There is an ongoing debate about whether offsite links should automatically open up in new browser windows.
I believe that they should.
An offsite or external link is one that leads your visitors to another domain, separate and apart from your own website. It is similar to reading one book and then opening another.
Your website is the original book and the offsite link is the second.
1) Am I causing visitor confusion?
A well-known author purports that when visitors enter one's web site, they should never be made to feel "confused" by offsite links that automatically open up in new windows.
It's suggested that the majority of web surfers feel disoriented when their normal expectations of web navigation are not met. One of these normal expectations being that the "back" button on one's browser is the easiest and most intuitive way to navigate back to where one started in the first place.
Personally, I hate having to revisit every single page before I can get back to my starting point. I prefer to have my original book still open on the table in front of me.
Here's a personal example. On my website's resource page, one of my external links leads to a small business forum. If the visitor wishes to join this forum it involves registering and logging in. Without a new window, if the visitor also decides to read a few posts while he's there, it could require umpteen back clicks for him to return to my original resource page and explore the other links.
If I were in his shoes, I would find this extremely annoying.
It is also suggested that if a visitor really wants a link to open in a new window, they can easily instruct their browser to do so.
I find this is actually less intuitive than one would think. It normally involves "right clicking" on the link and then instructing one's browser to open the target in a new window. In my experience, "right clicking" is NOT intuitive for most users.
2) Are my motives just to anchor visitors to my site?
It is also argued that web designers use the creation of a new window solely as a method of keeping visitors anchored to one's site.
I disagree. I believe this strict mode of thinking could possibly limit some of the more practical uses of the Internet.
An analogy might be to a student studying for exams who has several books on the desk in front of him. His first book suggests referring to a second, but he is unable to open it unless he closes the first.
It is quite likely he needs to have both books open at the same time to refer easily back and forth between the two. He may also have to delve quite a bit deeper into the second book. Should this mean he has to flip back over every single page he just read to get back to his point of origin?
I like to re-read books, but not backwards!
3) Have I taken control of my visitor's browser?
Further rationale against automatically providing new windows is that the user may feel that the web designers have taken control of his browser and are making the statement that they know better how to traverse the site.
I couldn't disagree more. In fact, I find that being restricted to a back button is even more of a limitation to my freedom. It assumes that I am not capable of handling anything other than clicking, "back, back, back," ad nauseam.
To suggest that a new window opening would confuse a modern day Internet user is akin to suggesting that the average student couldn't handle two reference books being open on his desk at the same time.
Once you lead someone from your own site to link to another one, you are essentially leading them to open a new book. They shouldn't have to close YOUR book in order to read the other one, especially if they want to review them side by side.
Give your visitors the choice. If they like the other site better, they can always close yours. If they like both, let them have their books and read them too. To me, an offsite link is a different book. End of story. What could be simpler than that?
Karen Braschuk is a keen forum participant, particularly in the areas of small business. She runs her own Virtual Assistant Service Company in Ontario. You will find her at www.officesupport911.ca.
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