Major Usability Change: Should Links No Longer Open in New Tabs?

For as long as I have been writing posts for this blog, I have been linking to other websites with the links set to open in a new tab in a web browser (as opposed to a link which opens and replaces the webpage you are currently reading).

I got a request today from one of my readers. He wanted me to stop setting all the embedded links to open in new tabs, and I am seriously considering complying with his request.

I've spent the past hour reading through the new and old usability arguments against opening links in new tabs (here, here), and I have read the design arguments in favor of opening links in new tabs (here, here), and I've decided that usability outweighs design. It does in this case, at least.

In my mind it comes down to how users already behave. The ones who like having lots of tabs open are probably used to choosing to open the link in new tabs, while the users who don't like it are annoyed.

I for one love opening lots of tabs (at any one time I have 40 or more tabs open in Firefox), so it might make sense to have my blog conform to the power users.  But then i got to thinking about how I usually open links, and I realized I'm used to forcing the issue by ctrl-clicking, right-clicking, or in some way choosing to open a link in a new tab.

Here's why I do that: Of all the sites I visit, I can't tell you which ones have their links set to open in new tabs. Some do, but enough don't follow this rule that I am in the habit as a user of forcing the issue to suit myself.

I figure that everyone who likes opening new links in tabs is probably used to forcing the issue, and that means they will not be inconvenienced much by the change on this blog.

That would suggest that the benefit to making the change outweighs the potential loss.

What do you think?

P.S. Don't worry about the work involved. Making the change will take only a couple minutes to edit all the links. But once I have done so it will be terribly difficult to switch them back, so this needs careful consideration first.

44 thoughts on “Major Usability Change: Should Links No Longer Open in New Tabs?

  1. Okay, I answered one way via Twitter but you’ve half-convinced me you’re right. Thing is, I think it’s a lot worse to accidentally lose my place on a page than it is to have an unwanted extra tab pop up.

    Most of the time, on actual websites as opposed to web applications, what I really want is an automatic _background_ tab. Maybe a plugin that’d let me select text & automatically follow all links in new background tabs…which probably even exists. I guess I could write it if it didn’t & I had nothing else going on.

    OTOH as you point out, this means I right-click nearly all the time anyway.

  2. I think you’ve come up with the correct rationale – those of us who prefer individual tabs are used to cmd-clicking (or ctrl-clicking or whatever else it takes) to accomplish this when we require it.

  3. I agree with you. There isn’t nearly enough saturation of the new-tab approach to rely on it, and if I don’t force one its because I’m done reading the main article and want it to replace the current tab.

  4. As a user who normally has quite a few tabs open (up to 70 in two browser windows), I never rely on the link to open a new tab. I right click to force the link to a new tab. I do not ever want to have to search for the page I started at, when I open a link. I do not bother with history and other things to get me to the right place, either. That may come from a long time back, when browsers and operating systems crashed more often, and history got lost in the crash. I did not even realize links could be forced to behave one way or the other, I just assumed everyone opens them with a right click if they want a new tab or window.

  5. I like the way it is set up now. When I open links in the existing tab sometimes I close the tab and accidently close something that I was working on before I started looking at the blog.

    So one vote for leaving it as it is.

  6. Advanced, web savy users can force a new tab using the method of their choice, (no one else middle click?) But the vast majority of web users don’t know how to do this, and I think having links that open to a new tab is overall a friendlier approach. That is, if 75% (entirely made up number) of readers don’t know or understand how to open links in a new tab at will, the majority of those will have a better experience if you do it for them.

  7. Something else to consider is that although some of us are so used to opening links in new tabs by default (it’s basically the only way I click links these days) we still have no idea how to force a link to open in the current window. I know I don’t know how! And that bothers me when I do want to keep things in the same window and it keeps forcing the link to open in a new tab/window even when I try to get it to do otherwise. :) I’m sure I’ve looked it up before but I can never remember how when I need it.

    1. That’s a good point. I don’t know this either, and I’d bet the reason we don’t know how to force a link to open in the same tab is that the browsing experience has trained us to assume that a link will open in the same tab.

      1. I am beginning to use Chrome to do my internet stuff, and just learned over the weekend that I can close a web site by clicking the “X” on the web site’s tab. I will go with the flow. To demostrate how slow I am with tabs and links and other internet using issues, your article stumped me until I read the comments. THEN, a light went off, I just hope I got the jest of the conversation. I trust you, Mr. Nate will do what is best for us all. What does Mr. Mike think?

    1. Hmmmm…. and now that I think of it, isn’t this actually a *browser setting* for people? Won’t a browser let you choose to open everything in a new tab by default?

