Should links open new windows?

This question of whether a link on a website should, when clicked, open a new browser window/tab or simply use the currently open window has been heavily debated elsewhere, but not so much within the insights world.
Until relatively recently, the general advice was to open external links in a new browser window or tab, for example by using the target=”_blank” instruction the HTML. However, more recently a well-informed, vocal, and at times vitriolic group of the digerati have been pushing for a change, suggesting that external links should show their content in the current browser window.

The case for NOT opening a new window
The alternative to opening a new window when somebody clicks on an external link (like this link [http://www.aphoenix.ca/why-external-links-should-not-open-in-new-tabs-01/] to an article on this topic elsewhere), is to use the current window/tab to show the new location. There are broadly three advantages to NOT opening a new window/tab:

  1. Opening in the same window puts the user in charge, rather than letting the content provider influence the choice. If the user wants to use a new window or tab, they can right-click (or similar on non-windows devices) and select “Open in new window” or “Open in new tab”.
  2. If the new content opens in the same window the user can return to the previous content using the browser back arrow. If it is in a new Window or Tab, the user can’t ‘back out’ of the material, they would have to click on the other window/tab or close the new one.
  3. On mobile devices, a new window can be clunky to manipulate, compared with working with the same window.

The case for opening in a new window
The arguments for using a new window tend to be more pragmatic than rooted in deep principle. Key reasons include:

  1. Using the same window for external links loses the visitor, this, it is argued, reduces the ROI of the site. The ROI might be measured in advertising revenue, leads, enquires etc. If people are more likely to leave, they might be less likely to buy, register, query etc.
  2. ‘My house, my rules’, if a user visits a company’s website then they have a choice of accepting the site’s rules or not using it. The site has an imperative not to create rules that reduce the number of relevant visitors, but the site does not (in most cases) belong to the visitor.
  3. Many internet users prefer it to be in the same window, and similarly, many internet users do not know how to force their browser to open a link in a new window/tab. Both of these ‘facts’ are explored later in the post.

What do the leading blogs do?
Given that the debate on this topic seems to be fairly one-sided, with most of the sites I have checked recommending NOT opening in a new window, we might expect that most of the leading blogs would follow this advice. However, this is not the case, only two of the top ten blogs open in the same window.

Using Technorati’s list of the top ten blogs, I visited each blog and clicked on the first external link I could find, and categorised the site as being New Window or Same Window. This produced the table below:

Technorati Nov 2013

Some data about users
In order to move from conjecture to a more informed view I secured the assistance of Vision Critical’s Springboard team to add two questions to their UK Omnibus (Great Britain, online, N=2005, November 11, 2013).

I asked two questions:

  • Preference in terms of same or different window
  • Ability to force a link to open in a new window

Here is what we found:

New Window or Same Window?
The question was “Qn. Thinking about when you are browsing a website, for example the BBC. Sometimes they have links to articles on other sites, for example on the Daily Mail. Which of these two do you prefer the browser to do when you click on a link?”

Question Data

Only 15% of the sample said they wanted the new material to appear in the same window, with 50% saying they wanted a new window, and 29% saying they did not have a preference. If this finding was repeated amongst other samples, populations, and contexts, it would contradict the view that most people wanted the material to appear in the same window.

Amongst the 18-34 year olds, slightly more wanted the material to open in the same window (19% versus 15%), but amongst this group even more want the material in a new window (61% versus 50%). The key driver of the differences is that fewer of the 18-34 year olds said they had ‘no preference’.

Knowledge about opening in a new window
The question for this query was “Qn+1. When you are browsing a website and you click on a link to another website, do you know how to make your browser open the new website in a new window, as opposed to re-directing the current window?”

Question Data

Only 50% of respondents, all members of an online panel, say they know how to force a link to open in a different window. In contrast, 17% said No, 26% were not sure, and 7% said they did not have an idea about what the question was asking.

Amongst the under 34 year olds, the number who said they know how to do this is 62%, just under two-thirds. Amongst those aged 55 or more, only 38% said they knew how to open the link in a new window. There is also a gender difference, more men say they know how to open in a new window (57%), compared with females (44%) – however, since this is self-reported, we can’t be sure if men are over-claiming in relation to females.

Links to the same site?
Most people seem to agree that links to other pages from the same site should open in the same window. If links within a site opened in new windows, the user could quickly end up with a very large number of windows or tabs.

Your views?
As always, I’d love to hear your views. However, one request, if you are commenting, it would be great to know if you are from the insights/market research industry, or from some other field – but this is not compulsory.

One thought on “Should links open new windows?

  1. The user experience / web usability community discussed (and user tested) this to death in early-to-mid 00’s and the answer they came up with was that websites should not take control away from users, break web navigation (back button).

    Since then the advent of tabbed browsing and general increase in web-proficiency have made some of that discussion pointless.

    Given that more and more media consumption happens in mobile devices where the general browsing behaviour is very different I think it’s becoming a bit of a moot point. People pop between apps, app open some links inside themselves, for others launch web page that triggers another app etc.

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