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In usability discussions about opening website external links in new windows, with regard to the argument of "keeping users on the site" there are occasionally references to usability studies which show that users are actually likely to leave the origin site instead of returning (thus defeating the purpose of opening the link in a new window).

But I can't find actual recent published studies on this, and I've searched extensively. Though Jakob Nielson is reputed to be a foremost expert, his recommendations are old and have no citations that I can find.

Does anyone know of credible, recent, published usability studies where users were disoriented by new windows and were more likely to not return to the origin site?

Update:

I understand there are accessibility issues, but as those matters are well-documented and backed up by the WCAG, I'm not in need of evidence supporting them.

This question is intentionally specific to the argument of "I want to keep users on my site" because it is the argument which -- due to lack of supporting evidence -- I can't effectively counter in discussions with the client.

Update:

Found this 2006 PhD thesis on user browsing behavior. Haven't fully deciphered it, but the thesis does claim that new windows / tabs increase the cognitive burden on users.

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I think this whole situation is way different now that "new windows" don't really exist in modern browsers; the "new window" links now open new tabs (usually...), which are infinitely less annoying and have few of the same problems as new windows. –  Ben Brocka Apr 12 '12 at 13:55
    
You are taking control away from the user. That's usually a bad idea. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 20:20

7 Answers 7

Jacob Neilson has long argued against opening links in new windows (#2), for many years (#2), and in multiple ways (#9), though there are are exceptions. He has the explicit research to back up these assertions, though a typical report costs $50 to $500 dollars to get the hard proof.

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@Justin__Piper, If you would have bothered to read my answer and the link I posted you would find all the links that Myrddin posted AND alot more resources in there. –  Martijn_M Apr 26 '12 at 5:53
    
The specific question was asking for credible, recent, published usability studies, which is behind my last link. Your article is great, and is a good summary, but it is not a study done to actually prove or demonstrate testing that confirms the claim. –  Myrddin Emrys Apr 26 '12 at 7:22
    
@JustinPiper +1 for noticing :) –  mehaase Aug 20 '12 at 14:37
    
Thanks for the details on Neilson's publishings. I was aware of the research, but couldn't find the published reports -- I think I was looking at some other site and not the nngroup site. –  kentr Jan 29 '13 at 15:51
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As far as I can tell, though, Nielson's research is all about usability. I'm aware of the usability concerns with new windows, but I am looking for studies specifically on whether opening links in new windows keeps users on the site. That is the specific argument for which I want data, so that I can more effectively counter the argument. –  kentr Jan 29 '13 at 15:59

There's also the accessibility issue to consider. If a link opens in a new window, it breaks the "Back" button, which is problem enough for a sighted user, but for a user with visual disabilities who browses with a screen reader, it makes things even worse. These users will have their "Back" button disabled without having any visual clues to alert them, and so will find themselves stuck on the new window with no way of getting back to your site.

Consider the following links...

<p><a href="http://www.google.com">Visit Google</a></p>
<p><a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk" target="_blank">Visit BBC</a></p>
<p><a href="http://www.nhs.uk" target="_blank" title="This link opens in a new window">Visit NHS</a></p>
<p><a href="http://www.cnn.com" target="_blank">Visit CNN<span class="hidden"> (this link opens in a new window)</span></a></p>

For the first link, NVDA will read out "Visit Google, link". The link will open in the same window and the "Back" button functionality is still there. Screen reader users can hit Alt + left arrow to get back to your site.

The second link is handled the same as the first, with NVDA reading "Visit BBC, link". However, this opens in a new window and breaks the back button, thus Alt + left arrow is broken. There is nothing in the link which warns users of this happening and so it's disorientating for them.

The third link will be read as "Visit NHS, link, This link opens in a new window". Whilst it still breaks the "Back" button, the title attribute will at least give users a warning that this is going to happen.

The fourth link is handled similar to the third, but this time we've added the warning text to the actual link phrase (and visually hidden it using CSS). This link is read as "Visit CNN, this link opens in a new window, link".

If you absolutely have to open links in a new window, make sure you add some sort of warning (such as links 3 or 4 above) so that you don't suddenly break standard browser functionality for people who are perhaps not able to pick up visual clues that something has happened. This warning should either be a title attribute or a phrase contained within the <a href> itself so that it is always part of the link (which will ensure the warning is present when screen reader users have a list of links read to them).

Hope that gives some insight into the accessibility side of the issue.

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+1 For pointing out the effect on users with visual disabilities. Opened my eyes to this... –  Marjan Venema Apr 12 '12 at 7:15
    
Thanks. I'm aware of the accessibility issues, but am not looking for that information in this question. Specifically looking for evidence for / against the argument of keeping users on the site. –  kentr Apr 12 '12 at 17:06

IMO, it's not about getting people back to your site by having it open in the background. That thought process is outdated, hence the fact that you cannot find any recent studies.

