Your website is not the Hotel California

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In all the many years I’ve been working with people, building websites for them, there have always been many of my clients who make the request to have all outgoing links on their website pop open a new window or tab. The primary reason I’ve always been given is the desire to keep the website visitor on the website. But, a website isn’t the Hotel California (check Wikipedia youngsters, it was a song a long time ago.) 

First things first… there are sometimes (not too often, but sometimes) good reasons for having a link open a new window. Any time you link to a file, such as a PDF or a zip archive, it’s good to have the link open a new window. This is because most downloads you’re linking to are larger than the webpage, and depending on the visitor’s browser and Internet connection, things can sometimes go blooey. For example, many browsers have plugins that attempt to render some files (like a PDF) directly in the browser. While this usually works, Gizmo sometimes gets wet. (Second old person reference.) Opening in a new window will give the browser and visitor a bit more freedom in how to handle things.

Now on to why forcing links to open new windows is usually bad.

Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering

If you’re worried about your visitors leaving your website, there are a few things you should know. 

  1. The Web is made of links – people are used to clicking back and forth and all over kingdom come looking for the content they want. 
  2. Links are intended to take you elsewhere – the whole nature of a hyperlink (old-school term for them) is that it takes to to another place with different content.
  3. A new window is unexpected behavior to most folks – when people click a link it’s to get content the link promised, and opening a new window is extra behavior they may not be expecting (or notice, which can then sometimes be confusing.)

Don’t worry about people leaving your website, because every visitor has to leave at some point. Having a website isn’t like putting coins in a piggy bank. Think of your visitors as a repeating phenomena and not something you have to try to catch in amber.

People don’t like to be tricked or told what to do

When you find yourself creating a situation where you are trying to control what your website visitors do, I would suggest that you are risking offending them. Or at the very least, annoying them. Think about it this way… what if the next time you stayed at a hotel, you tried to go to dinner and found the hotel insisting that you have food delivered to your room instead. They didn’t want you to leave the building. Maybe the manager really needs to drive up vending machine sales, or use of the pool. Very quickly, you would lose your temper, and rightfully so. 

It’s always a better policy to focus on creating a resource that people find wonderfully useful. This sometimes means recommending them to other places, but they will always remember where they got a great recommendation and come back.

Examine your plan of action

If one of your top concerns is keeping people on your website, then why are you including links that point away from your website in the first place? Do you need the links at all? Depending on your priorities, you might want to consider removing links. However, this then starts to lead away from the nature of websites, and can make your website less useful. Links are like any other piece of content in that you should give consideration to the value of including them. Unless it contributes to the value of your website, don’t include it. 

Other people aren’t you

Another interesting thing I’ve seen (and we designers are as guilty of this as the next guy) is that there’s a natural tendency to think that other people use things the same way we do. Some people prefer opening links in new windows. Not many, but there’s some. These people usually “right click” on a link and tell the browser to use a new window or tab. Other people aren’t aware that their browser even has more than one window or tab. 

Some things have momentum. For example, people expect text that is blue and underlined to be a clickable link. (If you use font styling to make text a blue color and add an underline, and then not make it a link, you are sure to annoy someone. It can also make your page look a bit broken.) Most people don’t expect a link to open a new window or tab unless there is some indication that it will do so.

Exceptions? Sure, Facebook is a good example. Clicking on a link that someone has put in their status update will open a new window. But Facebook has trained their users to expect this, and they use links consistently in carefully planned ways. The user experience your visitor has should be a higher priority than your fears or need for control. 

Want to read some more?

The above is my position on the issue, but there is of course debate. Here’s some other articles for those of you wanting to read more…

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