  8. And there he is. Mr. Mike answered as I wrote my comments. Happy New Year, Mr. Mike. Oh, some may be wondering why I address these men as Mr. Nate and Mr. Mike. It is a sign of respect. We Americans tend to call people by their first names too quickly and Mr. Last Name by be too formal to some, I compromised with Mr. First Name. There you have it. If some of you were not wondering or thought I am postering, oh well.

  9. I definitely vote for leaving it as it is. I didn’t know that you could automatically force a link to open in a new tab, so I haven’t been doing that. I much prefer not to lose a page that I’ve been working from than getting too many tabs.

  10. I have a wheel mouse–where the wheel is also the third/center mouse button–to open a link in a new tab, I just center-click. This works in both Windows and Ubuntu.

  11. Ever since I started using a tabbed browser (Opera was my first) I’ve opened links in new tabs. I do it myself, didn’t even know the website was setup with that as default. If someone didn’t want to open in new tab, having that as default would be annoying. My vote goes to changing.

    To that one or two people that claimed they don’t know how to open in a new tab– really!? really!? I suppose you don’t know how to close a browser either?

    On Linux, Windows and *BSD: center click to open in new tab.
    On Mac: ctrl+click->open in new tab.
    On all: right click->open in new tab.

    Works that way for IE, Safari, Firefox, and Opera.

  12. Thanks for referencing my linking out article above Nate.

    I am personally divided on what I do when actually surfing. Sometimes I click a link as is in the page (then get mad because my popup blocker stops me on the sites that use open new tab). Other times (usally when it is a list post) I right click to open in a new tab (which can be equally troubling because the author has disabled right click).

    Letting the visitor have control is always the best.

  13. I would say, leave as is.

    I have been building/designing websites for about 12 years now. Here is my take;

    Internal website links (to pages within the same website) I always open inside the same page/tab.

    External weblinks (other url) I always choose to add the external weblink option. Better for statistics, seo,usabilty etc. (stats about pageviews, and length of time visited on each page.)

    You would want people to stay on YOUR website/page instead of going somewhere else, and ‘never’ come back (the casual reader), or forget where they found the link in the first place.

    The way I see it, it is nice, polite, to open up a new tab, instead inside the same page/window/tab.

    I open a new tab via middle click/right click. Personally i find it very irritating when external urls/weblinks open inside the same tab. But then again, I am not an avarage user ;-)

    1. “You would want people to stay on YOUR website/page instead of going somewhere else, and ‘never’ come back (the casual reader), or forget where they found the link in the first place.”

      That is plain selfish and petty. Create meaningful content to draw in and retain readers, not cheap tricks. I would like to think that Nate is above that. The user interface should be designed to be easy, functional and convenient for the user. You’re the same kind of person that advocated Walmart restructuring their stores to make it harder to find things to force the shoppers to be in their longer, and buy more things.

      So I decided to see what major websites use your trick: amazon– no. WP– no. Cnet– no. Youtube– no. If you have what people want, you don’t need to use vile tricks to grow or retain traffic. If you don’t have what people want, those tricks will not double your traffic. The key to actual good design is to make a site that is fast, easy to use. Focus on functional for the user.

      1. You are entitled to your opinion, but I am sorry you feel this way about my comment. It is never my intention to offend anyone.

        “That is plain selfish and petty…”

        I am only expressing MY take on it, you do not have to agree with anything. In my experience this is want (most) corporate clients ask for. This does not have to reflect this website. It is ‘marketing’, like product locations in supermarkets.

        Btw, it is not a cheap trick, it is/has been common practice. Using false facebook likes is a cheap trick!

        Usability and design do not always agree, I know that. But it is also common practice to re-evaluate and re-align instead of redesign. That is what Mr. Nate is doing; re-align! And that is a good thing.

    2. With due respect, usability expert Jakob Nielsen disagrees as to the usability of opening links in a new tab (window):

      9. Opening New Browser Windows

      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).

      Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.

      Links that don’t behave as expected undermine users’ understanding of their own system. A link should be a simple hypertext reference that replaces the current page with new content. Users hate unwarranted pop-up windows. When they want the destination to appear in a new page, they can use their browser’s “open in new window” command — assuming, of course, that the link is not a piece of code that interferes with the browser’s standard behavior.

      Referenence: Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design January 1, 2011
      http://www.nngroup.com/articles/top-10-mistakes-web-design/

      Breaking the back button is also annoying. (wink)

      1. As much as I like and respect Dr Nelsen, I’m not sure you can quote him here. That opinion dates to 2001, a time before tabs. It’s not clear that he has reevaluated this position with respect to the new web browser features.

