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Web developers can apply this attribute to anchor <a> tags to force the browser to open links in new tabs/windows.

Marketers love it because it allows them to link to external content without taking the reader off the page.

But it can also frustrate power users who demand control over the tabs they have open. Or, it can confuse novices who follow the link and try to click "Back" when they're finished reading the external article.

What do you think?

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7 Answers

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Short answer, no, it's not OK.

Code-wise/standards: If you're writing xhtml, it's a deprecated attribute and shouldn't be used. You could consider using the rel="external" attribute instead if you absolutely must.

For external links: As you noted, it prevents users from completely leaving your site, which remains open in another tab/window. I prefer the css solution of using a background icon and a title tag on href to tell users it's an off-site link. It's just not a good idea to take this kid of control away from the user. And sometimes an iFrame is a good thing, bringing other sites content in with a way to return to yours.

For internal links: Makes no sense, if there's a need, it could be solved with a division to the side, a modal window (where appropriate, we tend to over-use these) or some other solution. I don't thing there's ever a reason to take this kind of control for something within your site.

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target="_blank" is actually allowed again in HTML5. Still, I agree, new windows or tabs are a bad idea. It breaks the normally expected browser behavior. I like using rel="external" and adding small icon. Using rel="external" not only properly identifies the links relationship to the document, but it also saves you from having to assign a class to every external link. In CSS you can write something like: a[rel="external"] { background: url("/images/external.png"); } –  Jarrett Jul 12 '10 at 18:37
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Overall, I agree with you. It definitely makes sense to clarify internal/external links in the browsing UI. The biggest crime, in my opinion, is breaking the single most used button (ever? in any UI?)--the back button. –  noluckmurphy Jul 12 '10 at 19:34
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And in addition to the back button, tabs. In the end, let the user decide how they want to navigate the internet. –  DA01 Jul 12 '10 at 20:12
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I really dislike when links open in a new window, unless I’m on a shopping cart page and am clicking a “help” link. In that case, I don’t want to navigate away from the cart page, so a new window is acceptable. That’s about the only time that I think that links should open in new windows: in purchase pages and/or landing pages designed to sell something. –  Jitendra Vyas Jul 13 '10 at 3:16
    
Ideally you would let the user decide how they want to navigate, i.e. cmd+click (on a mac) or right-click to open the link in a new tab if user wants that behaviour - so therefore _parent is not acceptable in this instance. However, sometimes a new window is desirable and _parent can be OK provided the behaviour matches user expectation of clicking that link (e.g. an icon next to the link to indicate that clicking it will open a new window/tab). –  Tom Evans Jul 14 '10 at 14:24
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Agree with everybody else here :-)

But just on this one particular point:

"Marketers love it because it allows them to link to external content without taking the reader off the page."

This is a reasonable fear for a client to have. The user leaving the site and not being able to get back.

However, in every single usability test I've done, opening external content in a new window makes this problem worse - not better.

(If they don't want to get back to the old site - the client has a different problem. And opening things in a new window won't solve that either).

Users have a well understood mechanism for returning to a previous page. The back button. If they want to get back to the old site - they can. Opening external links in a new window breaks this mechanism.

I've seen the opening of a new window confuse and annoy users again and again. Responses have included:

  • Being aware of the new window - and just being annoyed by the perceived forcing of behaviour.
  • Not understanding what happened when the back button failed - and just giving up.
  • Typing in the URL again when the back button failed - and having to "start again"
  • Carrying on their original task on a competitor's site because they went to Google when their back button didn't return them to the original site.
  • ... etc ...

What marketers really like is keeping their making sales and keeping their customers happy. Explain that opening new windows will do the reverse (even better - show it with some user testing) and you won't have a problem.

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I like your reasoning to that objection I often hear. –  noluckmurphy Jul 13 '10 at 14:40
    
+1 great answer! –  elias Feb 27 '13 at 1:05
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My first opinion is it's break the separation of content and behavior. and new link in new window will make browsing difficult for screen reader user.

I personally do not like to open web content pages in window, but if client want then we will have to do.

From usability point of view

consider the following two situations where a user doesn’t know upfront if the site opens links in new windows or in the same window:

  1. user wants to open link in a new window, but the site opens links in the same window,
  2. user wants to open link in the same window, but the site opens links in new windows.

In the first situation users can choose to open a link in the new window using context-menu or shortcuts described in the next sections of this article. In this situation users are the initiators of actions as they decide how the linked page should be displayed. Here site’s behavior meets user’s expectations resulting in a good user experience.

In the second situation users would simply click on the link and suddenly find out that the link is opened in a new window. In this situation users are the responders of actions as they need to react on the way how the linked page is displayed — for instance close the windows which was opened automatically. Furthermore, here site’s behavior doesn’t meet user’s expectations resulting in a bad user experience.

