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Using target=”blank” For External Links – Accommodating Changes In Default Behaviour

/ Thoughts & Opinion

Remember back in the late nineties when almost every link you clicked could open up a new window at any moment? Like a generation of children who had gleefully discovered how to put a strip of cardboard in their bike spokes, web developers had seemingly jumped on the opportunity to use good old target=”_blank” in their anchor tags. And with that the streets of web design were awash with the thakakakaka of cardboard on spokes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for new windows. This isn’t a rant (for once). These days the focus on pop-ups has changed. Aside from the lack of gimmick value, it has become a no-no to use pop-ups. This has been the case for some time now in fact.

Poor wee pop-ups were considered unpredictable and full of bad things. Browsers started to block them by default in order to aid user experience. Whether a banner advert for bum-fight gambling or your lovely newsletter sign-up form, browsers had (and still have) no way of telling what the content was till it was loaded from the server, by which time opening a pop-up would be too late, so the answer? Block them by default.

So let’s consider these modern browsers. We’re actually seeing tabbed systems for browsers more or less across the board now. Even my old chum Internet Explorer has been tabbed for a good couple of versions. So with that, the handling of pop-ups has changed. A window once destined for a pop-up window may now just as easily open in another tab, and – depending on the browser – might not even take focus immediately.

It’s worth making a distinction between three types of “pop up” at this point.

First, the innocent “modal window” often handled by CSS or JavaScript appearing within a page. Pretty harmless, and aside from slight frustration, unlikely to cause any harm.

Second, the rather frustrating legitimate pop-up window appearing in a sized browser window, often void of controls, status bar, address bar and so forth. Legitimately used for CMS functionality, log ins or some such application function, and illegitimately used to launch adverts laughably suggesting your genitalia is inadequately sized.

The third type of pop-up isn’t so much a pop-up as a new tab. Seemingly the default action for a link now marked with the target=”_blank” mark-up. Mark-up previously used to open a new browser window.

The third instance here is really what we’re talking about. A change in default behaviour means we should reconsider how we handle links like this.

Interestingly, the discussion that prompted this blog post was about opening external links in a pop-up. External links being links to pages out with your own website. A reference source on Wikipedia, or a link to a resource from a blog post for example.

Years ago I’d have said “no” to any form of pop-ups and argued that the user should be able to decide this by themselves, and take the appropriate action. Now I’m confident that links to external sites are quite comfortably handled by opening them in a new tab, and thus eradicating the worry that a browser is going to block the page as a pop-up or that people won’t find their way back to the other window to view your site.

Consider a frail, hapless grandmother using the internet. Squinting through her thick lenses, struggling to hold the mouse in her withered grasp. If the behaviour would make sense to her, if somewhere in that thick fog of confusion, she can even marginally comprehend the behaviour, then it’s probably OK.

So I guess what I’m getting at here is not to be afraid of using target=”_blank” on your anchor links any more. Not that I’m suggesting you were at all worried about that in the first place, but hey, it’s worth thinking about right? Maybe this was just my own thinly-veiled blog-style catharsis at play.

Have I overlooked some core browser functionality, or new mark-up for pop-up windows? Let me know.

This post was originally written for the QueryClick blog.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.