Personal Blog of Eoin Kelly

Opening Links in a New Window Is a Bad Idea

I sometimes have discussions with clients about making the links on their website open in a new window website in the current one. Usually they have heard or read something along the lines of:

  • It will keep people on my website longer.
  • It will even improve my google rankings.

And who wouldn’t want more engaged users and better google rankings right? So at first glance it can seem like a good idea. However I think it’s a terrible idea and have outlined my reasoning below for you to make your own mind up.

It can “Break” the Back button

The Back button is one of the most clicked buttons on a web browser. It is the go-to solution for situations such as:

  • Oops, I followed the wrong link
  • I clicked on something and now I’m not sure where I am.
  • The page has changed in some way that I don’t like or understand – I want to go back to what I was looking at.

Your customers probably include a large number of smart people who aren’t familiar enough with the metaphors of computing to know what happens when one window covers another – they often assume it’s just “gone”.

Generally these people have figured out a way that works for them and they stick with it. For example, I recently spoke to a very accomplished lady who always checked for new email by closing and re-opening her email software – she had no idea there was a “Send/Receive” button that could do that (and was delighted to find out about it). The point is she had a system that worked for her and she stuck with it.

Your customers might not notice or fully understand what has happened if you open a link in a new window. What they will notice is that the the Back button is now broken – it won’t take them back to your website as they expected. Chances are their next step is to just close everything down and start again (a system that they know works). The net effect of opening the link in a new window is to stop people getting back to your website. Not exactly the result you were hoping for.

So there are costs associated with opening links in new windows. But do the benefits outweigh the costs? Let’s look more closely at the benefits.

Will it keep people on my website longer?

This idea implies that we can somehow trick users into staying on your website longer than they feel like staying. In the real world, it would be like hiding the exit door of your shop to make it harder for customers to leave in the expectation that they would spend more with you.

[EDIT: @ianTLS on twitter pointed out that this strategy is used in the real world e.g. Duty-free in Airports and escalators up but stairs-only down in department stores. I believe that this strategy doesn’t transfer well to the web because, unlike the real world, every web-shopper has a “magic carpet” in the address/search bar to instantly transport them out of your shop if they feel even the tiniest bit bored or lost. Even if you think making the exit door hard to find is a great idea, opening links in new windows isn’t an effective way to do it – At best you will just annoy them and at worst it may even stop them coming back into your shop (see the discussion of “breaking the back button” above). Also, if anybody has any research on the effectiveness of that strategy in the real-world, I would be grateful for the link.]

If they are interested in your website and what you have to say, then they will stay on your site. Making the exit door hard to find will just make them angry.

Why do you put links on your website?

If you put links on your website that your customers will find interesting or useful then it makes you look good. That’s why we put links on websites. These links (if carefully chosen) make you look knowledgeable about your subject and make your website useful to your customer outside of just providing information about your services. For example, if I sell golf shoes and my website has some links to sites explaining how to improve your golf-swing, then I have helped my customer and made myself a little more memorable in the process – human beings naturally react well to those who give them useful & interesting information.

But what if they don’t come back after following the link?

If they follow a link off your website and don’t come back then they weren’t interested in what you had to say anyway. That being the case then you couldn’t keep them even on your site even if you had no links. Would you consider locking the doors of your premises to force customers to listen to your sales pitch even though they had already asked to leave? Would that strategy result in more sales?

Will it improve my google rankings?

I don’t know of any evidence for this. If you find some, feel free to send me the link.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. There is evidence to support opening non-web files in new windows e.g. PDFs Word documents, Excel documents. If it opens a different program to view the document, then it is probably best to leave the current web page visible.

Are there other opinions on this?

Yes indeed. I first encountered this idea on Jacob Nielsen’s website.

[EDIT: The Nielsen article dates from 1999 but I think it still applies. Window management has certainly improved over the last few years but that only matters if you use computers enough to understand these improved metaphors e.g. Tabs.]

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this. Are there aspects you disagree with? Is my understanding incomplete? Educate me on twitter or leave a comment below. Thanks for your time.