Why home improvement still matters

Reports of the waning importance of the home page are not just exaggerated they are out of touch with visitor behaviour, Scott Payton says.

Recent weeks have seen a spate of articles in the technology press posing the question “Is the home page dead?’. Like most such ‘Is X dead?’ stories, the answer is ‘no’ – especially when it comes to the home pages of corporate websites.

To be fair, most of these articles have focused on pure news sites, which are indeed seeing a decline in home page visits (in technology journalism, ‘dead’ usually means ‘not quite as important as before’).

Yet what’s true for news sites is not necessarily true for corporate sites, because they have different roles.

Somewhere else to go

First, let’s look at the decline of the news site home page. The trigger for the recent flurry of comment on this topic was the revelation last month, via an internal report obtained by news site BuzzFeed, that The New York Times lost half of its home page traffic – 80 million visitors – between 2011 and 2013.

Why? Because more people are bypassing the home page and jumping straight to specific news articles within The New York Times’ site from Twitter and Facebook posts, e-mail alerts and other channels. News aggregation services such as Google News, which provide pages of links to content from multiple sources, are also a factor.

In short, people are using a variety of channels as a substitute for the Times’ home page. The same is true for other online publications.

Nowhere else like it

What about the home pages of corporate sites? One big difference is that many visitors – most importantly jobseekers, who frequently are the largest audience group on corporate sites – come to a company’s website not just to read a single piece of news, but to build a rounded picture of the company as a whole: what it is, does and stands for. Unless they are following a link from elsewhere they are likely to arrive first at the home page, whether directly or via a search engine. Here it remains the company’s most valuable, powerful and important ‘billboard’ (more on that below). The same is true for members of the public looking to find out more about a company at the sharp end of a reputational crisis – especially if it isn’t a household name.

Everywhere a role to play

It’s no coincidence that web analytics data highlights the home page as by far the most visited page on – and most-frequently used gateway to – a corporate site. Indeed, Bowen Craggs has fresh traffic data (for the year ending 30 April 2014) from a broad range of major multinational companies’ sites showing that about eight in ten visitors arrive at the home page. That’s a long way from The New York Times’ plummeting figures.

So the corporate site home page certainly isn’t dead. What should it do? Bowen Craggs sees the home page as having three key roles.

Signpost Send me where I want to go

This is the most straightforward role. Many people coming to a corporate home page have a good idea of what they are looking for, so the page should show them where to go. Good practice here can be summed up with the golden rule of usability: give people what they expect, or ‘be conventional’. Display links clearly, don’t surprise users with where the links lead and don’t be obscure with the labelling. If you use dropdown mega-menus, make sure they are stable and that navigation is not dependent on them (some people find the mouse hard to use).

Front cover Make me want to learn more

An increasingly fashionable notion, and one Bowen Craggs has long recognised, is to think of the site as a magazine and its home page as the front cover. This can be a good idea for two reasons. First, it tells the company to make the site interesting and engaging, not just treat it as a giant filing cabinet. Second, it makes the concept of the web much easier to explain to print-driven colleagues.

It also makes the role of the home page clear. A good magazine’s front cover is carefully constructed to say to readers ‘Take me off the shelf, read me’; a good website home page should say ‘You know you want to click this link. Go on, do it’. Images and graphics are important. So are stories and – most of all – headlines. As David Bowen wrote here last month, websites benefit from having an editor, in the journalistic sense: someone who knows the tricks of making a front cover irresistible.

Billboard Attract my attention

This is where the greatest subtlety is needed. The home page is often many people’s first encounter with a company. That is why the home page is like a billboard, which is designed to impress a motorist in the few seconds they are driving past it.
You have seconds to make an impression, and no second chance. What messages do you want to transmit?

The days for thinking about these roles may be numbered for The New York Times’ web team. For their corporate counterparts, they are still relevant and vital.


First published 04 June, 2014
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