I get this request a lot: “Can you make all my links open in a new window?” This is a widely done practice, I used to do it, too. Unfortunately, what I didn’t know before, and what most people still don’t know is that it’s a really bad practice to have.
The whole point of putting an external link on your site is to guide your audience to someone else’s site. It’s usually an act of kindness, not only toward the person you are linking to, but to the people reading your site, who you are sharing this link with. So isn’t it pretty hypocritical to make your links open in a new window? You’re saying “Here, go to this site, it’s awesome, but you’re not allowed to leave my site, because I’m more awesome.” If you don’t want people to leave your site, then you shouldn’t have external links at all. And if people want to stay on your site, then they will, they’re not going to stay just because you force them to leave the window open.
Not only that, but there are major usability issues with having your links open in new windows. I think a lot of people assume that everyone is on the same technological level as they are or maybe that most people know more than they do. “If I know how to do this, then everyone else does, too.” But that’s just not true. I’ve met people who think Internet Explorer is the internet (and it runs on a series of tubes…). No matter how simple a concept you think it is, there’s always someone that just can’t wrap their mind around it.
There are some things that most people understand, though. They understand what a link is and how it should work. When they click on a link they are expecting it to go to the new site. This is what they want to do, so by making the link open in a new window, you are actively ignoring their needs. People understand how the back button works, too. The back button is fundamental in any browser and most people use it liberally. What happens when you open a link in a new browser? Well, it resets the back button. You can’t go back. When someone clicks on a link they are expecting it to go to the new page and if they want to come back to your page they will just click the back button. This is how the internet is supposed to work. Instead a new window is going to pop up (which they are not expecting) and they are probably going to close the original window because who wants the clutter of having so many windows open? Then they’ll try to go back and realize they can’t because the back button doesn’t work anymore. So not only have you confused and frustrated someone, you’ve just lost a reader.
But, you say, “What about all the people who are technologically savy? They won’t be confused.” No, they won’t but I can bet that a lot will still be frustrated. If you are technologically savy then you already know how to make a link open up in a window, it’s very easy. So if people want to do that, then they will, they don’t need you to do it for them.
If you absolutely must have something open in a new window (there are a few instances where it may be necessary), then warn your readers about it so they’ll know what to expect. Make sure “opens in new window” is included in the actual link text (this is better for accessibility and usability). Add a little icon by the link to show that it will open in a new window. Give people a choice about it. Maybe the link works like normal, but the little icon opens in a new window. There are a lot of different options, just make sure your readers know what’s what.
In the end it’s always a bad idea to try to control how your readers view your site. People expect browsers to work a certain way and you shouldn’t try to change that. People will come back to your site if they want to, don’t make things more complicated for them.