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As a power web user, I know how to use my browser and it drives me nuts when web sites force me to open a new page. My mother, by contrast, just gets confused when this happens. At the end of a web session, she closes the current browser window and wonders where all these other browsers came from.

Some companies I've worked with have a policy that all external links must open in a new window, in some kind of misguided attempt to stop people leaving their site. Instead it just annoys or confuses people.

So is there ever a good, justifiable reason to open a new window?

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Usability guru Jacob Nielsen says that only applications should open in a new window. Examples of applications are PDF and Powerpoint (these can run in a browser). –  JoJo Nov 10 '11 at 7:29
    
The answers on this page are out-of-date because they assume that the browser will open "_blank" links in a new window, whereas most modern browsers default to open in new tabs instead. I've added a new answer below that reflects this change in paradigm. –  3nafish Jan 5 '13 at 1:02
    
I regularly open content in a new window because I want to investigate multiple avenues when I'm researching / doing something. Arguably opening content in a new tab really reflects a failure in UX design in the browsers by not deferring to the host OS and the users preferences there. –  James Snell Jan 6 '13 at 14:51
    
I disagree that they are out-of-date only because we now tend to have tabs vs. windows. There are differences, but also many similarities. –  DA01 Jan 9 '13 at 1:40
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migrated from stackoverflow.com Nov 10 '11 at 0:06

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22 Answers

I really want to say "never!", but as with all things, there are exceptions. As mattlant mentioned it can be because there are items on the page that cannot be lost, help pages can be good for this, as the user may be half way through filling out a form when they click 'help' and are going to be pretty annoyed if they lose all their entries (although a lightbox-esq solution could work there too).

I think it should be avoided where possible, and certainly never used in a misguided attempt at increasing page impressions or time-on-site. It never works and as you said it just frustrates people.

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So what you mean by that is, instead of using new windows or popups (which will invariably be blocked by some browsers) you should use a hover item, using one of the JavaScript libraries. So does that mean "never"? –  Shermozle Sep 23 '08 at 2:04
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No, I think you can use popups. Most browser's won't block popups that are initiated by the user. Having the help text in a separate window can be useful if they need to keep referring back to it, a lightbox would get annoying IMHO –  Glenn Slaven Sep 25 '08 at 3:09
    
Of course, even better is to save the information to localstorage for the browser as they fill out info so that it won't be lost to other problems. –  Kzqai Mar 13 '12 at 18:37
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I can't believe no-one's mentioned it, but PDFs and other non-web documents should be opened in a new window, mainly because users who do not understand windows/tabs/embedded plugins have a greater expectation of that behaviour than the 'replace web page with PDF' behaviour of 'same window' linking.

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Except sometimes the server doesn't use the "inline" attribute, and the browser downloads the file and leaves an empty tab. I don't mind a PDF opening in the same window. –  mehaase Aug 20 '12 at 14:45
    
This makes sense if one can guarantee PDFs and non-web documents would even open in a browser window. Since that's dependent on the end-user's browser, plugins, and operating system, it's not a safe bet. It's better to notify the user that they are about to open a non-browser file type and let them decide what to do with it on their own. –  DA01 Jan 9 '13 at 1:41
    
@DA01: Doesn't the default behaviour for new tab handle that correctly? Is it similar to the previous comment - i.e. empty tab gets left behind? –  Bobby Jack Jan 9 '13 at 13:50
    
I don't know what has changed lately. I do know that what happens to a PDF is still a setting within the browser/OS not really something we can directly, consistently control from the web page. –  DA01 Jan 9 '13 at 16:05
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I do love how google reader opens all links in a new window. There are lots of reasons why Reader wouldn't work if it used the current window but besides that, it work great with Firefox cause it opens in a new tab rather than a new window. So it's a great experience overall and it just had to evolve that way. So never say 'never'.

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+1 Valid exception! –  DA01 Jan 9 '13 at 1:42
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We have an application that uses a third-party web reporting tool. Our value-add is basically navigation of reports and improved input screens for the report parameters themselves.

Once that's done, the report is opened in a new window so that NOTHING is different between the report from the standard tool and the report we generate.

Our customers actually like the fact that they can just kill off the report window and have the original window re-appear rather than having to use the browser back button.

Another example I've seen is help for a web-based application - the help screens come up in a separate window so that you can easily switch between the application and its help screens.

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reporting, similar to my situation, you expanded on it nicely. :) –  mattlant Sep 23 '08 at 1:19
    
So surely you could show your customers how to open a new page themselves, if that's the behavior they want? –  Shermozle Sep 23 '08 at 1:28
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Because we actually polled our customers and the majority (that responded) preferred default behaviour to be "open new window". You might as well also suggest adding two links, current browser and new browser but I suspect that would cause more trouble with the customer base. –  paxdiablo Sep 23 '08 at 1:39
    
I understand where you're coming from - we'd probably leave default behaviour as-is but provide an option to change it for power users such as yourself - unfortunately, you're not our target market :-). –  paxdiablo Sep 23 '08 at 1:40
    
But by making the default to open a new window, you remove the option for the minority who don't want it to open in a new window. –  Shermozle Sep 23 '08 at 1:40
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To summarize the many good responses.

