Linking Out

I’m in the Accessible Future workshop in Atlanta, and we’d had a interesting conversation about how, and how often, web content should “link out” to pages beyond ones own web site. I feel like we’ve talked about this topic every workshop, and there are lots of interesting issues that keep coming up that I never feel are really resolved or explored in depth. I’ve not fully resolved them myself, and since I haven’t written a post here in ages I figured, in the spirit of being flummoxed by a coconut I’d write something up here to see if I can’t start working through this.

Approaches to external links usually comes up when we get to talking about whether links to external pages should be opened in a new tab or new window. There seems to be some fear—and I’ve had this conversation at work during consultations and workshops all the time—that if you don’t open external links in a new tab, people will never come back to your web page. And I’ve always wondered what this fear is founded in; it seems to me that if your content is compelling and useful, people will come back to it. If we’re worried about people not returning to our pages, it makes me think the bigger problem is that the content on our pages isn’t as useful as is could be. I’m sure this isn’t universally true, and certainly don’t mean to say that anyone who has this concern is writing crap content or over-worrying. But I just wonder if its speaking to a different issue with the confidence one has in the content they’re sharing.

It also seems to say something about what expectations we have of people and their competency with browsers. There are lots of features in browsers people could use, if they knew those features existing and they knew how to use them. You can save your browsing history and review it; I do this all the time. You can actually choose to open links in new tabs; I also do this all the time. So I think that, when we start making choices for the reader, we’re forcing a specific user experience they may not want, and we’re also making it less possible for people to become more savvy users of their browser.

My own stances on external links, as a developer and an author (ha!) are:

  1. I do not open external links in new tabs or windows. In fact, I have a browser plugin that automatically disables that. I personally think this is forcing a specific choice on my reader instead of giving them that choice. I open things in new tabs all the time, but I deliberately do it, using my right-click or keyboard shortcut to open a new tab. I know how to do this. This is an option in, as far as I know, every modern browser, though I’m sure its not a feature more. So the question here for me is, should we be thinking more about how to show people to take more control of their browser settings and use, or do we impose specific? Right now, I’m in the camp that favors reader choice, though I worry that’s not the right way of looking at it.
  2. I link out to external pages rather liberally. I understand arguments that too many links can be harmful to understanding. If you have whole paragraphs filled with linked text are really hard to read, especially depending on your link styles. (I’ve occasionally wondered whether it’d be worthwhile having some sort of setting to turn off link styles just to facilitate reading. Not sure what this would look like, though.) But I also like to link to specific things I think are useful to read, instead of just assuming that if a reader wants more information they can search for particular terms. They can still do that, too.

I want to have a more nuanced approach to this. I’m not confident my stances are correct, or that I’ve considered enough. If you have any thoughts about this, please share!

As Design Architect, I focus on front-end development, user interface, user experience, and aesthetics for Scholars' Lab projects, but I know enough programming to cause trouble for the folks in R&D. In addition to helping faculty and students on their research projects, I keep office hours and do research and teaching for our Makerspace. I'm…


  1. This is interesting to think about! I prefer when links do not open In a new tab. This is mostly because I keep too many tabs open to begin with, and, thus, have difficulty finding my way back. But, to be honest, I can work with either. As a non- computer enthusiast/expert, I will find my way back to the website of interest by using the back arrow or clicking on my tabs. I know nothing of these browser settings of which you speak! Oh, and hyperlinks are awesome!

  2. The professional curmudgeon Nicholas Carr blogged about “delinkification” a few years back, mostly motivated by concern about “distraction”. I didn’t find his argument convincing, but I’ve no doubt that especially for older bookish readers, too many, and too prominently styled, hyperlinks can confuse and upset people. Worth reading for insight into his old school journalistic anxiety about hypertext, and for the numerous comments in response.

  3. I agree with you and I personally don’t attempt to force users to open new windows. It grates on me, even, when authors speak of how they themselves open new tabs, when in fact it’s their readers who (wittingly or unwittingly) open new tabs; the author’s role in that process is only to coerce.

  4. I tend to agree with all of this. OTOH, I know that when I am reading something on the web and find an external link, I almost always open those in a new tab on my browser. Especially when I’m reading on my phone, especially sites like Tumblr where if I follow a link inside the browser, to get back to where I was can take a really long time. As a result of that, I’ve taken to linking in a new tab more and more often.

    Or, say, I tend to use CC-licensed images a lot. When I’m linking to an image just to provide attribution the link needs to be there to meet Flickr terms of service, I always open in a new tab so someone could go look at that image without losing the stream of my article. I’m second guessing all of this now.

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