Why You Shouldn’t Open Links in New Tabs

A common request from clients is for external links to open in a new tab. Unfortunately, some pervasive myths state that using new tabs benefits your site. In reality, it only causes trouble for site visitors. That’s why with few exceptions, I strongly recommend against this practice. 

Doesn’t It Help Keep Visitors on Your Site?

Many clients think using new tabs for external links will keep visitors on their site. This isn’t true, but even if it was, using new tabs still wouldn’t be a good practice. Here’s why:

  • New tabs prevent visitors from using the back button to get back to your site. The back button has been around since the early days of the web. Everyone knows how to use it, and many people rely on it. On the other hand, many users aren’t familiar with tabs. When these users try to go back to your site, they will see their back button is grayed out, and they won’t understand why.
  • An inactive tab open with your site isn’t the same as a real visit. Especially on mobile devices, the visitor may not even know the tab with your website is there. What’s the value of keeping them on your site if they aren’t engaging with your content? However, because a tab is open, tools like Google Analytics could report higher engagement from your visitors than you really have.
  • Forcing visitors to stay on your site will erode their trust in your organization. Imagine if you tried to navigate away from a site, and instead of leaving, a popup ad appeared on your screen. You wouldn’t be very happy with the site in question. Similarly, you shouldn’t use technical tricks to force visitors to stay. They need to stay because the content you’re offering appeals to them.

What If a Visitor Complains That Links Aren’t Opening in New Tabs?

It’s true that in some instances, some visitors will want your links to open in a new tab. However, that doesn’t mean you should do it. That’s because people who complain aren’t your only visitors.

Here’s a list of different user groups, and how they respond to links opening in the same or new tab.

Highly Web Savvy Users

These users know they can right/command click to open any link in a new tab.

Same Tab Experience: Great. Has complete control over their browsing experience.

New Tab Experience: If a new tab opens when they haven’t used right/command click, they’re annoyed over their loss of browsing control.

Moderately Web Savvy Users

These users are comfortable with tabs, but they don’t know how to open links in new tabs on their own.

Same Tab Experience: Annoyance when they want a link to open in a new tab.

New Tab Experience: Annoyance when they want links to open in the same tab.

Moderately Web Savvy Users with Disabilities

These visitors use alternate browsing software.

Same Tab Experience: Good. Browsing works as expected.

New Tab Experience: Poor. Difficultly juggling multiple tabs on their alternate browser.

Low Web Savvy Users

These users are not accustomed to tabbed browsing. There are more of them than you probably think. 

Same Tab Experience: Good. Browsing works as expected.

New Tab Experience: CRITICAL FAILURE. They do not know what happened or how to return to your site. Frustration might cause them to stop browsing the web altogether.

The only group that might want a new tab to open by default is the Moderately Web Savvy group. They often think all web users share their preference, but that isn’t true. If a visitor tells you that they want any of your links to open in a new tab, just let them know they can do it by right-clicking and selecting “Open links in new tab” (Windows) or by hitting Command and clicking the link (Mac).  They’ll be converted to the High Web Savvy group, and they won’t trouble you again.