  1. Opening a new window just because the link is outside the current site is never okay.
  2. A preview window or external reporting window might be useful in a new window, and will cause less confusion in some circumstances. Ideally this would be configurable to accomodate users who prefer not to open in a new window.
  3. In cases where a popup is used at the moment, for example to give help, modern JavaScript libraries can provide nice hover-over tooltip-style overlays that don't break the flow of the page and don't lose any in-progress edits, so can be considered to solve the same problem without a popup. Popups are blocked by many browsers.
  4. Modal overlays with DOM-manipulating JavaScript could solve many of the cases where a new window might be required, such as previews or external applications.
  5. Educate your users on the use of middle-click (open new tab) or right-click > open new window/tab functionality in their browser, so that they realise they can always open new windows or tabs if they prefer. Of course, this requires that your application doesn't break the standard linking model, which many badly-written JavaScript applications break.
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5. is pretty impossible, unless you have a very narrow set of users. It's probably the onus of browser creators to improve their UI in order to achieve this goal. –  Bobby Jack Oct 27 '08 at 14:06
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Middle-click isn't exactly difficult! –  Shermozle Feb 14 '09 at 3:24
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"Educate" is the difficult part, not middle-click. –  ShreevatsaR Jun 11 '09 at 2:41
    
I upvoted your response for #1. –  Elias Zamaria Sep 14 '09 at 23:19
    
3. Hover isn't something that will be popular with touchscreen tablets, no matter how "nice" and "modern" the javascript (which is also blocked by many browsers) –  OJW Jan 3 '13 at 23:34
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Yes, a full ajax app that needs to open something that wont integrate well into the current page. For example, on one project I am working on I launch open a new window for various reports.

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Public websites: no. Corporate apps: maybe, only if you must.

Note that with multi tabbed browsers, often they can display "new windows" as a tab (not as a pop up, which is obnoxious from a users point of view - a new tab is much more pleasant - especially to power users).

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There are... for example, imagine a page with ~1000 options, and each of those options has a "Help Text"... now you could load the text for each one, display it in some kind of tooltip etc, or you could create a "help" icon and open a popup that displays information about the option you're editing. You dont want to move to a new page, as you'll lose edits, so this is here.

That's an actual example of something from my old job, to justify not adopting XHTML Strict over Transistional.

But, this is as a popup, rather than browsing to a new window. I think that saying "you must continue browsing this external site in a new window" is bad... and that's probably why you can't do it in XHTML Strict!

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I think sometimes there is a case for it. If you do have a link which opens in an external window, it should be marked as so - with an icon, or at least a title attribute to let the user know what will happen when they click the link.

In general, it drives me nuts when sites don't let me choose how to work with links.

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Generally speaking i think no. However for sites like Stack Overflow where I am fishing around for interesting questions I would rather a separate tab open so that i don't loose my spot.

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So either middle-click or right-click and select "New window" or "New tab". It's functionality that's built into your browser! –  Shermozle Sep 23 '08 at 1:53
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There's only one type of site where I think it's acceptable for all outside links to open in a new window and that's a web application. e.g. webmail sites when the user clicks on an attachment, or online feed aggregators like Bloglines or Google Reader when the user clicks on the title to go to the website for the feed item, calendars, etc.

which considering the userbase of web applications, will more likely be a new tab

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Only when the client insists. And even then, only after you have tried to educate them on the reasons not to.

Although I'm sure there are some situations that I haven't run into before, but I've yet to find one that can't be solved with another method that's non-intrusive.

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3 words: "never say never"

Any developer/designer worth his salt should know when and where to use popups and how to minimise their use. Unfortunately for the zealots, there are actually usable situations where popups are more usable than alternative solutions (e.g. lightboxes, floating divs). Sure 99.9% of the time you aren't going to use a popup.. The minute you start using absolutes to convince yourself that your the man when it comes to usability, you've shot yourself in the foot. Work with your users, don't dictate to them. (By the way, when I say 'you' I don't mean Shermozle, I mean all of us).

IMO, popups work well as dialogs and are more user friendly than lightboxes as they are closer to the functionality of the OS. IEs modal dialogs work well. Ajax popups that float around or flicker on and off or get stuck because a mouse event doesn't fire properly is not really that usable.

Unfortunately, browser makers have lost trust in developers to know when and where to use them and we've now lost control to popup windows with full control - the bastards have ruined it for the rest of us and we have to deal with popup blockers and firefoxes open in a new tab option.. oh well. Personally I'd like to say 'open in new tab', 'open in new window', 'open as lightbox' ... that allows me to make an educated professional decision.

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Here's my cent, not thinking as a web developer but as a user. I would open content in a different window/tab when:

  • i) The Content MIME Type is not xhtml (.pdf, .jpgs, .rss, etc.)
  • The link takes me out of the current website

Why those cases??

