Opening to a New Window – Why Isn’t the Target Attribute a Valid Tag?

Ever since I was a young web developer going through college, it has been drilled into me to be standards compliant when developing for the web.  In fact, it went as far as being 20% of your grade just to be XHTML 1.0 Strict standards compliance.

Just to be clear, I am talking about XHTML 1.0 Strict.  Transitional, while it has its uses, doesn’t capture the essence and spirit of why we want to be standards compliant.  Creating your web sites to be standards compliant is something as web developers we should strive for.  It promotes standardization of markup, it helps to separate layout from content, and it creates the ability for all modern browsers to display the site same way… sort of.

One thing that really gripes me is the target attribute for the <a> tag.  This was marked as obsolete, and in the strict specifications, it’s invalid.  Why is this the case?  It’s very helpful,  unobtrusive, and works really well with tabbed browsers.  I can understand every other valid XHTML ‘no-no’ such as not using align attributes or a center tag, just this one just kind of escapes me.

<a href="http://www.google.com" target="_blank">Why is this invalid?</a>

So why is it invalid? As far as I can tell, it’s because we shouldn’t assume it is what the user intended and that it should be left up to the user.  I really hate this explanation.  It makes me think whomever thinks it has never dealt with a real world user.  Most people outside of the technological world are not savvy enough to right-click and open a page in a new window.  For us that do know how to do it, it’s actually quite annoying.  Besides, when I link to a webpage outside of my domain, how often would we want the user to navigate away? It is not very user interface friendly in my opinion.

Another reason is the page loses the effectiveness of the back button.  Okay, I can buy this, but it’s packed neatly on a new tab on all new modern browsers.  It’s easy to navigate back to the original site.

A last reason I can discover is because of screen clutter.  This is becoming a moot point due to the fact that almost every popular browser uses tabs rather than opening a new window.  In fact, the only browser which doesn’t utilize tabs is IE6, and it’s popularity is quickly dying.

The standards compliant solution: Use Javascript. Bah!  That’s just something else I have to test.  target=”_blank” works fine in all cases.  Using Javascript to do something the browser does natively feels silly.  I know the code is pretty compact and with jQuery you could literally do it in one line, it’s not nearly as clean and understandable as target.

My user experience friendly solution: In order to appease the target-hating standards compliant gods, my solution is this:  Provide a setting on the top of the page which asks “Open all links in a new window” and “Open all links in the current window.”  This way, you allow the user to decide how it works, it’s standards compliant, and it’s fairly simple to implement.

Perhaps help is on the way. Doing some research on the topic, I came across the spec document for CSS3 Hyperlink Presentation (yes, this opens in a new window!) which describes using CSS to determine target parameters.  I can easily get on board with that!  Hopefully we can see CSS3 implemented across all major browsers in the not-to-distant future.

In Conclusion: I will still be using target=”_blank” to pop up new tabs on my blog.  The blog is validated in Transitional anyway.  My belief is that any hyperlink in a blog post will be clicked on to allow further reading of the topic.  That is the experience I want to provide for my readers.