It's been a while since I last made a post, sorry about that but I just seem to get to busy to research things I want to post about (I have fair sized list though). I have recently come to a conclusion about opening links to external websites and that is what this post is all about.
What am I actually talking about?Well a little while ago I posted about external links on websites and if they should automatically open a new tab or if they should open in the same tab by default and allow the user to decide what they'd prefer.
So, what is my decision?Personally I have come to a conclusion and it's actually quite a hard one despite seeming like such a simple thing. The way I see it some users are going to expect a new tab to open, others will get annoyed by it, others still will just get confused by it and wonder why the back button doesn't work and just close the whole browser as they don't really understand the whole tabbed browsing.
So what to do? Well I think in an ideal world you'd perform some user testing on the target audience for the website. However if that is not an option due to budget restraints or for any other reason I'm going to 'default' to opening in the same tab and using the symbol which seems to have taken off a little to indicate a link goes to an external site. Along with this I'll add into the link title that the links goes to an external site and the user can decide about opening in a new tab.
Why did I decide this?The main reason is I think any of the options you could pick from can annoy or even confuse users but by letting the user have control and use their browser how they like seems like the right thing to do and is a fairly good usability guideline which I think applies here. As more and more people (normally younger people who've never used browsers without tabs) seem to get bothered about new tabs automatically opened.
Will my sites lose users?One of the arguments for opening links in a new tab by default is that if they all open in the same tab you'll be directing users away from your website and as such losing them. Personally I don't think this is true, if the users wanted to be on your site they're more than capable of navigating back there and I'll make the assumption you are not linking out to a competitors website but a site with more information or is otherwise useful to the user in which case after finding out what they wanted they'd return to your site if it had something of value to them.
I'm sure someone has come up with a statistic that opening links in another tab retains your user for longer (I'm sure I've seen it but can't find it any more) but I think it's a bit of a falsehood. Although the user will still be on your site they'll actually be looking at another and yours just happens to be open at the same time, not as useful as getting users to return to your site because it has value and they want to be there.
If anything I think allowing users to decide if an external site should open in a new tab or not will retain users as the more knowledgeable users who understand browser tabs can choose to use it and the ones who don't but are used to using the back button get to use it by default rather than using a potentially confusing tab system.
NoteI'm basing this all off of my own experience and watching people using browsers as well as reading other sources of peoples opinions whom I respect, this isn't based on any empirical data but hopefully one day someone will do a study and I'll come across the findings.
Update - 17/01/2013
I've felt it important to add a little more to this, just that WCAG 2.0 also supports my conclusions I felt that it's important to note as I've missed it out so far and the people who came up with WCAG 2.0 have put a lot of time and research into what they write. I'm also aware that it's come under some 'attack' for being basically being to big but I feel from what I've read so far the content it self is all sound.