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When I was young and personal computers where a new thing, there was a study that revealed that many persons did not know what to do with a computer mouse and how to use the pointer on screen to interact with the machine.

Today, probably most everyone knows how to use a mouse, but there are other aspects that computer users still do not understand while developers rely on that knowlege. For example, the recommendation not to force a new window on the user with target="_blank" relies on users knowing how to open a link in a new window or tab if they want to.

When I code links, I often wonder if my users actually know that they can hold the link on their mobile phone until a dialog pops up, or that they can right click to open a context menu and choose to open a link in a new tab. I am worried about this, because if I accidentally push my visitors away from my site at a time when they would have continued shopping, I will lose sales.

Is there research on how many users actually know how to open a link in a new tab?

We should note that many of the recommendations not to force links to open in a new window were voiced before both tabbed browsing and mobile devices. Today, in most browsers with their standard setting, target="_blank" does not open a new window at all, but a new tab. And on Android mobile phones at least, the back button from a link opened in a new tab closes that tab and returns the user to the originating tab (tested in Chrome, Firefox, Opera and the Android browser), so the device back button works across new tabs on this device.

Also, I while I am certainly not representative, I never use the back button. Read Question Overflow's answer to a related question to learn why. There is a reason why "sites like Google+ and Twitter always open external sites in new tabs", as RobC pointed out in his anser to the same question. Facebook does the same for external links, as I just tested. For that type of site, it may well be the user expected standard behavior of links – and that those sites implement this behavior could be understood as indicating that at least their developers don't think their users know how to open links in new tabs on their own.

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    Perhaps this helps to answer your question: - ux.stackexchange.com/questions/19892/… – JeromeR Apr 11 '15 at 22:21
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    while not an answer, I would just like to point out that the bit, "relies on users knowing how to open a link in a new window or tab if they want to," is highly relevant: if a user wants to open a link in a new tab, they should know how to do it. – justin Apr 14 '15 at 5:35
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    @JeromeR No, that question and its answers only discuss if you should force links to open in new windows and not if users know how to do it. It is also largely outdated and no longer relevant, as I suggest in my edit. – user41884 Apr 14 '15 at 7:29
  • Too bad that older question didn't help. Thanks for editing your question to reflect this. Here's hoping you get a useful reply soon. – JeromeR Apr 19 '15 at 0:35
  • There may be a reason why some sites open links in new tabs, but at least some of us find that behavior vastly annoying. I have a mental model of my browsing interaction in any thread as a tree (though I may have several different threads in tabs), so the "open in new tab" behavior breaks that model. – jamesqf Apr 27 '15 at 4:57
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Power users open links in new tabs and rarely use the Back button, while most users rarely open links in new tabs and rely on the Back button instead.

Patrick Dubroy conducted this study for his master’s thesis while working at Mozilla. You can read about the presentation that he gave there and the paper that he wrote for CHI.

In describing his presentation, he wrote:

Another thing I wanted to look into was how often people choose to open a link in a new tab. In doing so, I noticed something interesting: 6 of the people in my study never opened a link in a new tab, and 3 others did so less than 10 times. These people still used tabs quite a bit. Maybe they never felt the need to open a link in a new window, but I think it’s more likely that they didn’t know they could even do that. One person actually described to me a long work-around. If she was on a page with two links that she would have wanted to open in new tabs, she would copy the URL of the page, open up a new tab, and paste the URL in the new tab. Then, she would follow a different link in each one of the tabs. She did this so that she could compare between the two sites. The thing is, she was telling me that this was something she liked about tabs — that should could compare between two pages. So, even with the amount of work she was putting in, tabs were a win for her. Clearly she would benefit from knowing how to open up a link in a new tab.

(Emphasis mine.) And from the paper:

In fact, this behaviour of opening links in new tabs is likely one of the major differences between the tab power users and the other participants. Every single one of the tab power users—and none of the other participants—reported that opening links in new tabs had become habitual:

“Usually I have this sort of reflex of right-clicking and saying ‘open in a new tab’.” (P2)

“Most of the time, over 70% of the time, opening a new link means to be opening a new tab.” (P20)

P21 had even installed a Firefox extension which opened every link in a new tab. When asked how she would use Google without tabs, she said, “I couldn’t imagine it.

As you can see, your own Back-less behaviour is actually quite common amongst power users. I do the same thing (and wrote about it back when I first read this study).

Note that the study was advertised towards people who use Firefox and multiple tabs. It is thus likely that the participants are people who open links in new tabs even more than the average person. As for mobile, I’m not familiar with any studies. I would surmise, however, that the number of new-tabbbers there are even lower, given the worse usability both of opening links in new tabs and of tab management.

There’s an insight to be gleaned from all this: the Back button is not a good document-management mechanism when browsing. Tabs are so much better that many people will prefer to use tabs exclusively instead, constantly opening up new tabs and closing old ones, rather than blindly clicking links and letting pages disappear behind the Back button.

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    Incidentally, this insight (along with others) led me to mock up several alternate browser interfaces. In them, when you follow a link, it opens a new page in the current group of pages (analogous to the tab bar), but opening a new page from scratch starts a new group. I wrote about my ideas for Mozilla Labs and then refined them with a full zoomable touch interface. – David Regev Apr 27 '15 at 2:29
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    Perfect answer, thank you so much for providing it. From that study it might seem as if a majority of users would be quite happy if all external links always opened in a new tab. – user41884 Apr 27 '15 at 4:29
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    Exactly! Such a change, though, would necessitate a few other changes. It would have to be extremely easy to switch to a new tab, and also to close the current one. The too-many-tabs problem would be worse, so automatic tab-grouping would be necessary. These are the ideas behind the designs that I mocked up. – David Regev Apr 27 '15 at 17:28
  • This study is over 5 years old, so I'm not sure if this is still relevant today. are you aware of any more recent studies? 5 years is a long time in the tech world. – Wipqozn Sep 2 '15 at 12:01
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    I would add that probably the main reason for this is that Back button requires reloading the page, while tab-switching is done immediately. – Zon Nov 16 '15 at 9:57
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My professional experience with major, international web marketers may be of relevance. None of them. Not one of them. True. And, I guess, I can answer as an expert in the field when I say that no research has been conducted to determine the percentage of device users that know how to open links in new tabs/windows. Probably, lack of funding has seriously hindered any efforts to collect this info, my friend. However, a survey of link behaviors across a spectrum of websites may produce informal results that are sufficient for your requirements.

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    This doesn't answer the question – Benny Skogberg Apr 15 '15 at 3:32

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