  14. I’d vote for changing it… When I want a link to open in a new tab (maybe 10% of the time), I either ctrl-click or click with the wheel on my mouse; if I left-click it’s because I’m ready at that point to change pages. In the extremely rare cases where I click accidentally, I just use the “back” thumb-button on the mouse; Firefox doesn’t normally lose my spot, and the rare times it does, it’s not difficult to scroll down or use search-as-you-type with the last phrase or two that I recall reading.

  15. I prefer to have the link open in a new tab. I view it as insurance in case I forget to force it to happen. I came to your site to read what you have to say, not to continuously be led away from your site. I like being able to click a link, view the article in another tab, close the tab, and still have your site before me, waiting for me to click the next link that interests me or move on to another of your posts.

  16. Glad I jumped from my RSS feed to the blog post so I could read these comments. I didn’t know the center scroll wheel/button could open a link in a new tab. Learn something new every week!

    I am one of those who prefer my links to open in a new tab, especially for bloggers who put links in the middle of their posts. “Oh, here’s a link; open in a new tab so I remember to read it after I’m done with this post.” Unlike some, I prefer to finish one article before moving on to the next. If the link opens in the same tab, I have to go back through the article to find the link(s) I wanted to follow. Sometimes I remember to right click, sometimes I don’t; I don’t think of myself as a power user.

  17. Personal preference is to open in a new tab. And yes, I usually force that anyway with a middle-click.

    Ideologically, I think that links to other sites should open in a different window. It’s a different site. Links within the site should open in the same window.

    From a usability standpoint, it gets more muddled. I’ve gone to far too many sites where the Back Button simply doesn’t work. It takes you to a redirector which just takes you back to the site you were trying to back out of. The widespread use of URL-shorteners has made this quite common nowadays. This is one of the reasons I open new sites in new tabs when I’m browsing: I want to be able to get out of that site and back where I was.

    Also, there’s usually a performance issue. Caching or not, precious few sites just “snap back up” when you reach them via the Back Button. Some of them take quite a while. The “average” web page today is reported to require close to 100 separate http requests. I don’t know about for *this* site. With browsers typically allowing six simultaneous requests, it takes a while to get all of those requests satisfied.

    On the other hand, the Back Button does give you a chance to serve more ads.

  18. I didn’t even know you DIDN’T have links open in a new tab, since I have been force-opening links in new tabs since tabs became a thing. So the change wouldn’t really affect me (I opened THIS link in a new tab, in fact!).

  19. I’ve always felt that linking to a new tab or window was a kind of selfish act of insecurity. Maybe it’s weird to anthropomorphize a bit of UI, but the act seems to cry of “Don’t leave me!” or a kind of lack of confidence that the content on the site isn’t good enough on its own to lure the reader back. Strangely, I often open links into new tabs precisely because I don’t want to lose the original source. But when a site does it for me, well… I just sort of pity that site :)

    1. Where as I, on the other hand, think that is is the polite and useful thing for a site to do, and feel annoyed when I accidentally click on a link and the current page I’m looking at disappears. I usually middle click to force the issue when I’m working on a computer, but on touch screens, the whole hold-wait-select open in new page thing is a total pain in the ass. And a large percentage of the time, doesn’t work, and I end up selecting the link anyway. As website that has the good manners to open that in a new page/tab for me always leaves a good feeling.

  20. Edit.. Sorry.

    I quit all my websites on Jan 1st 2012 when they passed the NDAA, but when I shut everything down (by backing up and then adding .htaccess DENY FROM ALL) , ALL my EXTERNAL links at that time were with target = _blank , like Debbie says above the internal links were direct (in the same tab) from page to page.

    I also didn’t leave OPEN directories. (there’s a nice open directory php script out there I used and custom modified, all it does is list the files like the old bbs parsers would grep out the file_id.diz and make a files.bbs sffiles.bbs index.htm etc., Today however it grabs embedded info from photos, or the filesize, etc — all custom set.)

    Always index something in the root, especially those little emergency posting projects to promote things at the last second. Where the graphics end up in

    ~/home/httpd/graphics
    ~/home/httpd/graphic
    ~/home/httpd/gfx

    etc…

    I also stuff a plethora of
    .htaccess DENY FROM ALL in all the sub-dirs with files. Stop that open directory browsing, dunno why the article got me off tangent here. LOL

    Hope it helps someone.

    peace out

  21. I always have links which open to another site open in a new tab. If the link goes to a page on the same site it opens it in the current tab. I have that set up with the Tab Mix Plus extension for firefox. On my tablet with Chrome I have to use a long press and then select new tab from the popup menu, which I find cumbersome compared to having it automatic.

    But I agree that you’re forcing your preference on your readers by always opening links in a new tab. If you switch you should provide a link to instructions for how to open links in a new tab.

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