Don’t Force New Windows On Your Visitors

A couple of weeks ago Darren Rowse asked readers should (external) links open in a new window?. Actually Darren had been asked by one of his readers and Darren was smart enough to know the question would make for a good blog post so he asked the rest of us. Today he read through all the comments and posted the results and surprisingly ProBlogger readers preferred to have a new window 54% to 45%. Surprising, because I think this is one of the worst things a site can do.

The main argument site owners give for opening a new window is to keep visitors on their site. In fact much of the time it’s phrased as “I want to force my visitors to stay on my site.” Forcing your visitors to do something is never a good idea. We’re living in the age of respecting your visitors and being transparent to them. Forcing people is never a good way to earn their trust.

When I hear people say they want to keep visitors by not letting them leave it makes me wonder how much confidence they have in their content. If your content is good people will come back. You don’t need to hold them hostage. I visit many websites multiple times in the same day. I visit, I leave, and I come back. I know you do the same thing. If you want to keep visitors give them a reason to return. If you have to keep visitors by refusing to let them leave then keeping them there isn’t going to do you any good. If your content can’t keep them they’ll still leave.

Why do people think when you open a link in a new window you keep someone on your site anyway. That person has still left your site. They just happen to be in a different window. It doesn’t matter, though. Either way they are not interacting with your site.

When I’m surfing I open most links in a new tab. I do this myself without needing it done for me. I do it because sometimes as I’m reading I want to know what you’ve linked to, but I know I’m not ready to leave your site yet. Sometimes though, I am done with your site and when I’m ready to leave I don’t appreciate not being allowed to. When you force a new window you take away the choice from your visitor. That’s not showing them respect.

The technical arguments amuse me in regards to the issue. Some will tell you that non tech savvy users won’t be able to figure out how to get back to your site. Really? Is the back ‘button’ that hard to use? Please don’t try to tell me that the ‘close’ button is any easier to use. Someone who is confused by one is confused by the other. The person you hope to keep on your site is the one who continues on in the new window. You’re hoping that when they do eventually close that window they’ll see your site sitting there and start interacting with it again. The person who’s gone off surfing for awhile in a new window is done browsing when they closed that window. That’s why they closed it. You know what they’re going to do when they see your site sitting there? They’re going to close it too.

Let’s pretend for a minute that you should open external links in a new window. That’s going to be a fun web to surf isn’t it. Every time you click a link a new window opens. How many links do you click over the course of a few minutes? Think of all the new windows you’ll have open after an hour of surfing. Think of how slow your computer is going to be running with all those windows competing for the attention of your computers processor.

I understand people have preferences. Some people do like new windows (or tabs) opening. Not forcing a new window doesn’t take that option away from you. Forcing a new window (or tab) does take away the option for someone who wants the same window. That’s the main issue. All the technical arguments of savvy and non savvy users are meaningless.

Savvy users are finding their way back. If they can’t figure out how to get back to your site they’re not savvy.

Non savvy users can certainly get confused and as site builders part of our job is to keep that from happening. How does opening a new window make it easier for a non savvy visitor? If a ‘back’ button is beyond their grasp then so is a new window. If anything a new window will confuse them more. Now they have two confusing computer things in front of them instead of one.

When It Is Ok To Open A New Window

Now I’ll admit there are some reasons why it would be ok to open a new window. I think when you’re linking to a PDF or other non-html media it’s fine. Even then I think you should still let the person know the link will open in a new window before they click. I also think it’s fine to open a new window when you’re very confident the reason to click the link is only temporary. Clicking a thumbnail to see a full size image is a good example.

You might be surprised that with everything I’ve said I have a page with links that do open a new window. It’s my portfolio and some of the links open a larger image in a new window and some of the links open the site I developed in a new window. The reason for the new window in both cases is I feel very confident a person who clicks on either link isn’t really done with the page. It’s certainly a possibility they weren’t planning on coming back, but since the only information I’m giving about those other sites is in relation to how I developed it I feel safe in saying that people clicking aren’t clicking to interact with that site. They are still interacting with mine.

