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Should Links Open In New Windows?

No, they shouldn’t. At first glance, the decision to open links in new windows or not depends on the given site and the preferences of its visitors. Visitors to the sites with heavy linking are more willing to have links opened in new windows then open dozens of links in new windows manually. Visitors of less-heavy-linkage-sites are more likely to open some particular link in new window to remain on the site and continue to browse through it afterward. However, this is not true. [Content Care Oct/14/2016]

Users also don’t like to deal with dozens of opened tabs and some visitors tend to become quickly angry with the disabled back button. Furthermore, some visitors may not even realize that a new window was opened and hit the back-button mercilessly — without any result. That’s not user-friendly, and that’s not a good user experience1 we, web designers, strive for.

Place users in control Link

From the usability point of view the decision to enforce opening links in new windows violates one of the fundamental principles of the user interface design: users should always be in control of the interface they are interacting with.

Leading user interface and usability researchers such as

claim that a user-friendly and effective user interface places users in control of the application they are using.

Users need to be able to rely on consistency of the user interface5 and know that they won’t be distracted or disrupted during the interaction. Users must know, understand and anticipate what is going on and what will happen once user interface elements are used. Any deviations from this convention result in a more design-oriented and less user-oriented design.

As Shneiderman claims6, experienced users strongly desire the sense that they are in charge of the system and that the system responds to their actions. As designers, it is our duty to design the system to make users the initiators of actions rather than the responders.

Designers are tempted to enforce users to actually use the interface or browse through the site they have created. Although the rationale behind stems from some clear commercial objectives and therefore often preferred by project managers, it is the designer’s duty to make clear to managers that users do not care.

In fact, developers often tend to forget a simple, almost elementary fact: if users want to close the application or leave a site, they will — doesn’t matter which obstacles are placed on their path to the exit-button. The more obstacles there are the more negative the user experience will be.

As designers, it is our decision to provide users with a clear, unambiguous choice, but we have no right to decide for users which choice they make.

Since users need to be placed in control of the interface they are interacting with, it is wrong to make decisions for them as designer’s decisions don’t necessarily match users’ decisions. The main problem with enforcing links to open in new windows is that this decision overrules user’s decision to control the view in their browser.

Since large websites (Google, Amazon, AOL, Yahoo & Co.) open links in the same window (unless it is explicitly stated that links are opened in new windows), users tend to assume that the link on an unknown page will be opened in the same window. So users expect the link to be opened in the same window.

Let us now consider the following two situations where a user doesn’t know upfront if the site opens links in new windows or the same window:

  1. user wants to open link in a new window, but the site opens links in the same window,
  2. user wants to open link in the same window, but the site opens links in new windows.

In the first situation users can choose to open a link in the new window using context-menu or shortcuts described in the next sections of this article. In this situation, users are the initiators of actions as they decide how the linked page should be displayed. Here site’s behavior meets user’s expectations resulting in a good user experience.

In the second situation users would simply click on the link and suddenly find out that the link is opened in a new window. In this situation users are the responders of actions as they need to react in the way how the linked page is displayed — for instance close the windows that was opened automatically. Furthermore, here site’s behavior doesn’t meet user’s expectations resulting in a bad user experience.

Users find it annoying when the site does something without asking them to do so. If users want to open new windows let them do so and don’t indulge their intelligence by making the decision for them otherwise. Don’t force a new window upon users unless there’s a excellent reason to do so.

Every rule has an exception Link

Of course, there are exceptions: in some situations it is right to open links in new windows and wrong to open links in the same windows. Jakob Nielsen suggests to use new windows in case the linked document is not a .html-document. In this case, he recommends using a pop-up windows without browser control toolbar. In such case it is reasonable to let the user know upfront how the links will be opened.

A small warning icon usually suffices. However, you need to make sure that the link is unlikely to be misunderstood. After all, it is a common practice to use icons to inform the visitors that links lead to external websites. An additional or similar icon may produce irritation. Small usability tests may be helpful and necessary in this situation.

This web site lets its visitors know that a link leads to the external page. However, the icon used may be misunderstood as it can also symbolize opening links in new windows.

