Why opening links in a new tab is bad for users

Some websites still open links in a new tab or window. I’m going to explain why this is a bad idea.

Most of you know what a link opening in a new tab or window looks like but just to be clear I’ll give you an example. This link to the BBC website opens in a new tab or window. For this to work you add target=”_blank” to the link code:

<a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk" target="_blank">BBC website opens in a new tab or window</a>

As default most browsers will open a target=”_blank” link in a new tab unless the user changed the setting to open in a new window.

Why you shouldn’t open links in a new tab

Removes user choice

For me the most important reason to ensure all links open in the same window is to keep the user in control. If you open a link in a new window you have made an assumption that that’s what the user wants. Let the user choose what they want to do – it will make them happy.

Back button stops working

To ensure everyone can use the web there are certain design patterns users are familiar with. Most people understand that the back button takes them to the previous page they were just on. However opening a link in a new tab or window resets the back button so you can’t get back to the page you were just on.

Confusing for blind users

Links opening in a new window or tab is bad for blind users. Although most screen readers announce a link is going to open in a new tab it can be easily missed. This can create a confusing experience where the user doesn’t know how many tabs they have open.

Confusing for mobile users

Links opening in a new window might be obvious for most users on a desktop or tablet but on a mobile it isn’t that clear. A user could easily miss the new tab opening and try to use the back button only to find out it doesn’t work.

It might crash the browser

Finally a little discussed issue is that links opening in a new window or tab has the potential to crash your machine. This is especially true for older or low powered devices. Every new tab or window requires a bit more memory to work. Eventually with too many tabs open your browser and potentially your machine will crash.

Industry changes required

Opera back in the early 2000s was the first major browser to incorporate tools to block annoying pop-up ads. Two years later every browser blocked pop-up ads by default.

I believe browsers should force all links to open in the same tab by default – but allow users to change the setting if they want. Once implemented across the industry everyone will benefit from a consistent user experience and extra choice.

Summary

In my opinion if you create a link to open in a new tab or window you don’t have users best interests at heart.

The web accessibility guidelines state if you do open a link in a new window you should warn the user it is about to happen. Some sites do this by adding a little icon but even the icon creates some confusion.

Five examples of the new window icon

Does the icon mean this is a link opening in a new window or is it a link to an external site – or both.

Warning the user that something they probably don’t want to happen is about to happen isn’t great as they can’t do anything about it.

If the likes of Google and BBC open links in the same tab, so can every other site.

Let the user stay in control and have faith in your site’s content.

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