Link targeting, the “rules”, and the experience

I’ve been tinkering around with things on my new WordPress install, and one of the tweaks I just rolled out was changing the default behavior of the “link” button in my post editor to add ‘target=”new”‘ to the end of URLs I’m linking to. Simple enough tweak (look for quicktags.js in your wp-includes/js directory, kids), but the lack of this as a configuration option hints at the disdain for “target=new” among the Lords of the Internet.

If you don’t know, “target=new” in a link makes that link open in a new browser window, rather than in the window you’re currently looking at. And for many minds absorbed with Internet propriety, that’s just wrong. It’s not quite on the level of “breaking the Internet” (I cherish my freedom …), but it’s widely viewed as “bad user experience”.

But I challenge that notion when it comes to pages referenced in content. Navigational links; links to original sources at the end of an article, blogrolls, etc. – sure, the good user experience is sending folks along and away from your site. It’s been perceived that “bad actors” use “target=new” or “target=_blank” to keep their site alive in your browser even after you’re done with it. And that’s probably the case a lot of times.

Within the context of an article, however, that logic often falls apart. I’ll reference this Wired blog post about Google & ComScore as an example if you’d like to follow along.

Wired links to five outside sources in this rather short article, with each link providing some background or context to the topic at hand. It’s good context and just linking over to previous Wired pieces or outside data or opinion provides quick and easy reference without having to dump a lot of background information, quotes, etc. into the article.

Presumably, the reader has come to the article to read the article. Reference links invite the reader to leave the article and visit the linked content. Having links open in the same window requires the reader to use the “back button” functionality to return to the article they were reading. Using the “target=new” attribute requires the reader to switch back to the original tab or window to return to the article. Neither is an ideal experience, but I would argue that keeping the original page open is a preferable flow. In any case, I don’t think “target=new” is the evil monster some would make it out to be, and in the world of connected content I’d like to see it embraced a bit more.

Ideally, the reference links would appear in such a way as to not disrupt the reader’s flow in the current article. Perhaps something akin to the rather annoying and generally useless Snap Shots functionality some sites such as TechCrunch are in love with is a model, but it’s difficult to display much more than images in a way that makes sense in less than a full-window view.

Not long ago, online content was a series of silos. Newspaper articles republished online would rarely include in-content links, and there was so little original web content out there that linking between pieces wasn’t an issue. That’s changed, of course, so I think more thought is needed on how to best flow users through interconnected content.

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8 Responses to “Link targeting, the “rules”, and the experience”

  1. I, for one, think it would be cool if a new target result could be “background” or “tab,” (although, if you have Firefox properly configured, it will open target=”new” links in a new tab).

    I think that for someone who’s savvy enough to be configuring WordPress on their own server, middle-clicking a link to automatically open it in a new window is pretty much second-nature. Indeed, one might also say as much for the average reader of a WordPress blog.

  2. TCL says:

    Amen, brother. Not being a techie, or caring too much about the conventional wisdom on the rules of the Internet, I didn’t realize that it was looked down upon to have your link open in a new window — I just knew that it sure as hell makes a lot more sense to me, as a user of the damn thing, to be able to read the referenced content, then close that window or tab, rather than having to use the back button. Many have been the times that I have read what’s in the referenced content and wanted to dig deeper into that before jumping back to the main/initial article. That causes a whole chain of “back button” uses to get back to Point A. And TYB is right, even a conventional user such as me has developed the habit of right clicking and selecting Open in New Window, but I sometimes forget. And why should I have to remember.

  3. Cap'n Ken says:

    As both of you have hinted at, a real-world question becomes what the “typical user” is going to expect and how that user is going to behave. Of course, I think the “typical Internet user” still goes to a web site by entering the site’s name at Google … so figuring out what is “typical” can be tough.

    Perhaps what we’re talking about is link behavior in the Semantic Web sense. I tell you a link is “reference”, your browser has a default way of handling it and you as a user can customize the behavior. Less focus on what the link is supposed to do and more focus on what it’s supposed to mean.

  4. A new window typically tells me the link I’m following isn’t directly connected or owned by the site. I for one, can’t stand when a site uses new windows for their own content. GoDaddy is bad for this. I typically go there to adjust a setting and by the time I’m done I can have as many as 4 windows open, all owned by GoDaddy. BTW, I pondered this with my new blog site, and for now, I’m sticking to a simple rule, if it leads to a destination of mine (flickr, youtube, etc) same window, otherwise it gets a new window (maybe I’m wrong).

  5. Cap'n Ken says:

    Hey Strutton – welcome to the Wisdom.

    Yeah, GoDaddy is really a pain in the ass like that. Like you, I’ll be in trying to edit something, switch over to another non-GD window and then not know which GD window I needed to go back to. Frustrating, and apparently pointless.

    I think your approach at least has some logic to it. Users are either staying in “your world” and getting the same window or leaving it and getting a new one.

  6. Hey, Cap’n Ken,

    Just a quick note to ask you to give Snap Shots another chance because we’re far more than a simple preview.

    The whole point of Snap Shots is very much in line with what you’re discussing, but perhaps I can state it differently: the ideal user experience is to bring the information to them, on your site, and to send them away only as a last resort.

    The simplest Snap Shot is PreviewShot, the website preview function you see so frequently on TechCrunch, but there are 11 others which are huge functional upgrades.

    *RSS Shot, for example, allows you to skim a blogroll and just read the current RSS feeds

    *MapShot displays a Google map off a link

    *StockShot shows a current stock chart

    I encourage you to visit to see how we handle video, audio, Wikipedia, and even World of Warcraft.



  7. Cap'n Ken says:

    Hi Paul – Thanks for the response. It might have been more accurate for me to say that in practice now the Snap Shots are annoying and rather useless. The annoying part is that they are triggered by a rollover, which isn’t necessarily intent to launch them, and the rather useless part comes in the prevalence of web site previews being the content.

    But you’re right that some of the functionality is well-suited for that kind of flow I’m talking about. The map display is a good example, because you can get good context within the preview window. Same deal with a stock chart.

    My impression right now as a user, though, is that Snap Shots are clutter and don’t offer value. And that’s based on previous experience where they show up when I’m not trying to invoke them and they haven’t offered value because they tend to be the web site preview. So that negative impression leads me to avoid triggering them; it doesn’t call me to see what’s underneath.

    TechCrunch no doubt is an early user, though, and I’m probably an early adopter. As you iterate, I’m sure you’re focusing on making the triggers more explicit and the content more valuable so the mass-market sites and users don’t get soured by missed expectations.

    I’ll check out the suite of shots you offer.

  8. Dave says:

    Even a more egregious violation in my mind is javascript links that DON’T open up in a new window. Then when you do try to open them in a new window they come up invalid.

    I don’t mind sites that add the open in new window command to links. I can always close the extra windows.

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