It is appropriate to enforce opening links in a new window in case

  • the link provides assistance or help. If you are on a shopping cart page, and users click on a “help” link. In that case, users don’t want to navigate away from the cart page, so a new window is acceptable. In such cases dynamic tooltips are usually better than pop-ups that are again better than opening new windows.
  • the link may interrupt an ongoing process. For instance, if users are filling a web-form and the form provides the link to terms of service or privacy policy below the form it is reasonable to enforce this link to open in a new window to not interrupt the ongoing process. This is important in sign-up forms and crucial in checkout-forms. Otherwise, users may lose the information they’ve already typed in and close the browser window in response.
  • the link leads to a non-html-document. E.g. .pdf-file, .xls-file, .mp3 and so on. Warn users in advance that a new window will appear. When using PC-native file formats such as PDF or spreadsheets, users feel like they’re interacting with a PC application. Because users are no longer browsing a website, they shouldn’t be given a browser UI. Best of all, prevent the browser from opening the document in the first place. Jakob Nielsen explains how it can be done.
  • the link leads to a large image which takes time to load. Opening this image in a new window allows user to focus on your content while the image is being loaded in the background.

Forgive them, for they don’t know what they do Link

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find any recent research findings that would provide us with a better understanding of how users open links if they want to open them in new tabs or windows. However, it is likely to assume that most users don’t know shortcuts and prefer more intuitive straight solutions. More experienced users are more likely to use shortcuts that are described below as well.

There are three reasonable ways for opening links in new windows. Most users use the first option — not because it is the most efficient one, but because it is the most obvious one. These options are implemented in all modern browsers; older browsers may have problems with the second and third options, though.

  1. visitors use the context-menu: users click with the right mouse on the link and select the option “Open link in a new tab/window”. If the link is opened in a new tab, the active window remains the same as it was before the click. If the link is opened in a new window, new window appears, and the new window becomes the active window.
  2. visitors use the Ctrl+click-shortcut: users press the Ctrl+key and click with the left mouse button on the link. The link is automatically opened in a new tab. The active window remains the same as it was before the click. This shortcut can vary depending on the operating system and the browser implementation.
  3. visitors use the middle-click: users point the mouse pointer to the link and press the middle-click of the mouse. The link is automatically opened in a new tab. The active window remains the same as it was before the click.

The first option is definitely the most ineffective yet most popular one. It requires more clicks and more concentration, therefore more time and more cognitive load on the user. The third one is the quickest one as users don’t need to permanently switch between the context-menu and the page itself.

Open links in new tabs
Most users seem to use the context-menu to open links in new tabs or windows. 

The main irritation from the users’ side comes from the fact that most users know only the first option. Consequently, if they want to open links in new windows they need to use the context-menu, with multiple clicks, switching the view back and forth again and again. That’s stressful and unpleasant. Still, opening links in the same window (by default) is the lesser of two evils. And if users don’t know how to do it quickly, tell them explicitly — they will be grateful for your help.

But I can force visitors to stay on my site, right? Link

No. Even if you enforce the external links to open in new windows users will find their way around to open the link on the same page if they want to:

  1. users can copy the link, paste it in the address bar and hit the return button; the link will be opened in the same window.
  2. users can drag the link to the address bar; the link will be opened in the same window.

Unfortunately, not every single browser allows users to do that. However, modern browsers have this functionality implemented since years. If users don’t want a link to open in a new window, they’ll try to find the way to circumvent designer’s decision.

Firefox enables its users to decide how the links designer has chosen to open in new windows should be opened.

Therefore, from the designer’s perspective, it is better to provide users with a clear and clean way to do so respecting their interests and not neglecting their time. If you want your visitors to come back, assist them, guide them, help them, but never impose on their patience and willingness to browse on your site.

Optimal solution Link

In our opinion the most effective and user-friendly solution is to allow users to select how the links should be opened. However, they don’t have to do that via their browser. Designers can provide users with a small check-box that “decides” how the links should be opened. You need to make sure that the checkbox is visible and users understand what it is good for.

This can be done via JavaScript. Once the box is checked all links will be opened in a new tab / window. Just check the box yourself and try it out:

Open external links in a new tab?

Source code for the check-box:

<input type="checkbox" onclick="linkopener(this.checked)" id="linksnewwin">
Open external links in a new tab?