Users find it annoying when the site does something without asking them to do so. If users want to open new windows let them do so and don’t indulge their intelligence by making decision for them otherwise. Don’t force a new window upon users unless there’s a very good reason to do so.

reference - http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/01/should-links-open-in-new-windows/

and

Believe if or not, there are instances when using a new window is a good idea, such as when:

  • The link is for a document, such as a PDF or Word file. Opening a new window will allow the image or document to download in the background. It also prevents users from accidentally closing the browser window when they close the document.
  • The link is for a large image. In this case, a new window allows the Web user to keep a browser window open while the image is being downloaded.
  • The link is for a printable version of an article or Web page. Here, a new window allows users to keep the current window open while they print the article or page in the background.

Source - http://articles.sitepoint.com/article/beware-opening-links-new-window

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Good citations. +1 –  noluckmurphy Jul 12 '10 at 19:32
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I don't think you should use a new window for PDF's - let the browser or plug-ins handle them. Otherwise you're apt to have a blank tab/window. Otherwise, this was a great post! –  Susan R Jul 12 '10 at 19:54
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DO NOT OPEN A NEW WINDOW WHEN LINKING TO A PDF! That will give me a blank browser window and a PDF downloaded somewhere on my hard drive. Actually, I'd argue the other 2 bullet points don't justify new windows either. –  DA01 Jul 12 '10 at 20:26
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OK, I take that back. Jakob is partially correct. Note this important point: "prevent the browser from opening the document in the first place. Instead offer users the choice to save the file on their harddisk or to open it in its native application" –  DA01 Jul 13 '10 at 13:50
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@Indian - Re: your first comment that the blank window will open with "same window" also is wrong. If you link to a file that the browser cannot open, it gives you a file save dialog (or the equivalent based on your browser/OS). However, if you add the target="_blank" to your link, the browser automatically opens a blank window FIRST and then tries to open the URL provided. It then can't open it, so it gives you the file save dialog. There's a reason that the target you are providing is called "_blank". –  Charles Boyung Jul 13 '10 at 21:06
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I agree with many of what has been said about opening links in new windows, but there are instances where I think that this is a valid solution that actually enhances the user experience.

For example: I have a podcast where visitors could listen to the episodes on the site. We usually mention a few links that listeners could find in the episode's show notes to follow them and see what we're talking about. This caused a problem for those who listen through the web site, since they would accidentally interrupt the podcast when clicking one of the links in the show notes (since it loads in the same window). So we made those links only open in a new window, and everyone was happy.

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+1 agree with you. –  Jitendra Vyas Jul 13 '10 at 3:19
    
Good point about media playing on the current page. I would almost argue that issue should be handled more intelligently by browser vendors. –  noluckmurphy Jul 13 '10 at 14:37
    
I think the key here is that the audio is using a browser-centric file format (I assume Flash, or going forward, HTML5 features) so either it's going to load in the browser or it won't. In this case, provided the link indicates a new window, I'd agree...this is a valid use. –  DA01 Jul 13 '10 at 15:08
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a) It's the wrong technical solution for creating a new window.

Window creation is a javascript function. _blank is deprecated.

b) New windows are evil

They bring all sorts of usability and accessibility issues. Sometimes they are useful, but pick and choose when to use them carefully. If one must create the pop-up, be sure to use JavaScript and make sure it's sized small enough to clearly be a new window. The old '_blank' method can cause problems such as folks who browse with constantly maximized windows. In those situations the new window appears identical to the one they were on and they then think their back button is broken.

c) Marketing doesn't really know what they are talking about.

Marketing often doesn't understand fundamental concepts that the web brings to the table. The idea that people don't know how to use their back button, for instance. Or that annoying people is a bad thing. Or what 'tabs' are for in browser UIs.

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I would argue that as a general rule the well established convention that links should not open in a new window should be observed (i.e. for usability/accessibility/predictability/navigation considerations)...

UNLESS their non-standard behaviour is made predictable via the use of visual embellishment (e.g. prefixed icon) and appropriate hover tooltip (e.g. "[opens in a new window]")...

OR if logic / user expectation dictates that the link(s) SHOULD open in a new window, as in web applications like Google Reader (i.e. you wouldn't want every link/article you click in Reader to load in the current window and then to have to navigate back to Reader afterwards...)

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Yes! I'm thankful that Gmail opens links in a new window as otherwise you would have to reload the app everytime you click back. –  benb Jun 14 '12 at 13:19
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During our usability tests I witnessed several occasions when users were desperately hitting the (disabled) back button of their browser – trying to get back to the site they just left by clicking on an "external" link.

So there is absolute no reason to send users over to a new tab or window. It might be useful when you want to provide a small pop-up window with the preview of a form or a print view of a document. But for navigation purposes you should avoid both pop-ups and new tabs – no matter what technology you use.

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