I could go on with more reasons why I think it’s a bad idea to open new windows, but chances are you were either with me from the start or think I’m a raving lunatic by now. The same window/new window argument seems to get emotionally charged rather quickly. I’ll leave you with a few more articles on the subject. They will all open in the same window. I trust you can find you’re way back.

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  1. My main argument has nothing to do with the back button though. My argument is the new window takes away my choices. Opening links in the same window doesn’t take away any choice for anyone. You can still open the link in a new window or tab if you want. I don’t appreciate when someone else is dictating to me how I can do something that’s my business not theirs.

    I take it that’s one vote for me being a raving lunatic.

  2. You’re missing one subtle but key element in all of this, which most people do when they present the “back button vs. close” argument: the “close window X” is a feature of all Windows programs (Windows being the OS that generally appeals to the tech-savvy), whereas a back button is unique to web browsers and a select few other applications (and of those other applications, none resemble the back button on a browser.)

    I deal with a large number of techno-children, and every one that has been approached with this question has answered it the same way; they prefer external links to open in a new window.

    Much of it also depends on context, too. If you’re referring to a list of links, then yeah, there may be a case where they should open in the same window because someone is leaving the site at that point. But in the case of say a blog post with relevant external links, opening external links in a new window to provide reference points without forcing the user to hit the back button (they can close a window, or hit ) makes sense.

    Seriously, dude, you’re about the only person I’ve ever seen who gets upset by this. Darren’s poll aside, I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing on this issue.

  3. I have to agree with SELF. ( 😉 ) The back button is unreliable. Between AJAX, redirects, frames, and all kinds of other fun, I really don’t trust it. Personally, I use the drop-down menu right next to the back button, that displays the last ten or so URLs you’ve navigated to, and jump to the one I want. Or start typing into the address bar until it suggests the right one. Or navigate forward around the circle until I’m back where I started.

    When I’m reading something that’s important or interesting enough, I’ll follow some of the more promising links. But I’ll always do that in a new tab; I don’t want to loose my place. I find it a little annoying that I can’t count on the links to open in new tabs, and have to follow them through a context menu, but such is life. The “target=’_blank'” links in Yahoo’s SERPs are the one feature I wish Google would copy from them.

    I don’t think necessarily I’ve lost someone who’s clicked one of my links. The person could be checking something quickly and planning to return – no reason to make that more difficult. Or someone is multi-tasking. You could say my web site is personal and non-commercial, or you could say it’s commercial, but created for “intangible” benefits. It grew out of the same general process as the software I’ve written on my own time; I’m my own preference and acceptability tester. I can’t please everyone, but I can please myself.

  4. Apparently a lot of people like the new tab or window opening. I’m still not one of them. I do realize I’m savvy enough to know how to open links in a new tab and that’s how I surf too. But I don’t like the choice being taken away from me. I also fail to see how using a back button is difficult of confusing. It’s one of the first buttons people learn to use in a browser and it’s very self explanatory. I accept Adam’s (Forrest SEFL is Adam if you didn’t realize) explanation that the big ‘X’ for close is a carry over from desktop applications and may be sightly less confusing.

    By the way since you’re among the savvy, alt+

  5. New windows are rude, end of story. If I want a new window or tab it is easily enogh accomplished. I get in discussions on this topic with my partner regularly. I have talked to customers about it as well, though they are paying the bill so if they want a new window they get it.

    • You can tell they aren’t my favorite either. I don’t mind in some cases if the site gives me some warning that a new window will open.

      What gets to me the most is how people think it keeps you on their site when it does no such thing. I don’t think the new window does anything to keep visitors and since modern browsers allow us to open a new window or tab whenever we want I don’t see the need to force the new window.

      But like you if clients want it that’s what they’ll get along with reasons why they might not want to.

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