How should we handle external links on our website?
Our clients often ask for our UX recommendations on linking to outside sites. We recommend opening all links in the same tab, whether they link internally or to another website.
Opening all links in the same window leads to better usability, accessibility, and consistency for website users. There are a few commonsense exceptions for PDFs and instructional content that you can read about below.
What is an external link?
An external link is defined as a link to an outside site with a separate URL handle. Some clients want to open these links in a new tab, thinking that it will keep users on their site.
But opening links in a new tab in order to keep your site "active" in the old tab is an outdated idea. We don't use "time on page" as an analytic measurement, for the simple reason that it's an inconclusive metric that doesn't tell us much about how users are achieving their goals.
The reality is that you can’t force people to stay on your site by keeping your tab open in the background. The best—and only—way to keep people on your site is to provide valuable content that they want.
Why all links should open in the same tab
1. Mobile-First Perspective
Mobile use continues to explode as desktop use declines. The World Economic Forum states that mobile grew 460% from 2011-2021, from an average daily use of 45 minutes to a staggering 252 minutes. The dominance of smartphones demands that we reexamine all our practices to ensure a great experience on all devices.
Given the small screen size of mobile devices, it can be difficult for people to navigate between tabs and can create confusion if a user doesn’t know a link just opened in a new tab.
Having links open in the same tab reduces the chance of mobile users getting lost. Opening in the same tab preserves the “back button” as an option for users to return to the previous page.
Our knowledge about accessibility issues continues to grow, and we know that opening links in new tabs can cause accessibility issues.
WebAIM, an organization dedicated to web accessibility, explains how these kinds of links can cause issues for users using screen readers:
“Newer screen readers alert the user when a link opens a new window, though only after the user clicks on the link. Older screen readers do not alert the user at all. Sighted users can see the new window open, but users with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty interpreting what just happened. Then when they try to click on the Back button in the browser, nothing happens, because there is no previous link to go back to in a new window or tab.”
Having links open in the same tab eliminates this issue and helps make sure our websites are accessible for all of our users.
3. Give Users Control
If a user prefers that links open in a new tab, they can open the link in a new tab using a right-click or by long-pressing the link on a mobile device. This option is always available to users no matter how a link is set to open.
However, it doesn’t work in reverse. If a user prefers for links to open in the same tab, but the link is set to open in a new tab, the user is forced to adapt to this link behavior.
Keeping links set to open in the same tab allows different users to engage with a website according to their own preferences.
A critical part of user experience is maintaining expectations for what it means to interact with a website. If a user clicks on a link, they shouldn’t be surprised by what happens. When links sometimes open in a new tab and other times open in the same tab based on a seemingly arbitrary standard (“not part of our site”), it can cause user confusion.
Maintaining consistent link behavior throughout a website helps your users know what to expect.
Our recommendation is to avoid PDFs and other non-HTML documents as much as possible. If the information can be presented on a webpage, that’s generally a better user experience.
However, if we have to link to a PDF, that link should open in a new tab. (Because users often experience the PDF as “separate” from the website, they are likely to want to close it out instead of hitting the back button to return to the webpage they were on.)
PDF links should be formatted to let the user know that they are opening a document. You can append “Download” to the link, use (PDF) in parentheses, or both:
Download Permission Slip (PDF)
Chat windows should open in a pop-up window, for obvious reasons.
Other situations where it may be appropriate to use a new window or tab within a site include:
- If the link provides assistance If you are in a multistep process and click a “help” link, you obviously don’t want to navigate away from the page, so content should open in a new window.
There may be other exceptions. Think through the user experience and use your best judgment.
We use Nielsen Norman Group, an evidence-based user experience research firm, as our “guiding light” with regard to UX issues.
Nielsen Norman released updated guidance in 2020 that advocates for most links opening in the same browser tab, for the reasons stated below:
- More windows or tabs increase the clutter of the user’s information space and require more effort to manage.
- New windows or tabs can cause disorientation, with users often not realizing that a new window or tab has opened. This problem is exacerbated on mobile, where the old window is never visible.
- Less-technical users struggle to manage multiple windows and tabs, especially on mobile. (On tablets, where users can have both multiple windows and tabs for the browser, it’s even more confusing.)
- New windows or tabs prevent the use of the Back button for returning to the previous page and force the user to spend effort to find their way back to the previous content.
- New windows or tabs are not inclusive for blind or low-vision users — especially when they open outside of the area that’s magnified.