External links in new window or not?

I had no idea that there were such strong feelings over this seemingly innocuous topic of whether to open external links in new window (or tab).

This controversy was brought to my attention by Abbey Wilkins of Pretty Good Design.  (Thanks Abbey!) Since then I have read a number of articles on this topic (some of which are in the Reference section below).

Personally I hate links that open in the same window (especially Google SERPS!!!)

SERP = Search Engine Results Page

 

Thinking that my feelings reflected the majority, I was quite shocked to find that there are many people who passionately prefer  external links not open in new tabs or windows.  Nonetheless, in terms of user preferences, it is not a foregone conclusion as there are still people like me who actually MUCH prefer  external links open in a new window.  So the controversy continues.

The perspective that Abbey pointed out to me had to do with usability considerations – mainly, what is most user friendly for the user.

But as I continued to pursue this topic on and off, I came to realize that one’s point of view could also be affected by one’s perspective. By that I mean, are you  looking at it from:

  • users’s viewpoint (usability considerations) or
  • SEO and Analytics considerations – e.g. impact on Bounce rates
Note: Though I may use the phrase “new window”, note that in today’s new technology, that generally means “new tab” (in the same browser).

 

Usability Considerations on Opening External Links in New Window or not

The main arguments from the proponents of not opening external links in new window are:

  • it will “break” or reset the back button
  • users are most familiar with the back button and can get disoriented with a new window opening automatically
  • opening external links in new window  can be “missed completely by some users” [src: W3 document]
  • users feel that control is taken out of their hands when external links open in new window
  • there should be no fear that you will lose visitors because if someone is interested in your content and/or if your content is quality, they will Back-button their way back to your page
  • if users want to open external links in new window, they know how to do so themselves

In this area of usability, I think that it is also important to consider the  demographics of your intended target audience. Are they  old or young?, tech savvy or newbie? visually impaired? what types of hardware are they using? (old legacy computers? tablets? desktops/laptops?)

If the majority of your audience are most likely to be older people, less tech savvy, are only used to the historical back button, and may likely have visual impairments and/or other disabilities – then yes, I agree. Don’t open external links in new window as they are more likely to (only know and) use the browser back button.

back button fatigue

Back Button is tired!

As for “breaking” or resetting the back button (caused by opening the external links in new window), the counter argument is “Back Button Fatigue“.  When links open in the same window, a user is very likely to be clicking through to more links in each subsequent site. Trying to find their way back to your site often leads to them not finding your site again or causing them to go back and forth, searching.

Additonally, having to click the back button multiple times to go back to a desired page can be a frustrating experience as the user has to wait for the pages to reload every time. (This of course is impacted by the user’s internet speed.)

Re. the control issue where users feel as if control has been taken out of their hands by having external links open in new window without any warning to them; I can understand their sentiments.  I hope they can understand mine regarding the annoyance of having to use the right-click submenu or Ctrl+Click or the middle mouse button (which I don’t have) to open links in new window.

As for taking back control, users have total control about clicking to close a tab/window anytime they choose.

Re the argument that users know how to open external links in new window by themselves.

Honestly, until researching this topic, I (being not quite web-retarded) only knew of the right-click method!

external links in new window will help

You want ME to open in new window?

I also personally don’t find that general users (of my acquaintance) know how to open a new window by themselves. When I watch my less tech savvy friends, I can see them often relying inefficiently on the back button.  When I ask them why they don’t just open the external links in a new window, they look at me completely mystified.  When I show them the submenu (right-click method), they nod and promptly forget it.  And when they get lost in the Back-Forward method in trying to find the originating site, they find it much easier to close the whole browser (!) and then type in the URL again (if they can remember it).

Sidenote: that is why I discourage people from using my browser when I am working.  When they close down my browser, all my open tabs (with ongoing research) are lost!

 

SEO & Analytics considerations on Opening External Links in New Window or not

From this standpoint, it is mostly for opening external links in new window (as far as I can see).  We all know that it is a good thing to give “link love” (outbound/external links to sites of relevance).

Opening external links in the same window lowers your bounce rate tremendously.  It shows as if people stayed on your site for shorter periods than they might have, i.e. they “bounced” off rapidly.  Of course it is also true that opening external links in new window also skews the same analytics by showing users staying on your page longer than they did (because part of that time, they were looking at information in the other tabs).

