For over 20 years now, it’s been a good practice recommendation to refrain from opening links in new browser windows and the same applies to new tabs because of several reasons impacting the user:

  • more tabs lead to clutter and managing them involves more effort on the user’s part
  • new tabs can confuse users who may not even realize that a new tab has been opened, especially on mobile devices
  • less tech-savvy users may struggle with multiple tabs, especially on mobile devices
  • new tabs or windows may prove troublesome for visually impaired users, especially if they open outside of the magnified area

Generally, there’s one good reason why a new tab is preferred, and that’s when users will need to refer to the information in one of them to complete a task in the other. For example, if someone is studying a complex topic, they may need to cross reference information from one tab with the information in another one.

There are typically two generalizations used to rationalized opening links in new tabs:

  1. Linking to a different type of content – the problem with this argument is that it assumes users always do the same things with each file type, which isn’t always true. If you want to print a PDF, for example, you’ll likely benefit from it opening in a new tab which you can then close once you’re done printing it. If you’re on mobile and are following instructions on how to assemble furniture, you may need to use the back button to return to the page which linked to the file.
  2. Keeping users on the site – this assumes that the background tab containing your site stays open and serves as a reminder for your visitors. This may sometimes be true and actually helpful, but you have to keep in mind that:
  • extra tabs will require more information management from your users
  • there’s no guarantee that users will return to your site after they open the new tab
  • some people will figure out what you’re doing and won’t appreciate it
  • people who want to leave will do it on their own terms

The reason why you can’t just have general rules for when to open links in new tabs is because you can’t predict people’s needs and expectations and they aren’t dependent on the file type or whether the link is internal or external; they’re based more on their context, goals, and reactions to the content they find at that link.

However, it is worth noting that internal links are generally opened in the same tab and most users have come to expect this behavior.

Opening external links in new tabs

External links are usually the most debated when considering whether to open them in the same tab or in a new tab. Here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • time on site – many webmasters will prefer to open external links in new tabs so they can keep users on their websites for longer. Opening external links in new tabs could help improve engagement metrics such as bounce rate or time on site.
  • multiple clicks of the back button – if someone clicks on an external link which opens in the same tab as your website, they may have a harder time returning to your website if they browse around multiple pages of the newly opened one. However, if the website opens in a new tab, they can browse around all they want and, in the end, simply close the tab and return to your website. If you expect people to visit multiple pages of a website you are linking to, opening it in a new tab will likely be the best way to do it.
  • large, bloated websites – if your website is fairly large or heavy on ads, returning to it via the back button may not be ideal as this will likely lead to multiple elements of your website refreshing and potentially taking up time to load. As such, opening link in new tabs would be the preferred method here as it will save users time and bandwidth.
  • security considerations – opening links in new tabs also brings with it some security considerations. For example, if you link to a website which has been compromised, that website could also gain control over the tab hosting your own website. Many content management systems such as WordPress now default to new tabs opening with specific attributes that prevent this from happening. If you’re using something else or have a hardcoded website, you should ensure that any links you’re opening in new tabs are safe for your users.
  • accessibility considerations – visually impaired users who use screen readers may have a poor experience with websites opening in new tabs.
  • form data – if you have a form on your page, links on that page should ideally open in new tabs to prevent potential data loss for users who may have started filling out the form before browsing around a bit.
  • media content – if there is audio or video on your page that you assume visitors may want to keep playing, it may be a good idea to open the links on that page in a new tab so as not to interrupt the media content.

