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Addressing a TAB-oo!

Recently I was asked a question I tend to get asked quite frequently in the closing stages of the web development cycle:

“Can we make that link open in a new tab?”

And my reply is:

“Well… Yes. But we shouldn’t, really…”

Naturally the question was asked as to why not and this sparked a company-wide debate about why we should or shouldn’t. I don’t mind saying I’m on the side of “No we shouldn’t” (as you may have guessed), but I’ll try to present a balanced argument.

Firstly, let’s go through the reasons I disagree with it (the fun part):


HTML Validity

That’s right. Fun starts here.

The typically easiest way to make a link open in a new tab is by using target="_blank" on the element. If you don’t do it this way you might have to do some complicated JQuery – at least more complicated than those two words.

The simple truth is that this HTML is technically invalid. It’s nitpicky, and doesn’t actually mean much. It’ll make the site a teeny tiny bit slower, but no slower than any jQuery function. Still, it’s important to be aware that HTML thinks it’s bad coding.



Okay so here’s the serious user bit. Let’s say I’m a user who doesn’t particularly know much about the internet. I know the basics but that’s about it. I always refer to my one-finger-typing Father in this explanation. Now my Dad isn’t a tech-savvy guy, he doesn’t know the difference between IE and Chrome and he does not simply understand memes.


But two things he does rely on whilst browsing are that big, red X in the top-right corner, and the back button. The simple truth is that when you open something in a new tab (he has no idea what tabs are) you negate this action. You take away the function to just click back and be where you were just. Now I know most of us as users are perfectly aware of tabs and what they do and we’ll notice when one changes, but I picture my Dad frantically clicking a greyed-out back button because your site has opened Twitter in a new tab and he wants to get back. Not a nice feeling, is it?

Recently we had a discussion as to why you can’t just change the style of a select attribute. The drop-down menu’s styles are browser-defined and the basic answer boils down to “because you just can’t”, which isn’t really an answer, but I’d argue that selects look like that because the user knows what they look like. They know that functionality, so you don’t need to change it. It’s the same here for me. The back button goes back, and links open where you are. That’s the way it naturally works. Changing user’s expectations of the way things work is very dangerous. There are use cases for it, but they’re rare.

There’s a bigger argument about businesses controlling processes like these though. That I’ll get into in my next point.

User Power

You’re a big company and you’ve probably invested hundred of thousands to make a website to show off your products and services. So shouldn’t you be able to control what happens on the user’s screen? Shouldn’t you direct what they do on your website? Shouldn’t that be your decision? No. No it shouldn’t. This ties back to the select argument. Things are that way because that’s how the internet is built. You shouldn’t re-define that experience for the sake of control. Sure, we guide the user with calls-to-action and appealing links to other pages, but that is their choice. And whether they open your Twitter page in a new tab or not should be their choice. I for one (in my user hat, not my developer hat) hate when a website enforces this stuff on me. It would be like scrolling down with my mouse and the site scrolling up. You might as well be showing me a video of what you want.

Yes, I hear you, this is me being naggy and it’s a little idealistic. I mean, most users know what tabs are, and most users don’t care if you open a new tab for them. In fact, some users might not even know how to open a link in a new tab. It’s just as well saying “if they want it in a new tab then they can do that”, but what if they don’t know how? What if they have an iMac with no right-click and didn’t know about pressing Command and clicking? I know some people who use iMacs every day that didn’t know that. But my opinion is that the power should be with them. I don’t like being controlled by the Man, man.


Finally: ‘For’ new tabs:

There are many valid reasons why opening things in a new tab is OK. Firstly, the validity of your HTML in one anchor tag really doesn’t matter. Secondly, I understand the idea of business control. What if you have a very large site or a long page, and when the user clicks the link, the progress they’ve made down that page will be lost. So open it in a new tab, they can check out your Twitter or that other article, then come right back to where they were. Very handy!

Another argument here is that we should only use this on external links. Links that go outside of your site. And this makes sense, they can look at whatever it is without leaving your site. The handiest use  for this I can think of is in advertising. Let’s say I’m reading an article on new trainers, and I see a brand new pair of sneaks on an advert in a sidebar. I want to finish this article, but I know I’m buying those sneaks, because I’m an impulse consumer (especially when it comes to shoes). So I’ll give it a click and it’ll open in a new tab. Then I can finish reading and come back to it. Great.

In fact, everybody in the office agreed. Designers, Project Managers and SEO staff, even the Boss of the company were all converted to our 10-person-strong sample group of 25-to-55-year-olds. In fact the only two people in the office who thought this was wrong were myself (21) and another developer (24). Not even all of the developers agreed. Sure, this was a bad sample because we’re all in the industry, but it goes to show there is clearly an argument here.


Target-ing your audience

Saying that some people rely on the back button and will be intimidated by new-tab-opening and not understand is all well and good, but my personal site is specifically for tech-savvy business owners, and they will presumably be well aware of these things, they use the internet as much as we do.

This is fine too. If you know your audience is people who ‘get it’ then you aren’t alienating anyone who’s business you’re after. And that’s ok, you have a very specific market, so you can make certain choices depending on that.


So: Should I?

In conclusion, I think there are arguments for each, and it boils down to your specific use-case. If you know the people on your website will be tech-savvy enough to know when a new tab is opened and not mind, that’s fine. But won’t they be tech-savvy enough to open the link in a new tab themselves?

If you want a website for everybody, I’d suggest keeping them in the same tab. In fact one Smashing Magazine article suggests the ideal scenario here would be a pop-up that asks users if they want external links to open in new tabs or not. If you don’t know what tabs are, you’re likely to say no. And for preference I’d say no too. has a cool work-around for the problem, using a visual cue to tell you this link will open in a new tab. This could be handled with as simple as an :after pseudo-element.Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.43.48

We’ve all seen this idea taken too far, we’ve all been on a dodgy-looking site and clicked something, opening 3 tabs worth of ads that we’ve had to close, each with a pop-up telling us if we leave we won’t win a massive yacht. It’s a slippery slope.

And for every rule there are exceptions. If you’re opening a link to an online PDF or Word document, something that isn’t web-based, then I think that should be opened in a new tab. I really think you should be asked to download it, but if it must be online, new tab it is.

So there you have it. I told you it was a tricky subject, ultimately it is for you to decide but when working with Barques we will make sure we give you the right solution for your business, for us, the saga will continue.


Further Reading: