Links Should Open in the Same Window

The best practice is to leave the default link behavior alone

Michael Schofield


Link, chain, chain-mail, knight. Get it? Unsplash photo by Henry Hustava

The best practice is to leave the default link behavior alone. Usually, this means that the link on a website will open in that same window or tab. Ideas we have about what links should do are taken for granted, and “best practices” that favor links opening new windows aren’t often substantiated.

There are two recurring themes in arguments favoring opening links in new windows:

  • we don’t want users to leave the website, or
  • users find new tabs or windows convenient

Backed-up by gut feeling and deep-cut marketing hem-haw, but in the business of user experience design we learn fast — and painfully — that gut feelings tend to suck.

So, my argument is super conservative. It’s situated around the power of convention and smart defaults, and that subverting those — going against the grain — might involve more complexity, confusion, and cost than you might expect.

Browsers bake in consistency

Nielsen Norman Group write that “links that don’t behave as expected undermine users’ understanding of their own system,” wherein unexpected external linking is particularly hostile.

The benefit of the browser itself is that it frees users “from the whims of particular web page or content designers.” For as varied and unique as sites can be, browsers bake in consistency. Consistency is crucial.

Why? Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience:

Users spend most of their time on other websites.

Design conventions are useful. The menu bar isn’t at the top of the website because that’s the most natural place for it; it’s at the top because that is where every other website puts it.

The conventions set by the sites that users spend the most time on–Facebook, Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and so on–are conventions users expect to be adopted everywhere.

Conventions give users control

Vitaly Friedman summarizes a bunch of advice from usability-research powerhouses in this:

[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 the consistency of the user interface and know that they won’t be distracted or disrupted during the interaction.

And interaction designer and animator Rachel Nabors makes the case that

Users … may be search-navigators or link-clickers, but they all have additional mental systems in place that keep them aware of where they are on the site map. That is, if you put the proper markers in place. Without proper beacons to home in on, users will quickly become disoriented.

See, a link is a promise

This is all to stress the point that violating conventions, such as the default behaviors of web browsers, is a dangerous play. The default behavior of hyperlinks is that they open within the same page.

Kara Pernice — the managing director at Nielsen Norman Groupwrote in December 2014 about the importance of confirming the person’s expectation of what a link is and where the link goes. A link is a promise that if broken endangers the trust and credibility of the brand.

Ruth Collings said as much in a comment on the original appearance of this post, where she describes just how credibility-spiral begins:

The absolute worst is when some links are target=_blank and others aren’t, all on the same website, usually because of multiple authors and lack of style guidelines. … I want to think about your content, not get confused and irritated by your inconsistent linking behaviour!

Inconvenience is trumped by interaction cost

Ask yourself: is the inconvenience of default behavior greater than the interaction cost?

Say you’re reading In the Library with the Lead Pipe where long-form articles can get pretty long. There are links of interest and further reading peppered throughout the content, and choosing one — especially if you’re ten minutes into an article — that bounced you off page could definitely be distracting. In these cases, it seems to make sense in having a link open in a new tab or window.

But hijacking default behavior isn’t a light decision. There is a cost to interaction, that we can analogize by — say — spending a point each time the user takes an action.

  • +1 — the page renders,
  • +1 — the user begins to read,
  • +1 — the user scrolls,
  • +1 — the user clicks a link …

Here, we encounter one of many different scenarios that butterfly-effect from our linking decision:

  • +1 — a new tab opens,
  • +1 — the user clicks to the previous tab to continue reading …

And, objectively, this could be superior to

  • +1 — a new page loads
  • +1 — the user back-buttons their way to the content
  • +1 — the user command-clicks to open that same link in a new tab, for later

I think this a legit headscratcher, and maybe a valid argument for the former. My concern is that this scenario assumes a lot: namely that the tab is just a click a way, and not — as on Chrome on iOS —

  • +1 — tap the little square in the upper right hand corner,
  • +1 — locate the tab from the card-stack,
  • +1 — tap the card to select it,
  • +3 — repeat the above steps to return to the content.

Interaction cost is essentially defined by the amount of effort a user thinks is worth the result. There is a point where the user will give up. That number is always subjective, and ever-shifting, but one thing is true: the higher the cost, the greater the bounce.

It’s worth considering whether the inconvenience of default link behavior is greater than the interaction cost and otherwise downward drag on overall user experience.

Alternative to default browser behavior may reduce choice

Chris Coyier shows how to use target attributes in hyperlinks to force link behavior, but gives you no less than six reasons why you shouldn’t. Consider this: deciding that such-and-such link should open in a new window ultimately reduces the number of navigation options available to the user.

Given a link without any frills, like <a href=>, the user’s assumed behavior of that link is that it will open in the same tab or window, but by either right-clicking, using a keyboard command, or lingering touch on a mobile device, the user can optionally open in it in a new window. When you add target=_blankto the mix, alternate options are mostly unavailable.

Exit intent

What is even more nefarious than poor content strategy is this notion that we don’t want users to leave our website.

Marketing folks say this sort of thing: those who would use exit-intent as an opportunity to convert. It works. There’s no debate. It is the success on which popular WordPress plugins that pop-up bullshit are built on.

There are definitely design strategies wherein the user experience and the sales department run parallel — but “we don’t want users to leave the page” is not that kind of strategy.

Such wisdom is drawn from the same well drunk by those who think carousels are by default a good idea or that ads should masquerade as regular content. Such waters are tainted.

To just take this to its logical extreme, with this reasoning, opening a link in a new window isn’t just an antipattern, it is a dark pattern — a user interface designed to trick people.

Data shows that tricks like this are self-defeating — at least when poorly implemented: gross user experiences negatively impact conversion rate and the bottom line.

New windows or tabs may be less accessible

Pop-ups and new windows have certain accessibility issues which can cause confusion for users relying on screen readers to navigate the website. WebAIM says:

Newer screen readers alert the user when a link opens a new window, though only after the user clicks on the link. Older screen readers do not alert the user at all. Sighted users can see the new window open, but users with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty interpreting what just happened.

Compatibility with WCAG 2.0 involves an “Understanding Guideline” which suggests that the website should “provide a warning before automatically opening a new window or tab.” Here is the technique. It’s not in wide use.

Okay, so I may be kicking a dead horse at this point. We’ll skip to the exceptions to the rule.

Exceptions to the rule

Normally, it is a good idea to use target=_blank when opening the link will otherwise interrupt an ongoing process:

  • the user is filling out a form and needs to click on a link to review, say, terms of service
  • the user is watching video or listening to audio

but opinions can vary.

Like, what about linking to PDFs? Well, Jakob Nielsen and Vitaly Friedman think it’s a-okay to link to a non-html-document, like a pdf or mp3, in a new window. Chris Coyier, however, doesn’t.

My take is that where there is now built-in browser support for showing PDFs or MP3s, et al., then the browser will download these media. Otherwise, if they render normally in the browser — whether that’s type or audio — then, yahtzee, leave the link behavior alone.

We can pile-on an unending what-if list, but the point is that however trivial-seeming, changing the default link behavior isn’t a light decision. Personal preference, which often informs what appears to be general behavior — isn’t. Unless the interaction cost of opening a link in the same tab is too great, then we shouldn’t betray the promises we make.



Michael Schofield
Editor for

Writing the serial fantasy podcast #TheThief, the coming-soon comic Swán. Storytelling-studio head of #HootCowl. Engineering director by day. Librarian.