This article on Smashing Magazine sums it up nicely I think: http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/01/should-links-open-in-new-windows/

My .02 cents on this topic (no reference to studies but it might help):

What it is about is user EXPERIENCE, I think it's a bad experience when links open in new windows. It breaks my navigation history and annoys me, if I want to open a link in a new window I'll press ctrl+[click link] myself.

Plus, if your site isn't appealing enough for the visitor to come back to no technical 'quirk' can make them. What they do remember is the bad EXPERIENCE they had and that might be the first thing they think of if they ever re-visit your site.

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I think you're ignoring a big use case for this; news aggregators and any site where you might have lots of external links from one page and not want to navigate back and forth, but rather read one item at a time. Don't forget lots of users don't know how to control click, but all of them know how to close a tab. –  Ben Brocka Apr 16 '12 at 12:11
    
'but all of them know how to close a tab' - and a lot don't even see that a new tab is opened. Trust me I've sat in a lot of usability studies and the most obvious things for us 'power-users' are the things that slip by the ordinary (my parents for example) users. And instead of thinking a tab opened they think a new window has opened. They fall back to old behaviour, and click to close the complete browser. Now when we would have had a normal click-through they would have pressed backspace or the back browse to navigate. But I guess the only way to know is to user-test this on actual users... –  Martijn_M Apr 16 '12 at 14:03
    
Facebook, Twitter and many other big sites, use the open in new tab. I think the only problem is with accessibility, people are now used to this behavior. Im trying to give an answer to editorial department about this, should we open external links in other tabs? or substitute the page? I think that because is a news site, with lot of external links, maybe makes sense to open a new tab. –  dutraveller Dec 11 '13 at 16:40

I think that every website should not open links on new windows. I think that user can do that alone, "right click" and open in a new window... or holding ctrl and click... there are many ways for the user to choose if open or not a weblink to a new window.

Web developers can not force users to open a new window and when a developer have to do that shold be fine to put at the end of the link title attribute something like [opens in a new window] to let it know. Like in this example:

<a target="_blank" href="http://www.google.com" title="Visit Google! [opens in a new window]">Visit Google</a>
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I think it depends on the nature of the link. In our application, links to other web resources don't open in a new window, but links to files (i.e. resources that the browser wouldn't likely display itself) do open in a new window. So a link to a PDF or DOC opens in a new window, for example.

The key there is that the behavior is consistent enough that users can predict what will happen, but I agree that the preference is to open in the same window...you should have a good reason to open in a new window.

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So what happens when I click on a PDF and have it open in Foxit? Am I left with a blank browser window? Let the user's decide what do. It's their browser, after all. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 20:23
    
In our case we provide the files through a custom ASP.NET MVC action that sets the proper content-type so no, users don't end up with a blank browser window. –  Josh Apr 13 '12 at 11:25
    
But I have my browser set to download all PDFs. I think that would over-ride any custom setting on the server end. –  DA01 Apr 13 '12 at 13:21

Tabbed browsing has undermined this old rule of thumb. Sites like Google+ and Twitter always open external sites in new tabs. As Mr. Brocka pointed out, above, the experience of viewing external sites in tabs is far less jarring than the old days when external links popped new instances of the browser. In fact, in the context of aggregation sites like Twitter or Facebook, most readers have come to expect that external links will pop a new tab.

Jakob Nielsen's old recommendation to pop non-HTML documents in new windows (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/open_new_windows.html) was based on some 30 surveys of intranets that his firm conducted. It's still a sound recommendation. Although now, with tabbed browsing, you might consider amending the rule to allow external sites to be opened in new tabs too.

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No, popping non-HTML files in new windows is not a sound recommendation since how non-HTML documents will open is entirely dependent on factors outside of the web designer's hands. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 20:22

I came across this question while researching the same. There is counter argument that goes as follows:

Back-Button Fatigue

When you open external links in the same tab, you create back-button fatigue for users. Every time the user goes to an external website they have to hit the back button to go back to your website. If they decide to click the links on the other website, they have to hit the back button even more times to get back to your site. This is a lot of unnecessary work for users.

Opening an external link in a new tab allows users to explore the other site as much as they want without having to hit the back button again and again to go back to your site. All they need to do is click the tab your site is on. There’s no excessive back-button pressing or long wait times.

Slowing Down User Flow

External links that open in the same tab can also slow down user flow. Many users who browse search engines or link sharing sites are looking for information. They’ll often click multiple links on a page to get information from different sources. Opening the external links in new tabs allows users to scan the page once, click on all the relevant links and start consuming and sifting information. The user doesn’t have to keep going back to the source page to continue scanning for more links to click. There’s less interruption in their flow.

When users do want to go back to the source page, it’s easy to do because the tab will stay open until the user manually closes it. The user doesn’t have to click the back button multiple times and wait for the source page to reload. They can easily get to it just by clicking the tab.

Overworking the Website

Inaccurate Analytics

I leave you to read the two other points not related to usability on this UX Movement website in case of copyright issues.

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