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External links in a new window?

Exit leftSince the early days of web-publishing I have been adding a target="_blank" attribute to all the external links I create on my websites. This has partly been to keep readers from 'forgetting' about my site after leaving through an interesting link, but mostly because my personal browsing preference is to open most links in new tabs so I can complete reading that page later. It makes sense to me, so it should to everyone else too, right?

Maybe not, so have googled a bit to find out other peoples preferences on this topic, and while the opposition to forced new windows appear very vocal, these polls surprisingly shows that a majority actually prefers links opening in a new window, especially if it is indicated on the link that it is so.

From the debate around that poll and on other sites I came across, the opposition to forced new windows generally take the stance that users are not ignorant and should be allowed to choose for themselves, since browsers make this very easy nowadays. Adherents to forced new windows on the other hand claim that many people hardly even know about tabbed browsing, or even the back button (!), so helping them discover this is a good thing. Besides those who already are in know are likely to open the link in a new tab anyway, since that is the reasonable way to browse for experienced netizens.

I would tend to agree most with the latter statements, but I'm still considering to get rid of my forced new-window links as a token of good faith to my readers. Well and also because Jakob Nielsen is against it, but what do you think?

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Comments (3)

Very good question. As far as tabs go, the tendency for browsers seems to be to take target="_blank" literally and open a new window, which wholly defeats the point of tabs. With appropriate tweaking however it's usually possible to convince a browser that you really don't want a new window after all, which is great as it really is quite irritating. I've removed most if not all of target="_blank from my own site now. It cannot though be guaranteed to teach anyone about tabs.

The idea that it forces people to learn about new tabs and windows is a curious one, and I'm all for user education, but maybe this approach is a little harsh? The iCab Web browser indicates links with target="_blank set with a special cursor, which at least reminds you to ask it for a new tab!

For the most part it seems that Firefox and IE opens target=_blank links in a new tab instead of in a new window if tabbed browsing is enabled. Also for IE7 in particular it appears as if the browser itself is designed to teach people about tabs rather than use windows, so that web-designers shouldn't have to worry about that anymore. However it would still be nice to have a way of letting people know about the behavior of a link. Many of the comments and discussions I read on this topic, of which many are linked in the entry, seem to prefer having links opening in a new window labeled as such with an icon or similar, and for a while I considered adding a CSS-placed icon to such links instead of getting rid of the target=_blank, but I eventually decided that it would be too much hassle.

That the iCab browser indicates such links with a special cursor is particularly interesting however, as this really is a browser-level issue rather than something to be implemented on a per page basis. After all it is the browser that decides how to implement the target=_blank functionality in the first place, which would make it natural that the browser also implemented how various types of links are indicated. This especially applies to Firefox that even has an option to open all external links in a new tab/window or not, regardless of what is indicated by the link-author, and it should therefore also have some way of indicating which links does what. Maybe a suggestion to the Firefox-devs are in order?

There is a Firefox add-on—Link Alert—that permits you to see the target of, and other details about hyperlinks as an icon that floats beside the mouse cursor.

Another feature that may make into Firefox one decade (when the Mozilla people stop arguing) is the ability to view the destination of a fragment anchor; this was also added to iCab, at my suggestion.

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