Standard behavior for links

An ongoing discussion in my place of work, as in many, is whether links from our website should open in a new tab/window or in the same one. Michael Schofield made a fairly compelling case for the latter in a January blog post. In that post, though, he said,

Design conventions are useful….The conventions set by the sites that users spend the most time on–Facebook, Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and so on–are conventions users expect to be adopted everywhere.

Since he’s arguing for using the conventions set by such sites, it seems worth asking whether such dominant sites do share a standard behavior, influencing users’ expectations consistently.

The sites listed in the article he links to include ESPN, Craigslist, Tumblr, eBay, Amazon, AOL, Microsoft (apparently including Bing, Hotmail, and MSN), Yahoo, Google, and Facebook.

I understand the question here to be about links to external sites. Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist, as shopping sites, have a ton of internal links, but external links are harder to find. So let’s look at the others.

The quick and simple testing I’ve done indicates that there’s a real divide. Facebook, ESPN, Tumblr, and MSN all seem to open external links in new tabs. AOL, Bing, Yahoo, and Google all seem to open them in the same tab.

I decided to look a little further at some other prominent sites. Twitter, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Slate all seem to open external links in new tabs, while Wikipedia, Reddit, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Scientific American all open external links in the same tab.

AOL, Google, Bing, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Reddit is a significant set of some major and influential sites. But Facebook, ESPN, MSN, Tumblr, Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post are also count for something here.

The other arguments Schofield makes are pretty persuasive. He’s probably right that links should generally open in the same tab. It just doesn’t seem like there’s standard behavior across those major sites to consistently set user expectations in this regard.

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