March 20, 2015 | Sarah Danks

What in hell is target=”_blank”?

Let me back up for a second.

2015 marks my 10th year in the search marketing realm. Wow. “They” all told me when I was in high school, “time flies ever more quickly the older you get.” Of course I scoffed at that — like any smart-aleck 18-year-old, I KNEW I knew better.

Now, here I sit in my mid-thirties (*gulp*) wondering where in hell the time has gone (and still a smart aleck).

Anyway, so I’ve been involved in online marketing for a fair amount of time. I started out not knowing much about SEO (didn’t we all get our start that way???) and now here I am. Although I’ve learned a LOT through the years, I’m definitely not a techie person.

I know enough about code to be dangerous, but ask anyone — especially my husband — and they’ll tell you the technical aspect of online marketing is NOT my strong suit.

To that end I just assume things on the web will work a certain way. So when they don’t…I get cranky. And still to this day there’s one thing that gets me every time.

It’s the target=”_blank” conundrum. AKA, Why didn’t this link open in a new tab? See, there are different behind-the-scenes ways to open a link.

Basic <a href> code is as follows: <a href=””>Link Text Goes Here</a>

That code says, Open this link in the current tab.

Now, if you want to tell the link to open in a new tab, you’d use the following code: <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Link Text Goes Here</a>

(Play around with it here!)

But what’s all this have to do with anything, you ask?

Does this ever happen to you?

Here’s my point (and the scenario): I’m reading an article. I see a link to another website with related content I want to read; I click said link. But I haven’t finished reading the First Article yet, so of course I want to get back to it after I read this Second Article.

When I finish Second Article I wander up to the browser tab in which it’s open and I close it…only to find myself — YET AGAIN, you’d think I’d learn — with no way “back” to First Article. Why?

Because the link I clicked on in First Article didn’t open up a new browser tab, as it should’ve. Nope, it opened Second Article right in the SAME tab. So by closing the tab — I thought I was just closing Second Article — I really closed the First Article. *sigh*

This all happened the other day when I was reading a Forbes article. I found a link to a Twitter profile I wanted to follow, so I clicked on the link to head to Twitter, clicked “Follow” and then closed the tab…

…thus closing the entire Forbes post because the writer didn’t denote in the code that the link should open in a new tab:

(notice how there’s no target=”_blank” in those links?)

And THEN what happens if you find a THIRD Article from Second Article, and then a Fourth Article from Third, etc. etc. etc. And they ALL open in the SAME tab?!

Why oh WHY do I have to try to find my way BACK to the First Article I was reading????

<commences pulling out hair>

This seriously gets me every.single.time. Yes, it’s my fault for assuming everyone who links to offsite content nowadays uses target=”_blank”, but geez, people. You SHOULD be using it. You know, to cater to the slow-witted such as myself…

…but, it’s not just me, is it? (It never is.) Others feel this way, too — and not because they’re slow to react, like me. Nope, they agree it’s frustrating when links to different website content open in the same tab. Why?

Because once we close that tab, we have to wander back over to the original source (Twitter, Google, whatever), re-find the original link or try to look through our browser history, etc. to get back to where we were before we accidentally closed it. (Well, or just “reopen closed tab” in our browser…)

…Either way we all think it’s annoying!

Or do we?

I did a quick poll to see what people thought of links opening content in a new tab or not. The first few answers that came through were from people who agree with me.

But after receiving this next answer, I began to doubt my conviction that opening links in a new tab should be a best practice:


“Same tab. Separate tabs get annoying. Most UX developers say same tab. It’s a terrible mobile experience to open a new tab. People use the internet as a rabbithole so new tabs is annoying.”

While the mobile angle is interesting (and, evidently, valid), she then went on to cite this article about why links shouldn’t open in new windows. I’d come across the same information in my research but had disregarded it…

…not only is it 7 years old, but the information is out of date from a technology standpoint.

See, when that article was written back in 2008, tabbed browsing was fairly common but when links opened content elsewhere they opened content in a new browser WINDOW; not a new browser TAB (depending on the browser used, of course…but that’s an entirely different discussion).

Back when target=”_blank” opened a new window…

…instead of a new tab.

See, the first browser tabs date back to 1994 (who knew the INTERNET even existed back then, right?!), but didn’t really become popular until the early- to mid-2000s. (See more web browser evolution info.)

Before tabs existed — or were in use across all browsers — links that opened in a new place opened in an entirely new window of your web browser.

And therein lay the problem…turns out people didn’t like this at all.

Check out this Nielsen Norman Group gem from 1999:

“Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer’s carpet. Don’t pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks.” 

So yeah, that would’ve been annoying — not to mention how much it’d slow down your machine to have multiple browser windows open at once.

Nielsen went on to say:

“Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites…so a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.”

(bolded content is theirs)

And you can read about the folly of target=”_blank” in its entirety (from 2005), but here’s my favorite part:

“…no amount of clever (or stupid) tricks will change the fact that forcing new windows to open is disrespectful and hostile to web site visitors. A number of usability studies have shown that experienced web users will find this behaviour annoying and that beginners will get confused by it.”