What you should consider

Research suggests that users’ reactions to whether links open in new tabs or windows depend on:

  • context – users in a relaxed environment doing simple tasks are not as bothered by new tabs than those in time-sensitive situations.
  • effort – keep in mind that if the user is performing a task that would normally have them return to your site after potentially browsing several pages on the new site, they may be put off by the number of times they’ll have to click the Back button, and some may even abandon the journey.
  • task – new tabs are received positively when users are performing one of these types of activities:
  1. comparing content across multiple pages – for example, a webmaster may be editing a web page in one window or tab and previewing his changes in another
  2. combining information from multiple pages – for example, a nontechnical user may learn how to use a piece of software by having multiple tabs open and switching between them when he needs a certain piece of information to complete his workflow
  3. keeping track of items across multiple pages – for example, an online shopper may want to compare between different brands of the same product by having each opened in a different tab and switching between them to make an informed decision
  • using the original tab as a launching pad for several other pages – for example, a user looking for a specific piece of information within multiple documents in a Google Drive folder may benefit from each document opening in a new tab

When opening in new tabs should be avoided

These are tasks where users generally don’t like links opening in new tabs:

  • when they just want to take a quick look at the new page and return (especially on mobile) – on desktop devices, a lot more people know the keyboard shortcut for going back, whereas not that many know the keyboard shortcut for closing the current tab. If a page opened in a new tab and they wanted to go back using the keyboard, they are likely to be frustrated to see backspace not working, forcing them to use the mouse to close the tab or search for the keyboard shortcut that closes the current tab for future reference, but that is highly unlikely. This may prove more cumbersome for people with disabilities who rely on the website to make their browsing experience as pleasant as possible. On mobile devices, users are able to use the back button to switch to the previous tab, but this leaves the second tab open in the background, forcing them to either close it after they’ve finished with it if they know this and don’t like the idea of tabs stacking up in the background, or it may lead to them becoming frustrated at some point in the future when they find dozens of saved tabs in their browser.
  • multistep workflows – for example, if a user is in the process of completing an action requiring multiple steps, they may need to use the Back button to return to a previous step to review or change information. If each step opens in a new tab, not only will the back button not work, but depending on the number of steps required to complete the action, all the newly opened tabs can lead to clutter.
  • many other tabs already open – for example, busy users may often have multiple tabs open as they work, and any new tab that opens may be a source of frustration as clutter builds up and they may sometimes stop what they are doing to clean up the many tabs they have open.

As you can see, it’s very important to observe users and understand their context and goals. Since there can be a lot of variability across different tasks, if you decide to open links in new tabs, make sure to signal it by contextual messaging or simply using an icon that suggests a new tab will be opened when they click a link.

Linking to documents or other file types

Users are usually annoyed when they click a link and are presented with documents instead of a regular web page, as the way these documents are displayed can present a very different user experience than a web page. This abrupt change can become jarring for users and it should be avoided whenever possible.

While it is generally best to present all the information in web pages, there are some unavoidable situations where it may be best to offer users a different document format, either as a downloadable file for users to open and edit if needed in the software of their choice, or as another tab within the browser (e.g. PDF files), but the latter is dependent on the browser’s capabilities.

Here are a couple of tips for handling these situations:

  • directly download native files – directly downloading the files to the user’s device so that they can open them in whichever software they like. Sometimes this may be a better approach than opening the document in the same tab or window, but this is heavily dependent on what the user intends to do with it.
  • open PDF documents in new tabs on desktop devices – users typically need to combine the information from a PDF with that from the original tab, meaning they will need to go back and forth between the two, so opening a PDF as a separate tab in the browser window may be the best way to go. On mobile, however, you would ideally not use PDFs, but if you must, you should at least open it in the same tab, so users have an easier time getting back.

Final thoughts

To summarize, the best bet in general is to open links in the same tab. However, if you do think users may be best served by opening a link in a new tab, don’t base this simply on the type of link or content. It’s best to consider users’ contexts and goals and decide which way you can make their experience a better one. A little research can also go a long way, such as usability testing and contextual inquiries.

If you notice that users typically view multiple pieces of content in separate windows simultaneously, it will likely be for their best to open links in new tabs which they can then split into other windows. Otherwise, if users tend to use a page as a launching-off point to which they later return, if they switch between tabs to review content, or if they organize and keep track of tabs within the same browser window, opening links in new tabs may be the best approach for them.

On the other hand, is users get frustrated with new tabs, perhaps it would be best to open links in the same tab.