External website links. New window or not?
Right. A big bug bear of mine!
It has been a growing and annoying trend that links to external sites from one website to another open in a new browser window and it has been something that we advise our clients against… time and time again. Some common misconceptions are listed below with several facts, based on actual user testing, to expose them as false.
“I’ll keep users if external links open in a new window…”
Many organisations still believe that opening a new browser window for external links will help keep users on their site. The hard facts show that it doesn’t! If a user is even the slightest bit interested in what you have to offer they will take note – if they’re not, then you need to work harder at improving content and your online offering in order to achieve your desired conversion. The strategy of opening links in a new window will not increase your site conversions and it certainly won’t help you sell more!
“It makes it easier for users to return to my site…”
The concept of opening links in a new window is also self-defeating since it disables the browser’s ‘back’ button which is the normal way users return to previous sites! So, basing the argument on the thought that it will be easier for users to return to your site is very wrong. In recent user tests carried out by Mixd, we found that many users often don’t even notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximised to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the originating site will be confused by the back button not functioning. The end result is that they are likely to get frustrated, panic click and ultimately go elsewhere.
“I need to control my users…”
Many organisations work on the presumptuous rationale that the user cannot or will not decide on their own where they want to surf to, whether they want to return to the original site, or whether they want to pull up additional web browser windows to surf more than one site simultaneously. With the advent of ‘tabs’ in many of today’s browsers, the choice to open in a new browser window is even more outdated. Let the users do this if they want (they can easily right click ‘open in new tab’). You should not force it on them.
There are several key reasons why we believe you should not force new windows:
- Unless you warn them, web users are likely to expect the new page to load in the current window. Unexpected surprises are not good online and only confuse users. Confuse users and they are gone.
- It breaks the back button functionality. This is the second most used navigation function (source: useit.com), so breaking it is a big no!
- Users don’t want it! Opening a new browser window can be disorientating and confusing. If they wanted to open the link in a new window they would do so themselves!
- Using new browser windows can make an already cluttered taskbar, even busier and difficult to use. We’ve all spent ages hunting through the taskbar, looking for the window we want. Don’t make this even harder by increasing the number of windows to look through.
- Many users have security protection to stop ‘pop-up’ windows. And on some mobile devices new windows do not work at all. In essence, it could prevent the link from working all together for these users!
- The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has guidelines against opening links in new windows. Checkpoint 10.1 reads: Until user agents allow users to turn off spawned windows, do not cause pop-ups or other windows to appear and do not change the current window without informing the user.
Testing, testing 1, 2, 3
As part of our ongoing testing, we asked a number of test users if they were likely to return to a conversion page (let’s say an eCommerce website such as Amazon) if the page linked them off to another site – they all answered yes. Interestingly, most users said they would return to their initial search; i.e. from Google or in this case the Amazon home page. It proves the point: if your user is interested in what you have to offer they will come back! If they aren’t, they won’t!
With every rule there is an exception
If it is an absolute must (which we understand can happen sometimes) then you need to consider how the link is displayed. Again the W3C has guidelines on how best to deal with this situation by including a line of supporting text to inform the user that clicking the link will open a new browser window. View the W3C checkpoint 10.1 example.
What’s the solution?
There’s an adage that says ‘to assume makes an ass of u and me’. We should have a flashing image on the homepage; Doris (the MD’s wife) thinks the enquiry button should be puce; Trevor from accounts thinks the postage charges should be hidden. All guess work.
The only real way to establish what your site users want is to undertake relevant, user-focused testing. Here at Mixd, we don’t create sites for our portfolio; we don’t create sites for our clients. We create sites for our clients’ users. User testing comes in all shapes and sizes; what to do and how to do it can be tailored to meet all budgets. However, the quickest way to a site that will fail is to think you know it all already. You don’t. Online, the user is in control. Delight them and they are yours. Confuse or annoy them and they are gone… straight into the hands of your competitors.