Have you ever found yourself clicking your browser’s Back button (you know, that left-pointing arrow up in the top left corner of the screen when you’re on the web) . . . but nothing happens? Hmmm. And now that you look at it, the button appears gray—as if it was turned off somehow. Hmmm. And the only way you seem to be able to move away from the webpage you’re looking at is to actually close the page down, right?
When you use the web, you typically bounce from page to page, site to site, by clicking on links. Links are how we jump about and navigate the web. We’ll go to Site X, then Site Y, then Site Z, but then maybe we’ll hit our Back button because we want to go back to site Y.
People find themselves in broken-back-button situations when they click links that, unbeknownst to them, force-open up the next page in a totally new window or tab. This means we’ll click a link on Site Y, but instead of our page quickly changing to Site Z, a totally different window (or tab) opens up with Site Z — with Site Y remaining open in the old window we looking at just a moment before. So we now have two windows (or tabs) open at the same time. Because Site Z is the first site to open up in the fresh new window, the Back button has nowhere to take you, which is why the Back button will look grayed out and won’t respond when clicked. The only way to get back to Site Y now (IF you’ve been able to figure out what happened) is to close down the Site Z window and return to the original site Y window.
Now WHY would a website consciously cause such confusion? Why would a webmaster knowingly “break” his site visitors’ back buttons by having links open up in separate tabs or windows? A variety of reasons exist; many of them are a bit dubious. After building websites for ten years, though, I can tell you that one of the most frequent client requests I’ve received over and over again is. . . “Can you make it so that when people click links on my website, they open up in new windows? Because if they don’t like that link and they close it, then they’ll be back at my website again. It just keeps people from leaving my website.”
My “actually-if-people-want-to-leave-your-website-they’ll-leave-your-website-and-don’t-forget-that-people-are-accustomed-to-being-able-to-use-their-back-buttons” explanation never meets with much enthusiasm; the request almost always stands: “Make links open in new windows so people stay on my site.” If this seems a little bit backwards or confusing to you, you’re not alone.
The “people-will-stay-on-my-website-if-I-open-links-in-new-windows” assumption has broken and will continue to “break” the Back button in my browser, your browser, and the browsers of others for a long time to come. And so the next time you arrive on a new page and find you can’t use your Back button, just close the page in order to return to the one you were on previously. And smile because, unlike so many others, you actually know what just happened. . . and possibly even why.