The assumptions driving the architecture and feature sets of Web sites are often wrong. Years ago, we spent years building big, complicated Web sites when our users really wanted a good search engine on top of a PDF repository. We’ve spent hundreds of hours building interactive Web sites, when all our users want to do is find and read information, which this brilliant piece from the Onion captures perfectly. Perfectly, I reiterate. Post it everywhere.
Perhaps users also don’t really respond to complicated, editorially curated home pages.
Less than half of visits to nytimes.com start on the homepage. More than half of Buzzfeed’s visitors come from search and social. And a mere 12 percent of visits to The Atlantic start with the homepage.
The author of the post, Ann Friedman, speculates that a cozy and outdated attitude is what continues to drive the emphasis on the home page:
. . . print-nostalgic editors (and even some editors who have only worked in digital media) take a certain amount of solace in the homepage. Online, it can feel like one of the only venues where editorial decision-making is visible at a glance. . . . But as more and more traffic comes from search and social, the homepage as the entryway into a site’s content is increasingly obsolete.
Of course, we all know the reasons — third-party search engines, social media, social sharing (including “dark social” sharing). The home page is routinely circumvented, ignored, or not traversed.
But the home page can still occasionally drive traffic, as the digital editor of the Atlantic noted in a piece in Folio:
. . . a homepage tease can, in certain circumstances, generate a concentrated burst of readers to an article, which can tickle the Google algorithm and improve the story’s performance in search. This peculiar bankshot is one way that a story’s placement on the homepage can bring substantial traffic.
From an architectural standpoint, you still need a home page. Even Google and Bing have home pages. And these two examples show how the home page can serve a major function still — branding:
. . . this, really, is the future of the homepage. It’s a brand billboard, not a way of funneling traffic. It’s gone from something like a newspaper’s A1—a glimpse of and portal to the day’s top content—and become more like a magazine cover . . .
Google often puts games or wonderful whimsical illustrations on its home page as a way of bolstering its brand. Bing puts lovely photographs behind its home page. These are branding exercises, not editorial exercises.
In our world, the branding approach on a home page can be realized in an odd way — many journals wisely have an image of their print covers on their Web sites. While arguably antiquated, the branding power of a print cover, even at thumbnail size, is real. It establishes legacy, touches on journal legitimacy, and conveys recognizability. All of these things are reassuring, even if the cover itself doesn’t work as a navigation tool online.
As mobile becomes more prominent, the home page will be under more threat — where it exists will matter as much as what it represents. And the branding power may become all the more apparent.
Home pages are not dead. They have evolved — into branding and promotional pages.