Source code for the JavaScript (you’ll need to replace with your web-site’s URL; thus the browser will be able to distinguish between internal and external links):

<script language="javascript">

function linkopener(a) {
var b = a ? "_blank" : "_self";
var c = document.links;

for (var i=0; i < c.length; i++) {
  if (c[i]"") == -1) c[i].target = b;



function linkopener(a) {
var b=a?”_blank”:”_self”;
var c=document.links;
for(var i=0;i<c.length;i++) {if(c[i]“”)==-1) c[i].target=b};

This JavaScript doesn’t use cookies so if users browse from one side to another their preference won’t be stored. If you’d like the checkbox to work throughout your site you’ll have to consider using cookies to store users’ preferences.

Bottom line Link

It is important that users are placed in control of the user interface they are using. Since users expect the link to be opened in the same window, set your links to open in the same window. Don’t force a new window upon users unless there’s a very good reason to do so. For the latter purpose, consider opening links in new windows if the link provides assistance or help, if it may interrupt an ongoing process or it leads to a non-html-document.

Allow users to select how the links should be opened on a given web-site. Opening links in the same windows the lesser of two evils. And if users don’t know how to do it quickly, tell them explicitly — they will be grateful for your help.

Sources and Resources Link

Footnotes Link

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  6. 6 /2007/10/09/30-usability-issues-to-be-aware-of/
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10

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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. Vitaly is writer, speaker, author and editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine. He runs responsive Web design workshops, online workshops and loves solving complex UX, front-end and performance problems in large companies. Get in touch.

  1. 1

    See, I don’t know. I don’t know if users really want to THINK about it. Whether to open in a new window or stay in current. And honestly, if you’re scaling through a slew of links you’ll want to have everything in a new window so it’s simple to go back to the originating text.

    It just seems more good practice to me to open any link that’s not part of your website in a new window/tab. It’s more friendly and keeps your website in the loop so they can go back to see other links. Using sites like Google/AOL/Yahoo really isn’t applicable since they’re search engines. There is less need to stay their if someone is searching for a specific page. Not to mention – just because Google does it doesn’t mean it’s good practice. hehe

    So I suppose my opinion using _blank is a better idea. If it’s not part of your site it shouldn’t be in the same window. My website ( has all internal links staying internal and all external opening in new windows.

    The thought is good, but I don’t know if it’s all that accurate.

    • 2

      A web developer for 10 years, I have to disagree with this article.

      First of all, we’re discussing an opinion here and to state either practice is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ itself shows ignorance.

      As a user, if a link points to an external site, I believe it should open in an external window, making it easy to go back to the original site at the original spot with the session still in tact. Also, I can compare what I see between the two sites at the same time with ease if I choose.

      As a developer, why would I want the user to get sidetracked or lost in someone else’s site? Why wouldn’t I want to keep the user on my site as long as possible? I use external links to compliment my site, not replace it.

      Let’s say for example, I’m already using Excel and I open Word on my PC. Should my Excel sheet be replaced by Word instead of sitting under/beside it where I can refer back to it while using Word?

      Surely we all agree automatic pop-ups are bad practice, but how are user-initiated new windows a ‘trick’? Opening external links in a new window is not a shady practice, and I can’t imagine the average visitor thinks so. This process has been used since the beginning and anyone with any ‘Net experience should be used to it (and maybe even expect it) by now.

      To say it’s wrong to open external links in a new window is ridiculous, and to suggest using tedious JavaScript functions in ‘special cases’ over target=_blank/_tab is no better. Every day I encounter sites with JavaScript errors – it seems half the ‘developers’ out there can’t even code JS properly as it is. JS isn’t guaranteed to work for all users anyway, and cross-browser compatibility can be more work than it’s worth. Does a site links to an external window annoy me? No. Does a site that doesn’t work properly and/or shows the infamous yellow ! in IE annoy me? Hell yeah.

      The contradictions within some of these comments are funny too. Suggesting external links should open in the same window because users are ignorant, followed by stating these same ignorant users would have the knowledge to decide for themselves how to control these links by the way they click them?

      Yes, a handful of users will end up with 20 windows open because my page may have many external links and these users don’t clean up after themselves. Can these same people read 20 pages at once? Do they have 20 half-read books lying open around their house at the same time? I can honestly say I’m not too concerned about them.

      Despite knowing every trick there is to get back to where I was, I still prefer an external window for an external link. Why? It’s faster, easier and allows me to multi-task. Wouldn’t the majority of my ‘ignorant’ visitors agree while still providing the ‘experienced’ user a comfortable, functional experience?

