external contact in a new tab, but navigation within FB is all in the same tab.

    The google argument (about the enormous amount of testing they must have done) must apply equally to them.

    Generally I tend to agree with Matt – links within a site I would never expect to open a new tab, but for external content I find it completely normal.

    Oh and FTR eBay also open external links in new tabs (i.e. if you add a link in the text of your listing, eBay will make it open a new tab when clicked).

  3. jon m

    I would expect almost all links to open in the current with window with some execptions though, for example, if I’m filling in a form and get to “terms and conditions”.

    In this example, I don’t want to leave my comleted form (especially if it’s multi page), I want the T’s & C’s to open in a new window.

    Also, this is how this almost always works and generally uses a javascript popup, and so opening in a new window via right-click causes unexpected behaviour (eg, opens ‘javascript:null’)

    So I want the page to open in a new window when that would ‘obviously be the sensible thing’ to do, which is normally when I’m expecting to definitely return to my main page immediately after viewing the popup and not navigate at all further in the new window; most typically when the link url is going to provide extra context or information to my main page.

    If there is a possibility of me wanting to continue navigating in the popup, I want to select it optionally. But there should only be one clear navigation path presented.

  4. Matt

    As a user, I expect the following from links: if they are within the same domain, for them to open in the same window; however, if they link to outside content, I expect them to open in a new tab/window. I had never really thought of any counter argument to this – it’s just what seemed natural to me.

    But the argument against new windows is sound. Because if I want new tabs, I know how to open links in them. Being that design is with the user in mind, and not your own browsing habits, I can see now that my initial design decisions for _blank may have actually been hurting the very people I was trying to engage.

    It’s interesting that any well presented argument can break down preconceptions on things as simple whether or not opening links in a new window is good design or not. I can see now that it does, in fact, take power from the very people you’re trying to interact with. Thanks for this article!

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