Why opening new browser windows for external links is pointless

Don’t you just hate it when you’ve been using the internet for a little while and you have a mass of browser windows to battle with? Where the hell did that website go, that you were looking at earlier? Both of these annoyances are entirely unnecessary, and this article explains why.

(If you just want to get to the summary of this article, the key points are here.)

By placing links on a website to refer to external sources, the visitor is presented with a choice to click on one of the links and be taken away from my website. This is how the internet works, and it’s a concept which is heavily at odds with how the majority of the offline commercial world works. Imagine, if you will, going into a supermarket which provides pointers to its competitors. A shop which provides details of how to visit its suppliers or rivals. This is how the online world works and it scares the hell out of the inexperienced online marketeer or business manager.

One of the overriding requests I receive from almost every commercial client is that the functionality of their website be designed to hinder this networking and attempt to lock visitors into the website. The most common way this manifests itself is that a request comes in for each external link on a website to open a new window. By doing that, so the theory goes, the visitor will always come back to the client’s website after visiting the external source.

Experience and a moment’s thought about this idea proves it to be not only illogical but a pointless exercise. Look at the average user’s desktop when they are using the internet: you’ll see multiple browser windows open and, in the advent of web browsers which contain “tab” functionality, each window containing multiple tabs. This means that the chance of a user being able to use the simple navigation tool built into every web browser – the “back” button, designed to return visitors to a website which they visited earlier – is slim. The back button only relates to the current window or tab, so if one of my website visitors clicks on a link which opens a link from my website to another, they will never easily be able to go “back” to my website. Users of some browsers – for example on mobile devices or audible page readers – will even be stopped in their tracks when they don’t realise that a new browser window has been opened.

(Let’s not even get into the whole technical mess with which so many less experienced programmers open new windows, which not only blocks search engines entirely but also visitors with non-standard web browsers.)

Think about how you use your computer when you’re browsing the internet. If you follow links which open new browser windows, how often do you actually return to a previous window? Are you not more likely to continue browsing in the new window and forget all about the previous one; closing the old window along with all the others when you shut down your computer at the end of a session?

Attempting to force users to come back to your website (or never leave) is a pointless exercise. Whatever artificial barriers you put in their way, visitors will always move on from your website: either satisfied with the information they receive, or in frustration. They will either click on links to other websites or use the search function in the browser toolbar to find the next piece of information they need.

Summary of key points

This has been quite a long article, so here’s a quick summary for those of you who just want the key information.

  • Opening a new browser window to stop visitors from forgetting your website is counter-productive. If they click on the “back” button in their browser, they won’t be able to get back to your website easily.
  • Most users – expecially those working in offices – often have many browser windows open. If they can’t find the website they were on, chances are that they will make a new search for the information instead of digging manually through lots of open windows. This means that there is a decreased chance of them returning to your website, unless it is a seriously successful search engine performer.
  • The common way of using the internet, with multiple windows and tabs, is very confusing and complicated for regular internet users. It would be much simpler if the process of trying to find where you are were made easier by stopping the outdated and senseless process of contributing to a sea of new windows.
  • Make your website a success by providing people with the information they want. Make your website fulfil their need, and they will return to it. Try to lock them into your website and you will help make their visit a negative experience, making it more likely that they will stay away.

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