The proponents for opening external links in the same window argue that if your content is good, then users will Back button back to your site.  This may be sound good in theory but I hypothesise that this is not so in practice.

bye bye lost visitors

Visitors gone 🙁

From a SEO standpoint, we know web publishers/developers work darn hard to get traffic in the first place.  You don’t want to lose this traffic by sending users off to other sites because you are giving out “link love”.  Coupled with this, we all know that internet users have a very small attention span.  By the time they get to another site (in the same window) and read content there (which is likely to be good if your links are of any value), they may not remember or have time to Back button their way back to your site.

What is more likely to happen is that on the next site (in that same window), they find other links – and off they go.  Before you know it, they are a long way from your site with barely a glimmer of memory of which site they originated from.

All not great incentives, from an SEO and analytics point of view, to usher your readers onto other sites in the same window.

 

Personally

I find that I often need to open links in new window because I do a lot of research and need to reference multiple sites at the same time.  But that’s me.  

I especially wish that Google’s SERPs would open external links in new window.  First of all, you have a full list of possible sites that might answer your query.  But you don’t know which will and which will not.  And you can often find a site which will unexpectedly yield a different line of interest than you originally thought.  So keeping that list of potentials on that SERP page open and untouched, seems sensible to me.

And the back button with regards to the SERP is not great.  You are midway somewhere down the Google results page and you click a link.  That link opens to a site in the same window. After reading a bit, you want to go back to that list of search results.  You click the Back button.  Are you back to that midway point?  No.  You are back to the top of the SERP page and you have to search for where you last stopped.  Not enjoyable.

As pointed out by a user on GitHub, there are a number of big authority sites that automatically open external links in new window.

  • Google+
  • Twitter
  • Gmail
  • Facebook
  • Youtube
  • Plug.dj
  • turntable.fm

And rightly pointed out on that same site, clicking a link that opens in the same window interrupts audio/music you might be listening to on that original site.

I especially find the article written by Evan Stoecker on Certona “Should All Links Automatically Open in a New Tab?” most persuasive.

 

A Compromise

I was originally not going to discuss this topic at all because I saw how heated some of the feelings were regarding whether or not to open external links in new window.  However it is hardly a topic I could ignore.  My last posting had all the external links opening in the same window.  But I must say I felt most conflicted and uncomfortable about it.

Now the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has often been cited by the people who say not to open external links in new window.  The W3C is definitely an authority source to listen to. Not because they can blacklist or penalize you (they are not Google) but because they are held in the highest regard in terms of good web practices.

W3C’s primary activity is to developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web. W3C’s standards define key parts of what makes the World Wide Web work.” [src: W3C Help & FAQ] (The highlighting is mine.)

Sidenote: If you think there is a grammatical error in the quote above, please be assured that I copied the quote directly from W3C site 😀

 

Yes, even though W3C in collaboration with others, do issue standards like on CSS, XML, SVG, etc., they also publish guidelines.

W3C says “In general, it is better not to open new windows and tabs since they can be disorienting for people, especially people who have difficulty perceiving visual content.” [src: W3C on Opening new windows and tabs] (Underlining is mine).

That is a guideline.  And W3C does suggest a compromise of sorts: to incorporate some means of indicating to the user that a link will open in a new window. [src: W3C: Using target attribute .. and indicating this in link text]

The example code given by W3C is:

<a href="help.html" target="_blank">Show Help (opens new window)</a>

With the end result on the web page looking like this (non-working example):
Show Help (opens new window)

The text “opens new window” is a visual cue to advise the user that the link will open in a new window. I think using visual cues could be some compromise that may work better than either just opening external links in new window vs in same window.  And in line with visual cues, I prefer the use of icons. Especially as it can become very tedious to add the text for every external link on a page which has a lot of links.

I especially love the solution given by askthecssguy.com in “Showing Hyperlink Cues with CSS“.  He uses some very standard and recognizable icons as visual cues and employs the power of CSS.  With the use of of simple CSS, one can efficiently indicate the types of links one has on a page.

Tip: He also has a downloadable .zip file with all his examples and CSS code.

hyoerlink visual cues

Using icons as visual cues with hyperlinks

So that is what I have decided to do from hereon in (as you can see on this page).  However I will not be going backwards to modify my earlier postings. There is, after all, more to life than this!


Reference for those who like more:

Yes to Open External Links in New Window

No to Open External Links in New Window

 

 

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