  • i) Most of times you want to download or check something as you keep on reading the same page.
  • ii)As a user after 20 secs. browsing, I got 10 tabs opened ready to be read, and I keep on opening pages as I'm reading because that is a way to let them load completely without waiting. When I jump from one site to another I dont want to miss a thing about the previous page.
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Right, but you haven't explained why the developer would make this choice instead of the user. That's my point: teach users to do it, don't assume they always want it. –  Shermozle Mar 23 '11 at 5:41
    
Not sure I get your point. As developers one of our goals it's to make life easier for users, that's why I was answering from their point of view. "Making things easier" sometimes implies taking decision for them (Sorry, I know it doesnt sound very cool ;) ) –  ivo_es Mar 23 '11 at 19:49
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This question's outdated by now. Although it may have been unacceptable to open links in an external window when the question was asked, it's perfectly acceptable to open new pages in an external tab. Because both use the _blank attribute in HTML; it's up to the browser to determine whether the link will be opened internally or externally, and any modern browser will default to open in a new tab rather than opening up a whole new window.

A UX Movement article provides several cases when links should be opened in new tabs. Some of the salient points are:

  1. If the link is external, you'll speed users up by opening the link in a new tab. That way, once they're done navigating through the other site, they won't have to click Back multiple times to return to your site.
  2. If you have links to multiple external sites and the user wants to visit all of them, they'll have to click back to your page each time instead of just opening the sites all in new tabs and not having to worry about clicking back.
  3. In cases where the browser doesn't cache your site data, the extra back clicks will tax your server by forcing it to resend the data each time.
  4. Analytics could be skewed, displaying one visitor returning to your site from other sites as though it was many short visits to the page rather than one long one.
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I don't consider it 'perfectly acceptable' to open up more tabs in my browser any more than I want it to open more windows for me. It's my browser, let me browse as I see fit. –  DA01 Jan 9 '13 at 1:37
    
the problem with the 4 items listed is that 1) it's purely an assumption they want to return and that switching tabs is inherently faster than the back button. 2) True. But maybe I just want to visit one in my current browser. 3) Eh, if that's taxing the servers, there are bigger problems ;) 4) Analytics could be skewed in either direction. So, in summary, perhaps valid points, but there are equally valid counter points. So I wouldn't call that conclusive. –  DA01 Jan 9 '13 at 1:39
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I think it could be done if it is absolutely necessary. For example : If on your own website, you are linking to another one, and you would not want people to navigate to that one on top of yours. So in this case, I think it's fair enough to open a new browser.Although you could always specify "(Will open in a new browser) " alongside the link.

But forcing the links to open in a new window all the time is a really no-no. It's confusing and very irritating for the users.

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when the context is important: as someone above mentioned when Google Reader does it that's good for me at least, because I don;t lose my place on the page. Same thing with GMail, for instance.

Not so sure about Stackoverflow - I manually open all those links in a new tab, so I like that it doesn't force the new tab, but you could certainly make the same argument.

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I've actually been considering this question as well. After some thought, I don't think it is acceptable to ever do it without the user's consent and that's the reason the W3C deprecated that behavior. I suggest providing two links, one that opens in the current window followed by one that opens in a new window. You could have the second link formatted like this: (new window) or you could have a graphical representation of it. I'm working on a JavaScript snippet that does this dynamically for all external links so that you can have valid HTML while at the same time offering your users a one-click solution for new windows or tabs.

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Lets say you are building an HTML editor for stand alone web pages. And you want to see what it would look like to the end user without all the tools (and JavaScript) for editing. Preview in a window is a perfectly good reason to pop up a new window.

Another good reason is Gmails chat UI. Someone is using google talk with me. I want to click "pop out" which makes another window. That way I can continue browsing.

There are reasons to do it. It's a tool. If you use it with thoughtfulness you will mke the right choice.

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I was just creating a web page that has a flash music player. I have added an option to open a new window that contains only the player, and I think that in this marginal case a possibility to open new window is useful, if the user want to listen to the track even when he leaves the page/site.

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I think that on the basis of Facebook etc... it makes more sense when you design an app, for instance, to open any links in new windows.

Also the other way around, when your site links to a page on a social network, it is an advantage to open the page in a new window, as from personal experience, I only want to view the page for a few seconds and don't like pressing 'back' a few times to get back to the site I was on.

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As a user, I wouldn't want to see new tab opening unless it is a PDF or a printer-friendly page. Otherwise, I would myself be doing right-click and 'Open Link in new Tab' and wouldn't rely on the website to decide it for me. Similarly, different users will have their own choice and opinions.

So, it totally depends on what is your target audience and on what platform they are likely to use your application. If your target audience is used to see that click on 'Demo' link to open in new tab, then they would like to continue seeing it that way on new websites too. If your website is suppose to open in a mobile device's browser, then opening a new tab is a strict no-no (For example FB login pop-up).

Best way to take a decision in such a situation would be look for what other popular websites do in such a situation. People who use Google's search, would always expect that other search engines are not entirely different from it.

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