How to Manage Webpage Links

Answer:  Do nothing

Reasoning:  As discussed in class, allowing website developers to control how links open on users’ browsers is a sensitive topic.  The easy way of forcing a link to open in a new window is using the ‘target=_blank’ attribute of the anchor tag.  In the old days, HTML 4 and older, it was considered good practice to force windows that link to external websites to open in a new window.

However, countless usability studies have proven that the majority of users only know how to use the forward/back buttons on the browser they are using.  Window management may seem simple to us, but novice users are completely unaware when a new window opens and are lost when asked to go back to where they were.

Jakob Nielsen is a famous writer who has defined simple rules for improving website usability.  #2 of the ‘Top Ten Design Mistakes of 1999″ reads:

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!Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.

Usability Consultant Carolyn Snyder has the following to say on the subject:

I’ve saved this one for last because it’s especially hard to believe — some people can use Windows applications for years without understanding the concept of task switching. (When I point to the task bar and ask them what it’s for, they can’t tell me.) Thus, spawning second browser windows can completely throw users off track because it removes the one thing they are sure how to use: the “Back” button.

In one study, a site provided links to related books on, which opened in a second browser window. Using Amazon wasn’t relevant to our test, so as soon as the page came up the users tried to back out. One pair of users, upon discovering the grayed-out “Back” button, looked at each other with something akin to horror. They were quite honestly stumped and had no idea how to proceed. After a couple minutes of discussion, they finally closed the second window. In another recent study, six out of 17 users had difficulty with multiple windows, and three of them required assistance to get back to the first window and continue the task.

Suggestion: Avoid spawning multiple browser windows if at all possible — taking the “Back” button away from users can make their experience so painful that it usually far outweighs whatever benefit you’re trying to provide. One common theory in favor of spawning the second window is that it keeps users from leaving your site, but ironically it may have just the opposite effect by preventing them from returning when they want to.

Suggestion: If a second window is necessary, provide an obvious “close” or “back” link and don’t provide navigation to other parts of the site; some users will blithely continue their task in the second (often smaller) window, which can lead to further confusion.

The target attribute of the anchor tag was actually deprecated and removed from the XHTML 1.1 specification.  The attribute, after lots of debate, has been re-added to HTML5 as noted here.  It was originally not available, but it was added based on the premise that using the attribute is easier than using Javascript or PHP to accomplish the same task.

Users are advised to avoid using the attribute unless absolutely necessary.  I honestly will not be surprised if the tag is removed before HTML5 is finally approved because the other concept is the separation of content (HTML), formatting (CSS), and functionality (Javascript/PHP/etc.).

In the end, the result is that you should leave all anchor tags as normal links that open in the current window, which is actually the easiest (default) of all the current options.  By doing so, you leave it completely up to the individual user to decide how and where they want the link to open using their browser’s settings or by using hotkeys to control that ability (typically CTRL for new tab, SHIFT for new window).

~Nick Marnik

~ by nkmhockey on February 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “How to Manage Webpage Links”

  1. It seems like there are relevant arguments on both sides of the issue, because as you describe many users are incompetent with their operating system’s window behavior but also because many sites today (due to poor development, or deliberate brand advertising rookery) have “back button traps” due to redirects and poor scripting implementations.

    The argument on both sides is to attempt to save users from the poor site designs of others. I would propose that the solution comes not from site development at all, but from browser development.

    If all browsers are released with settings that “open new windows as tabs” and “always display the tab bar” by default, it seems like this issue would quickly disappear overnight. The user confusion over new windows being opened maximized or otherwise hiding the previous window is a really a failing of browser development and operating system interface guidelines (and certainly not limited to web browsing, the same problems face POS systems, Word processors, you name it).

    I would argue that the only 100% effective solution is better software, because both approaches to link implementation have unavoidable downsides.

  2. Ironically, I feel that tabs in browsers actually complicate the problem. Some users never got used to the concept of having multiple windows open, let alone the concept of having several tabs within the same browsing window.

    Most modern browsers do a good job of implementing tabs and giving the power of choice to the user. Users can easily select how specific types of links are opened and can also set browsers to single-window mode where only one instance of a browser can be open at a time.

    The goal of this DIY was simply to help web developers understand that the best decision is to leave well-enough alone and leave the choice up to the individual users. This route is the simplest, easiest, and allows developers to make a choice they can control (their site) versus choices they cannot (browser design).

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: