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When — and when not — to use target=”_blank”

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Ah, to open a link in a new tab or not… that is the question.

Sure, might not be the type of critical life question you find yourself faced with regularly (fortunately) but it’s a good one for us in the digital space to examine – whether you’re a UX or an SEO person, content strategist/manager, writer, developer, etc. Even designers can benefit from the interaction analysis.

"Make this easier!" – a UX mantra, and the ultimate decision factor for your users.
“Make this easier!”: UX mantra, and ultimate decision factor for target=”blank”.

Let me explain. Target=“blank” is a handy bit of HTML code you add to a link (to the link’s HTML, to be precise) to tell browsers the link should open up in a new tab or window when clicked. There are valid reasons to use it, but it’s often misused. And often misunderstood from a user experience (UX) point of view.

UX tip #1: there are no (new window/tab) absolutes

I just had a client ask about this exact issue, so it’s top of mind – to paraphrase:

“Is there a reason you prefer using target=“_blank” for some of the links vs. leaving those links to open in the same tab/browser window?”

Yes! The reason is that the varied use cases for clicking on a link are entirely contextual.

There’s definitely a WRONG way to define your site’s link behavior. Whether you want a link to A) take me directly to my intended destination, which your users are comfortable with as a default bahavior, or B) make it load in a new tab or window. A few wrong ways, really, but they all boil down to making me choose A or B carte blanche without taking specific use case – the context – into account.

So why would you want to mess with the default behavior of a link – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? That’s basically what my client was asking, and it’s certainly not contrary to human nature (or user behavior) to not like it all that much when something unexpected happens… or to want control over how the link opens themselves.

But… and here’s the but: as I responded, “The concern is UX based. It’s an attempt to understand when the user does want to click on a link but does NOT want the action to interrupt his/her experience.” As digital strategists, a focus on improvement and iteration – and the fluidity of the digital space in general – means that we should not expect a defined behavior to stay the same.

The web evolves. Over time, absolutes don’t work so well.

UX tip #2: know your user’s context

There ARE specific contexts when as a user I would want a link to open up in a new tab – and that’s why you see WordPress and other content management systems revealing this option. For your users.

My recommendations are to use target=“_blank”:

1) Always for non-primary links where an experience can’t be interrupted (ex: shipping info link in a checkout flow)
2) Typically in body text links that lead to supplemental content (ex: text link in an article for citation purposes)
3) Never in cases where your goal is to direct a user to complete an action (ex: button link to next page in a checkout flow)
4) Sometimes to provide link value in body text where we don’t necessarily want to take away users from the experience they’re in

This approach for internal linking (links to other areas of my site) sets you up to increase page views when the user wants an extra page view. It’s user-focused.

Counter arguments

The bad “con” new tab/page arguments are the same as the bad “pro” arguments: because I like it that way.

You’re not designing for your own habits or preferences as a user. You’re not even designing for users in general – you’re designing for special use cases your users may/will find themselves in on your website.

A more valid counter-argument is one I hear often – we’re trained as users to use the back button, so why introduce something new? Think about it: relying on the back button is a little laborious, in comparison, when you have to first 1) wait for the new page to load, and 2) go up to the top of your browser and click the back arrow.

In a way, I think of the back button as a fallback; I want a one-step option available first. And if opening a link in a new tab streamlines your site’s browsing experience, that’s a great thing, right?

Anyway, that’s what I think… and how I nerd out on/explain the approach. 🙂

Have thoughts on the matter? Share them below!

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