The target=”_blank” Debate

I work as a writer in a marketing department. Sometimes I post my web content on our blogs on our main site, sometimes I post my content on an external blog, and sometimes I pass copy over to other people to post on our main site.

Whenever I set pages up myself, I always set external links to open in new windows/tabs.

I do this because when I’m surfing other people’s sites, my experience is that most web content is either badly written or too much for me to take in or not exactly what I’m looking for. So I want new tabs so I can glance at the content and probably click away, and then the useful page that actually interests me is still open. This way I don’t have to back-browse through all that useless content and all those annoying pop-ups getting in the way of my pursuit of useful information again. (UX Movement has a nice section on back-button fatigue.)

Our social media specialist is of the same mind, and also targets off-site links to open in new windows/tabs.

But our web guy disagrees.

This came up because some funky target=”_blank” code made its way from our off-site blog into a Word file and from there into an eNewsletter.

I agree that links from emails don’t need to open in new windows because the user always has the email to go back to for navigation. It’s just when I’m on a website that I want to stay on that I want new tabs for links–so I don’t lose that website in the maze of 20% useful content and 80% garbage that is the World Wide Web.

I’m very firm about that preference generally–particularly on The House on the Lake because I don’t want the seven people who read that serialized ghost story to go offsite and wander away. (Actually, I don’t think I have any external links on that site at all–a devious ploy with the aim of preventing reader distraction–and it should be noted that that brilliance is the result of a valued suggestion from our cherished web fellow.)

That said, on a blog like this, where my main focus is to drive visitors to The House on the Lake, I won’t necessarily target a new window for an off-site link. Like click that House on the Lake link above, and see if you make your way back here. You might if you’re interested in my writing about writing; you might not if you’re more interested in eerie tales of the ghostly and macabre, and I’m OK with your decision either way. (But never click away from The House on the Lake unless you’re going over to Twitter to tweet about it–I want publishers to discover that site and my writing and pay me money to write for them.)

So our web cat contends that “target blank = usability no-no” and sent us a bunch of crap from the head dude at Smashing Magazine that says one way to avoid a “usability nightmare” is to ensure that all “your links open in the same window” because “Visitors want to have control over everything what happens in their browser. If they’d like to open a link in a new window they will. If they don’t want to, they won’t. If your links open in a new window you make the decision which is not your decision to make.”

My response to the above was that there are a lot of grammatical problems in that statement—and coherence should be #1 to the UX.

But I was just messin with our web cat. I get what he and the Smashing dude are saying and respect their points.

Then in retaliation our web cat sent a bit from his go-to UX expert Jakob Nielson (from 1999, BTW) that says “Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer’s carpet. Don’t pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks (particularly since current operating systems have miserable window management). If I want a new window, I will open it myself!”

Pretty decent argument there too, backed by usability studies, apparently, conducted in 1999, I believe, and I get the idea of not pushing your own preference on your users. Though I could say that if you don’t open links in new tabs for me, you’re dumping your ashes on my carpet.

But if research backs you up and I’m in the minority, you might be in alignment with best practices.

On the other hand, if, as Michael Fienen says, “designers/coders should not be making decisions for the user as to how a page opens,” should they be making decisions for users about which pages open at all? Maybe there should be no links on the internet. The user can determine if something interests him, and then go to Google and do a search.


Cuz I’m not sure that there would be a Google in that no-links world.

Really, Fienen makes a good point: “If you feel like you need to force a user to stay on your site for some reason, maybe you need to look at what’s wrong with your site that makes it a destination that isn’t compelling enough to attract and retain visitors on its own.”

But consider this example of how you could have compelling content and still lose me:

I’m looking for training for my staff. I get to your training org site and think, “Yeah, they link to decent content, but what I’m looking for is TRAINING. Well, maybe I’ll go over to this government link real quick and figure out if I have time to apply for a grant, though in the meantime I have this budget from XYZ to use, so I should get away from this .gov site and back to the training org site to sign my staff up for training. But that training org didn’t give me any new tabs, so I’ve clicked away from their site and into a convoluted web of governmental bullshit. I have no time to dig that org site back up due to this ridiculous meeting I have to get to in three minutes, and I’ve cleared my history because I was also doing unprofessional searches simultaneously.”

Weeks pass and I don’t remember your web address or the name of your training company, though I could dig it up from a Google search or one of your markety emails in my trash folder, but now my bosses have cracked down on my spending and my funding has dried up.

But most UX experts say don’t dictate what happens in someone’s browser. The arguments for that stance are plentiful, and they lead the way across the web.

With the advent of tabs, however, sites like Webvanta say that “the arguments against target="_blank" are weakened; somehow a new tab feel like less of an imposition than a new browser window.”

Indeed, this forum on features the comments of two SEO specialists who also prefer new tabs for off-site links. One of them notes that target blanks “is especially important . . . when the destination they’re going to off-site breaks browser native ‘back’ buttons, where even if you want to go back to the site you came from, you can’t.”

And if you’re like me, you know how annoying it is to wrangle your way back to a site that you intended to stay on.

What do you say? Mac or PC? Coffee or tea? Cats or dogs? Target blank or same-tab?

I went Mac/tea/dogs/same-tab in this post, because they all have their place and they’re all worth engaging on occasion–and to see how much same-tab would annoy me when I go back to read this post and check the links.

But I like PCs/coffee/cats/target blanks a little better. They have their drawbacks too, and whether I favor them in my personal writing depends on my mood . . . but more on my purpose. If I got you to click over to The House on the Lake at all I’m happy. Though if this site was my livelihood, I might want you to shoot back over here.


About Erin Harris

I'm a copywriter by day and a fiction writer by night. I also write about food, travel, music, film, and much more.
This entry was posted in Content writing, Editing, Web marketing, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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