Why you shouldn't open links in new tabs

"Could you please let this link open in a new tab?". An often heard request, to which we usually reply with an unexpected answer: "We'd rather not". Oftentimes it's assumed that when outbound links open in the same window, the visitor will leave and disappear from your website. From a website owner's perspective this sounds like an undesirable scenario. Below I'll get into the reasons why we try to avoid this pattern as much as possible.


Disorientation

Well, “why wouldn't you want to open links in new tabs?", you might ask. Generally speaking, it is better not to: it can be disorienting for people, especially for novice web users or people who have difficulty perceiving visual content. They might not realise that a new tab or window has opened and might experience difficulty switching between windows. So in short: it breaks the navigational flow for visitors who visit the website using assistive technologies.

Opening a new tab on mobile phone can be even more disorienting, as it's especially difficult for the user to go back to the website they were originally browsing.

But wouldn't that lead to visitors leaving the website? Jakob Nielsen discusses this in the book Prioritizing Web Usability. He explains:

“If people really want to leave, they will. And if users follow a link to another website and want to return to your website, they will invariably do so by clicking Back, since that's the most popular way to revisit pages”.

Knowing this, we can conclude that taking away any control from the visitor can have a negative impact on the user experience. Therefore, we like to let the visitors decide whether or not they want to open a link in a new tab.

This principle is also documented as a guideline in the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).

Exceptions

However, there are some situations where it is actually preferable to open a new window or tab. Let me quote the WCAG on these situations:

  1. Opening a page containing context-sensitive information, such as help instructions, or an alternate means of completing a form, such as a calendar-based date picker, will significantly disrupt a multi-step workflow, such as filling in and submitting a form, if the page is opened in the same window or tab.

  2. The user is logged into a secured area of a site, and following a link to a page outside of the secured area would terminate the user's logon. In this case opening external links in an external window allows the user to access such references while keeping their login active in the original window.

It is recommended that when links are opened in a new window, there is advance warning.

Linking to cross-origin destinations

Besides the impact on accessibility, there is also a possible security issue to keep in mind. Using the attribute target="_blank" you are leaving your visitors open to possible phishing attacks. The other page can access the window object with the window.opener property. This exposes an attack surface because the other page can potentially redirect your page to a malicious URL.

When you use target="_blank", always make sure to add rel="noopener" or rel="noreferrer". Read more about this at Google Web Fundamentals

Conclusion

Think long and hard before opening links in a new window. It can disorient certain visitors. If you do need to open links in a new window then warn users beforehand. Besides the accessibility issue it also poses a security issue. When you use target="_blank", always make sure to add rel="noopener" or rel="noreferrer".