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“When you guys use internal links, do you have that link open in the same page or in a different tab? What’s best practice?” This question was posed in a Facebook group – and the responses there surprised me. Maybe that’s because I didn’t break this question down into it’s two different, but similar, questions: “do you have…” and “what’s best practice?”
WARNING: All links on this page open in the same tab!
Skip past these quotes to get to the meat and potatoes of this article!
For those of you who haven’t seen that post, here was my first response:
Internal links should be in the same page, for the most part. The exception, like Emily said, would be if the link is unrelated and you want them to come back to the original content (e.g. opt-in landing page linked from a blog post). External links in a new tab!
I ended up writing a second response, as well:
So, I have to be honest, you guys totally floored me last night with this thread. I felt like the open-internal-links-in-the-same-tab response was a given, and here something like 8 of a dozen people have very strong opinions on doing the opposite! So, here’s my best attempt at a concise reasoning in favor of same-tab internal links:
Whether or not you personally prefer links to open in a new tab or the same tab, it all boils down to user experience. User interface is the way your site looks and user experience is the way a reader interacts with your site. Now, if it’s about how your users, how in the world do you make them all happy when there is clearly one option and also the exact opposite of that option? How do you choose which to provide?
Do: respect the expected, default behavior of the browser. Don’t: take control away from the user in order to give them what you think they want.
Did you know that you can hold down cmd/ctrl when you click a link and it will open in a new tab? Alternatively, you can right-click and choose to open in a new tab (or window). On mobile, when you long-press the link you’ll get a context menu, similar to when you right-click on mobile, and can choose to open the link in a new tab.
Browsers, by default, do not open links in new tabs. As creators (of, basically, the entire internet 😉 ), it’s our job to respect these standards and protect the expectations a reader has when they visit our sites. There are times to open links in a new tab, but 95% of your internal links don’t fit that criteria.
I can completely understand the desire to have links open in new tabs as a preference. From a usability perspective, it just doesn’t hold, though. I think there are a lot of articles that are already available explaining this concept better than I can, but I’ll write an article later with a few key citations. 🙂
I typically write articles in the, I-know-what-I’m-talking-about fashion, which makes the creation process a little faster and keeps the article readable. However, due to the strength of opinions in the previously mentioned post, I want to provide evidence that goes beyond my own thoughts and opinions.
For that, we need to set the stage in regards to who I am and how I think: My degree is from the University of Florida’s College of Engineering. Their Digital Arts and Science program is a computer science track with an emphasis on design. Specifically, I was interested in the usability courses (such as Human-Computer Interaction, which covered user experience and testing). I had the opportunity to learn about the nitty gritty details of creating immersive experiences for users (like how long a background tune needs to be to avoid annoying users as repetitive)!
So, when I share the below clippings, you should know that while I recognize opinions on this topic are split, I’m citing articles that relate to my own background and reasoning. These don’t support my own opinion as a user so much as my knowledge as a professional.
That said, let’s dig in!
In this question, there are 3 rules that should impact our decision:
#1 Strive for consistency.
#2 Enable frequent users to use shortcuts.
#7 Support internal locus of control.
Does a browser, by default, open links in a new tab? No. So this is an inconsistent behavior. When we force a link to open in a new tab, can users easily chose to open that link in the same tab? No, because you’ve altered the default browser behavior, no shortcuts now exist to go back to that behavior. Does forcing the link to open in a new tab give users control? No, it gives you control.
Consider this argument, from Nielson Norman Group (this link has other great points, as well!):
Consistency is one of the most powerful usability principles: when things always behave the same, users don’t have to worry about what will happen. Instead, they know what will happen based on earlier experience.
The more users’ expectations prove right, the more they will feel in control of the system and the more they will like it. And the more the system breaks users’ expectations, the more they will feel insecure.
Hijacking browser behavior is not a decision to be taken lightly, and it should not assume that what you like is what’s best for your visitors. Therefore, “best practice” is to leave the link alone.
Now, if you want the follow-the-rules advice, here are the only instances when you should actually control link destination, as defined by css-tricks:
There is user-initiated media playing.
The user is working on something on the page, that might be lost if the current page changed.
Some technologically obscure point
Any and all other instances should have the link open in internal links, then.There are more forgiving opinions, though, such as those from uxmovement, stating external links, fatigue, and analytics should be considered. Often the same can be said for tangential thoughts. This is where the real argument seems to exist, or rather, should only exist. Not whether internal links should open in a new tab, but when specific links to external references make more sense to open in a new tab.
For many bloggers, mobile is more than half of your traffic. For some, it’s as much as 90% of it! Today, my custom designs are 100% mobile-first. Why, then, do we forget about mobile users so often? Consider attempting to read a single site’s articles on mobile, when you’re forcing every article they read into a new tab.
Tabs can be more difficult to manage on these devices and, in some cases, are limited to a certain number before older tabs start getting dropped.
Do it. I mean that absolutely sincerely. It’s your site, it’s your life, and you should do what you want with it!
Let’s see if I can help you do it smartly: According to usability.gov, you should “Give Users Clues about Behavior before Actions are Taken.” Webcredible suggests doing this by “provid[ing] an icon that opens the link in a new browser window.” Lucky for us, there’s even a plugin that does this automatically. 🙂
Internal links in the same tab. External links and tangential thoughts TBD. Either way, provide clues to your readers about the behavior of the link.
You’re a content strategist, not a usability expert. Whatever you choose to do, recognize that your “place of genius” is content, and the better that is, the more traffic you’ll get.
Resources not cited:
- LibUX – they link to many of the same resources I have here, and although they have a very strong opinion, I think it’s presented quite concisely.
- StackExchange – this page isn’t easy to scan, but the top answer links to many informative pages with more information and points of view.