Why opening links in a new tab is bad for users

The majority of all links on the world wide web open in the same tab. Changing this default behaviour is bad for your websites usability and accessibility and here’s why:

Removes user choice

For me the most important reason why all links should open in the same tab is the user maintains control of what they are doing.

As a user if I want to open a link in a new tab I can. I highlight the link in the browser and select the option.

However, if the situation is reversed there is no option to maintain a link in the same tab.

Possible website link options on an android phone

This is an example of a link opening in a new tab. This is done by adding target=”_blank” to the links HTML.

Try and make the link stay in the same tab – you can’t I hear you say which is exactly the reason why you shouldn’t do it.

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 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 tab 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 have 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.

Web accessibility guidelines state if you do open a link in a new tab 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 tab or is it a link to an external site – or both.

Warning the user is not the answer as they can’t do anything to stop the behaviour.

Let the user stay in control and keep links opening in the same tab.

Comments

  1. eliza says:

    warning the user means they can choose not to proceed if they are doing something on the page they might lose, no?

  2. Peter Brumby says:

    @eliza, if the user is doing something on a page and they click on a link which means they lose what they are doing is just poor design. The solution is to avoid the distractions or pitfalls which could cause this.

    In addition you could store the data locally via secure cookie so the user could come back to the form.

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