“Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer’s carpet. Don’t pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks (particularly since current operating systems have miserable window management).”

Jakob Nielsen


I have to say, I completely agree with Jakob on this one: Opening external links in a new window is a terrible idea. It’s inconsiderate to users and makes assumptions about behavior I do not believe to be true.

I started building Web sites in 1998 and have been creating links that open in new windows ever since. I’m sorry. Here we are in 2015 and I’m still doing it. Not as often, thankfully, but the request does still come up from time to time.

No WindowsMore often than not, this practice is motivated by a desire to keep users on your site. I’m not convinced it accomplishes this. Opening new windows (or tabs, depending on the browser settings) without asking the user if that’s what they wanted is rude, and a violation of several principles of interaction design encouraging us to leave control of the the interface in the user’s hands (Shneiderman, Mandel, Tognazzini).

Usability problems are fairly obvious: when we force links to open in new windows, and the user then decides they want to return to our site, they can no longer simply click the “back” button in their browser (’cause we broke that basic functionality). If they didn’t realize that a new tab opened, they may even be confused enough to just close the browser, not realizing that the original site was still open in another tab. It would be much easier to just let the browser work like it was designed and allow the visitor to return to us by clicking “back.”

Here’s an actual PhD Thesis (ooh-la-la!) that reached the same conclusion (http://www.l3s.de/~herder/thesis/herder_thesis_forward_back_and_home_aga...):

A more disturbing consequence of the use of multiple windows is that it disrupts the concept of the back button. Its principle functionality is to return to recently visited pages. If users followed trails in multiple windows or tabs, the recent visit history is split into separate stacks, with no temporal relation. Moreover, each individual stack is does not include actions from the originating window. Hence, users need to remember what actions they performed in which window or tab in order to relocate a previously visited page. This places a high cognitive burden on the user, in addition to the already demanding task of keeping track of their location in the Web (Th¨uring et al. 1995).

EElco Herder, Senior Researcher
L3S Research Center / Leibniz University Hannover.


Honestly, unless there is some sort of actual legal implication that any external content linked from your site is our legal responsibility, I can’t think of a single reason why interrupting the user’s navigation away is a good idea. In nearly any case, I doubt this “legal issue” is the motivation behind this practice. If it is, then I’d suggest a passage in the “Terms of Use” disclaiming responsibility for third party content, or content linked (but not hosted) on the site. However, most “Terms of Use” already disclaim responsibility for any content on the site at all, so I’m not sure adding such a disclaimer regarding external content would would make much difference.

In short, it feels like a trick to me. Worse, it feels like a trick that doesn’t even accomplish the stated goal. There are better ways to keep users returning to your site. Compelling content is a good first step (heck, maybe even the only step). Providing links to truly valuable external content is another. If you do this, users will remember you and will return to your site for more of the same. If you don’t want users to leave your site, that you not provide external links encouraging them to do so. Don’t try to trick them. And definitely DO NOT DUMP AN ASHTRAY ON THEIR CARPET!!

Note: To be fair, in writing this post I came across this article pretty much arguing every point I have but coming to the opposite conclusion. That said, the commenters are (almost without exception) on my team.

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