      The Bottom Line
      “It is important that users are placed in control of the user interface they are using. Since users expect the link to be opened in the same window, set your links to open in the same window.”

      First, I’d be interested in hearing other generalized statements the author has about users.

      Second, does sending a person away from the site they were originally on, thus losing their place, session, form data, etc. give them more control than opening a new window? Does giving users complete control yield the best practice and experience? Unfortunately some people simply don’t have the intelligence or ability to control their own experience. That’s why we have police…LOL

      • 3

        Deana Goldasich

        July 25, 2010 7:18 pm

        Amen! I agree with Jay. I oversaw the User Experience at and a myriad of other high-profile sites for years. We never found that users were irritated. But they DID tend to abandon the site once taken out externally.

      • 4

        Amy @ MOMmetime

        June 13, 2011 10:24 am

        Jay, I agree with you!!!

      • 5

        Agreed. It’s a well known, tried and tested web app approach.

        A lot of hipster designers saying they’re “UX” experts are messing up common knowledge by rewriting the book without consider A LOT of shit, lol.

  2. 6

    Great Info, However, I disagree. Opening external links in new windows is good practice. As a web designer and web application developer for many years, I agree that the user needs to feel in control of the interface. The UI need to be designed and developed in a simple and effective manner, dare I say “Idiot Proof”. Opening links in a new window, however, is not the dark fiend it is made out to be in this article. I can’t remember the last time I purposely clicked on a link, it opened in a new window, and I felt I had a “negative” experience. Involuntary popups and windows are evil, external links in new windows are not. I like the Optimal Solution provided in this article but question two things. Is it worth the extra few seconds to implement this and how many users would actually see/use it. All in all, designers and developers need to stop bending over backwards to accommodate even the dumbest user. I think users are getting more savvy and experienced with slightly more complicated User Interfaces. Lets help them move forward by not holding their hands.

  3. 7


    July 1, 2008 7:14 am

    I’m strictly against to open pages in new windows …

  4. 8

    I never get designers who force new windows to ‘keep users on their site’. I’ve been a webmaster / designer / developer for over 5 years now, and I have never felt the need to keep users on my site. Users go to my site, they get the info they need, they leave. No amount of tricksiness is going to keep users on your site if they don’t want to.

  5. 9

    As soon as you mention Jakob Nielsen a post becomes null and void.

  6. 10

    Watch your non-Web savvy friends and family navigate Web sites that pop up new windows. They often don’t notice the new window opened up in the task bar. When trying to go back with the browser’s back button, they often are confused as to why they cannot and get annoyed.

  7. 11

    To all those posting about having links open in a new window being good: It’s NOT. Let the user decide.

    The only thing I open in a new window is a .pdf file and the reader will be warned. The reason for doing this is because they take so long to open, and if it’s in a same window, people don’t necessarily remember to hit the back.

    If you think you’re doing good practice by opening external links in a new window, think again. That’s so 1990s, and people will be annoyed. And no matter what your site is about, annoying your readers is the LAST thing you want to do.

  8. 12

    heheh … just wanted to point something out that I thought was ironic.

    Your ads on this site are all target=”_blank”

    Meaning they open in new windows/tabs without the users choice .. hehe, sorry. I just thought it was funny in light of the article.

  9. 13

    “it is wrong to make decisions for them as designer’s decisions don’t necessary match users’ decisions”

    You’re already making a decision one way or the other, for your end-users, so it is a matter of opinion and there needs to be a certain amount of logic involved… and gmail opens new links in new windows. What does that say for this golden rule?

  10. 14


    July 1, 2008 8:06 am

    I get irritated when I am reading a blog/site with a lot of links to external content and they don’t open in a new window. I dislike having to navigate back to the original site, especially when I am looking at a list of links (like “10 Best *whatever* resources”) and then every single link is a great site in itself with many more links I want to check out.

    The people who are advocating so strongly against this practice say that users hate it. Where is your research data to back that up? What kind of audience are you talking about? Just saying “people don’t like it” over and over isn’t a compelling argument against it.

    I am in the internal links=same window, external links= new window camp.

  11. 15

    To the users posting about how having external links not opening in a new windows is irritating: learn how to use your browser. You can choose the target of the link when you click it.