But in this day and age of 2015, all I’m requesting is developers open links to offsite content in a new TAB of my browser (which is how it’s done these days, all of the browsers are finally on the same side). No big deal.

Even this article from back in 2009 recommends opening links in a new tab:

“…if every external link were to open in the same window, I’d soon be lost. I’d need to click the back arrow repeatedly (or look up my browsing history) to find my way back to the first site.”

The writer goes on to state that the old advice warning against opening external links in new windows once had merit; but “tabbed browsers were novelties then; they’re commonplace now.” Interesting that this article was written only a year after the one I previously mentioned as outdated.

Why doesn’t everyone use target=”_blank” for external links?

It’s now 2015. Tabbed browsing is ubiquitous (not only that, it’s everywhere)…so why is anyone still opening offsite content in the same tab???

Even as far back as 2012 UX Movement stated external links should open in new tabs:

“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. “

Why create more work for your visitors (or risk losing them altogether)? Years of dog training have taught me to be careful which behaviors you reinforce…

…and keep in mind users are already familiar with the oft-lamented back button. You know, the dreaded BACK BUTTON. And if we’re still using the same tab to open new content, we’re merely perpetuating “must use back button” mentality across the Web. Why’re we reinforcing this behavior?

Especially when, out of 75 people in our poll, only one opined it was better to open new content in the same tab. ONE.

Do you prefer links open content in a separate tab or the same? Why?

Take a look at some of the rest of the answers we received to that question:

kayla_hollatz, PR professional
I’m #TeamNewTab. I don’t want my audience to navigate to an outside source without an easy path back to my site. Either way, Ctrl+Click is your best friend.

Ms. Hayley, from Unbounce
I vote yes, personally—the more windows open, the more real estate you have! I think it doesn’t hurt—whereas not opening a new window in certain cases can. So I’d default to it.

tommyismyname, from Shopify
Depends. External link, yes. Open this to read right after, yes. Stop what you’re reading and read this other thing now, no. Of course, most of that comes down to whether or not I’m being lazy or not, if I am being perfectly honest.

sprout_sarah, from Sprout Social
I think links should always open in new tabs. If I’m clicking on a link in a post I just read and want to share, it’s to research a Twitter handle. I typically need to reference back to the post I originally clicked on. It’s time-consuming and against workflow when I need to navigate back to the post.

annamariemoore, web designer
I think the general rule is, if it’s an outside source, new tab; inside source, same. Or that’s how I’ve always done it anyway.

TheSteve_Slater, from Vivid Image
Open in a new tab if it’s outbound and not of it’s internal. I want to keep my site open in your browser when you click an outbound link.

davidjungers, from Curb Crowser
New tab. For the love of all that is good, new tab.

Jeff Sauer, from Jeffalytics
Depends on context, but I usually prefer new tab. Because I like to read things later, so that’s more convenient.

TwistedLister, from WebRanking
Separate. Keeps visitor on your site, increases conversions/engagement. Don’t willingly give away traffic!

korymae, brand & blog designer
Separate tab. I’ve heard it’s good to do it that way anyway because the viewer is more likely to keep looking on your site!

stitchsewlovely, blogger
I like a separate tab. Otherwise I get all “Squirrel!” I forget what I started reading.

JayVig, co-founder of JayVig Media
In 2015, nobody is a stranger to multiple content sources anymore. 10 years ago I was the only one who would have 50 instances of a browser running and that was pre-tabbed days. So it’s no longer obnoxious to impose tabs/windows on people. Plus the math adds up — the bandwidth of Internet connections and device processing power can handle it without a blink.

There are links that don’t do it. I click them and the new page loads right over what I’m looking at. I immediately go back and command-click to open in a new tab. I’m not always looking to move away from what I’m doing.

As for why I think site builders should always use it, I don’t consider the next place a user goes to be part of my UI/UX. I’m worried about their experience on my site. If I add a target=“_blank” then I get to keep the connection and control my bounce rate. If I leave it out, the moment they click, their experience no longer includes me. I want them to stay on my site until they choose to leave; not because they clicked quickly and left and forgot to come back. The back button is not a significant breadcrumb trail.

betweenstations, enterprise SEO geek
I’m a new tab girl, but only with fair warning. I don’t like losing what I was reading, but I don’t like surprise; I hate spawning windows, especially on mobile.

And that’s just the baker’s dozen I chose out of the myriad of answers received. Many thanks to all of the awesome people who took the time to answer!

Conclusion: open the content in a new tab, please!

Many of the people polled interchanged “windows” and “tabs,” but in this day and age, content opened separately opens in a new browser tab. I’ve heard varying information of when target=”_blank” changed from opening content in a new window vs tab (many browsers “decided” for you; I found that IE was one of the last to conform).

But that’s another discussion…

…and of course, there’s not really a definitive answer out there on the dub-dub-dub (that I could find, anyway) as to when tabbed browsing even became customary; suffice it to say that right here, right now in early 2015 it’s now been for quite a while.

The point? When you link to offsite content, please, for the love of all our sanity, open the content in a new tab.



Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Our newsletter includes industry news, tips, and upcoming events!