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Opening links in new windows: scenarios where it makes sense

From a usability standpoint, many would argue that links should not open in new windows. The trend became popular mostly because it would allow users to stay on the original site they were surfing, but also quickly browse relevant content on other sites. The problem with this is that you are telling the user’s browser to behave in a certain way. By opening links in new windows, you are overriding the default action – which is most often what users are comfortable and familiar with.

However, I’ve often found myself frustrated when sites wouldn’t open external links in new windows. I would always want to go back to the original site and not have to wait for it to reload. As easy as it is to use the back button (the most commonly used button on browsers), it’s even easier to just click out of the external site and have the original pop up again. Based on years of browsing the web, I’ve found three scenarios in which it makes more sense to have links open in new windows.

Scenarios to Open Links in New Windows

1. Blog Posts

Quality blog posts almost always include external links to additional relevant information and resources. These links are all somehow related to a central idea or theme that the blogger is trying to communicate through that particular post. Why, then, would readers want to be taken to a new site that represents only a portion of that relevant content? The links should act as a supplement to the whole. We all know how easy it is to get side tracked on the web, and some might never make it back to the original article if they stray too far through external links.

2. Non-HTML Documents

If the hyperlink leads user to a document that is not html, it is also often a supplement to the web content. Additionally, documents may not include all the information that a website has directing users where they are and where to go. For example, a PDF version of a news article might not include the brand’s logo or web address. It is easy to get lost when we don’t have these constant reminders that we’re used to.

3. Help

If a link provides more detailed information or help for users trying to complete an action on your site, it’s best to have it open in a new window so they can still see the task at hand. Navigating away from the task will disrupt user’s concentration, but opening a new window will allow them to see the step-by-step process side-by-side. Perhaps a small pop-up window would be better in this scenario, but some form of new window is necessary in these situations.

A Matter of Choice

All of these scenarios are subject to your audience. If you are confident your visitors are tech-savvy internet users, you can open links in new windows without too much concern. Some of the main reasons why you shouldn’t open links in new windows are targeted to intermediate/novice web users, which account for a majority of those on the web.

These users might be confused by links opening in new windows because:

  • They are expecting the link to open in the same window – it is the default action when you click on a link
  • There is no way to retrace their steps, since the back button is now reset
  • They may not realize a new window has opened, and might assume the link is dead or broken

For the usability-conscious developer, if you are looking for a compromise to open links in new windows, try adding a small pop-up icon, which is generally recognized as an indicator of where the new link will open. While this sets up a decent middle ground, it’s impossible to cater to the wants of every person in a particular audience. Developers have long debated issues such as this, and the decision will ultimately come from personal preference and a solid understanding of the target audience.

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