    Open plea to browser developers: Make it easier for those users to configure their browsers so that the rest of us don’t suffer from poor usability decisions designed to cater for their lack of control over their browsing experience. Consider making it a default option to open links which point to a different domain in a new tab. Then people who have the cognitive capacity to use more than one mouse button for opening links can turn this off and carry on choosing ourselves.

  12. 16

    Daniel Blass

    July 1, 2008 8:31 am

    Great article! I just hope more web designers read it through, but considering the comments, there are still some “web designers” that think they know better. For those, one peace of advice of someone that is not a web designer, its not your decision to make, it should always be the user choice. As a user, I HATE (yeah! that much!) when a link opens in a new window when i don’t want it to. Again, great article! and if i may suggest a new topic, what about another offenders like browser resizing and background music on sites.

  13. 17


    July 1, 2008 8:32 am

    Just a small comment but the Sources and Resources of this article open into a new window. Could this be classed as trying to keep somebody on this site? It just seems to go against what is said in the article.

    I personally have internal links in the same window and external links and other documents such as PDFs open into a new window.

    @Victor: I believe that if you keep the existing timeline in the new browser window then the user would only become confused. If the user does not realise that a new window is opening then after a couple of hours browsing the amount of memory being used by open browsers would prob crash a slow machine. I would say that this would be less user friendly.

  14. 18

    i hate newwindow links…

    new tab links are fine, i really would love if every link would open in the same window becouse so i can deside myself what i wonna do, if i klick it with left button i stay in the same window, if i click on it whit the mousewheel button (its realy handy if you got used to it) i get in the new tab. really love this…

    window mangment is a task of the user not of the coder in 99% of the cases

  15. 19

    Gregory Bloom

    July 1, 2008 9:48 am

    It is arrogant to open links in the same window. By doing so, you’re stating that your new content is more valuable than the previous content, which the user may have gone to some effort to find. Links should always open in a new tab, by default. Browsers should offer a way to specifically request overwriting existing content, if that is what the user desires. This follows the content management paradigm of most windowing systems. If saving a new file would overwrite existing content, the OS will ask before trashing the old content.

  16. 20

    Sorry, but this article is completely idiotic. I have been developing websites for over 10 years, with external links ALWAYS opening in a new window and never once has anyone complained, or had end-users complain, that this somehow puts them in less control of their browser. Ridiculous. To the contrary, almost every client ASKS to have external links open in new windows – and most of these people are not in the least bit computer savvy, but at the very least they know this is one thing they want.

    I’m not sure who your “sources” are, or what exactly makes you an authority on the subject, but for you to decide for the rest of us that forcing new windows is “bad user experience” is completely asinine. Respect -1. Shame on you for writing such an absurd article, and shame on all the sheep here who are praising you for it.

  17. 21

    Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz

    July 1, 2008 6:45 am

    @Tadd: you make a point. Indeed, if Google does it doesn’t mean that it’s right. However, it is not what Google does, it is about what users are used to. The thing is that users need to expect something; and they expect the links to open in the same window rather than that links all are opened in the new windows.

  18. 22

    I’m a designer. And I’m also a user. As a designer, I generally have links open in the same window. For all the reasons sited above, as well as for accessibility. AND, because, as a user that is how I prefer the world to work. I generally use both Safari and Firefox. They have had tabbed browsing for years. All I have to do is press Command while clicking a link and it opens in a tab in the same window. I don’t really want dozens of windows open, thank you very much.

    There should be no tricks to keep people on your site. They don’t work. And they only irritate the visitors.

    • 23

      Designer of what?! we ask… There are specific needs for new windows and popups dear. Are you longing perhaps for the good old days of MS DOS?

  19. 24

    David Airey

    July 1, 2008 6:57 am

    Well written, Vitaly, and thanks for the mention in the resources.

    I quickly realised, after the discussion on my blog post, that opening links in the same window was the most suitable method, and set about removing those target=”new” tags I’d previously coded.

    Keep doing what you’re doing with the magazine.

  20. 25

    Your “optimal solution” is imho a pretty bad design decision. You shouldn’t make users decide whenever you’re in doubt about some UI related feature (ie. you generally should, but during design research process and not on runtime!). It’s your job as the UI designer. If you fail to recognize that you’ll end up with myriads of settings & options that no one will ever use. As you wrote users don’t care. It’s your job to make the UI simple and transparent for them.

    This is the kind of stuff that differentiates great design (like Apple products) from poor design (im not pointing fingers here). KISS.


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