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?


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.


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.

  • 4
    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.
    – Zelda
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 13:55
  • 2
    You are taking control away from the user. That's usually a bad idea.
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 20:20
  • 2
    Apple made a fortune with taking away control from the users on their iPod.
    – user41884
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 6:55
  • I think evolution of browser tabs as well as the behavior of several web giants (e.g. Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Quora) has changed user preferences towards opening a new window. Additionally, if your web 'site' is really more of a web 'app', an 'app' probably shouldn't disappear when a link is clicked. Lastly, I think designers need to anticipate whether clicking the link is a 'linear' or 'tangential' progression of thought for the user.
    – Cato Minor
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 14:01
  • This is very old, but I'd like to note that Jacob Nielson's recommendations do have citations, because they are typically summaries of original research done by NNGroup. You just have to pay for the actual research paper separately. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 21:48

7 Answers 7


Jakob Nielsen 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.

  • @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
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 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. Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 7:22
  • 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
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 15:51
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 15:59
  • @kentr Increasing usability directly increases revenue for most sites (assuming revenue is a goal). The only reason to prioritize keeping a page open when the user is not paying attention to it is if you have continuously refreshing ads on the page. Beware: keeping users on the site without them noticing reduces click-through rate on ads, directly affecting revenue in a different way. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 22:21

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.

  • 5
    +1 For pointing out the effect on users with visual disabilities. Opened my eyes to this... Commented Apr 12, 2012 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
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 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.

  • 1
    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.
    – Zelda
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 12:11
  • 1
    '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
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 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. Commented Dec 11, 2013 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>
  • 1
    I agree. I almost always middle-click links to open them in new tabs and when I decide not to do it (to open the link in the current tab) the site is invariably coded so that the link opens in a new tab anyway...
    – Pentium100
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 8:43

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.

  • 1
    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
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 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. Commented Apr 13, 2012 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
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:21

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.

  • 1
    Long overdue, but here it is... "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" I agree with this concept, but I personally prefer to be in control of this. When I want this user flow, I intentionally open links in new tabs... So, my experience backs up the UX argument of "let the user decide"...
    – kentr
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 6:01

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.

  • 1
    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
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 20:22
  • Facebook opens links to external sites in a new tab, too.
    – user41884
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 7:22

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