English: Dead tree Deutsch: Abgestorbener Baum
English: Dead tree Deutsch: Abgestorbener Baum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

A recent post in the Columbia Journalism Review notes that many major sites no longer derive most of their traffic from the home page and its inherent hierarchy:

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The author of the post, Ann Friedman, speculates that a cozy and outdated attitude is what continues to drive the emphasis on the home page: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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


45 Thoughts on "Is the Home Page Dead?"

On the other hand we often meet a version of the home page at the side door. I came to this article via the email alert (is that social?) but the whole right side consists of home page stuff. So as content the home page is a traveling show, a moveable feast, not a fixed abode. Here in the Kitchen anyway.

You’re right in terms of thinking about the majority of visitors to the journal’s website, but those numbers can be deceptive, at least in terms of the importance of some other visitor types. What percentage of your traffic comes from authors looking to submit a paper? Likely it’s very small. Or librarians checking out the site to get a feel for whether they wish to set up a subscription trial? An advertiser interested in buying space? These three very small traffic sources are vital for the journal, and both are likely in need of some central navigational hub to get the general information they need. Going directly to a random paper doesn’t serve their needs. For one type of reader, yes, the home page is dead, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead for all purposes.

Exactly, in this regard the home page is the first about page. Another probably large group are researchers who follow the journal because they follow the community. This is probably true for the more community specific journals. These folks start with the TOC either via the home page or via an alert.

In any case publishers should track how people come in as well as what they do when they get there, and adjust their site designs accordingly. These are relatively simple metrics and maps. It is all about understanding your various readers. It is also about the logic of navigation, which is already a research area. Website design should be based on what users are trying to do.

Indeed. Site design needs to reflect the actions the user is trying to accomplish on a given page, and clear navigational cues are a necessity. One of the nice things about web design is that you can cater to a wide variety of users simultaneously. There may be many readers who never visit the home page nor the table of contents, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take care of users who want to use those for their own purposes.

Personally, I question whether the home page was ever alive. Granted we need a placeholder for ‘about’ information for our journals, but like David I suspect that people who access that page are not our core readers/authors, or even new readers/authors.

We’re fast moving into a world where many journal brands will disappear in my view, and be replaced instead with multiple brands that have vetted, endorsed, published and promoted an author’s work. New ‘home pages’ will emerge from new organizations (and some old, enlightened ones) that will give bespoke cross-publisher views on scholarly content.

There is not a single academic I have spoken to who still reads journals cover to cover, digitally or otherwise. PubMed is our nearest equivalent to ‘Bing’ or ‘Google’ in terms of requiring a home page. When home pages were first developed back in the 90s they were seen as a launch pad into our content. That launch pad has been the article for quite some time now, and increasingly just the abstract. But even that is on its way out in my opinion as more sophisticated ‘filter providers’ enter our market.

I would like to hear more about your vision Melinda, as I do not understand what you have in mind. In any case I doubt that few people have read journals cover to cover for many years, possibly centuries.

Hi David – I see a fragmentation of the publishing service, so different providers offering say peer review v. hosting v. promotion and so on. Once the work has been ‘published’ (whatever that’s going to mean in the future!), I then see the emergence of new service providers who will enable more bespoke ways of searching across and browsing that content, independent of publisher or publication. So I guess the question becomes, what will the impact of that be on the idea of a journal brand/home page?

Thanks Melinda, this is interesting indeed. On one hand your second half, the search and aggregation independent of publishers, is already here to some degree. It has created the side door we are discussing. But the idea of breaking up the normal publisher workflow is far more radical, hence more interesting. It is not an obvious trend that I can see but that does not mean it cannot happen. The idea of having companies that do nothing but peer review is especially interesting in the context of APC gold OA.

“Less than half of visits to nytimes.com start on the homepage.”

Of course, why would I use their home page if it runs me smack into their pay wall? Publishers have created incentives to access their content solely via Google and to discourage looking at anything else on their pages. Hence a high bounce rate and bad news for advertisers.

All pages reflect a publisher’s business model. The issue is point of entry, not business model.

Quoting statistics without accounting for the biases inherent in the sample leads to spurious conclusions. When a publisher’s business model creates strong incentives to not use their home page it is misleading to claim this is evidence of a lack of reader preference for home pages. It is merely an expression of reader preference for free. Most, if not all, of the evidence you cite is tainted by this or other forms of bias. No conclusion should be drawn.

You are not making sense. This has nothing to do with business models.

Statistician call it principal component analysis. Attached to a statistic like “Less than half of visits to nytimes.com start on the homepage” are a list of factors that could account for the observed behavior. If you are going to use statistics to back up your argument you need to follow the rules governing statistics. One rule is that it is incorrect to cherry-pick one factor and claim correlation. All major relevant factors must be considered. A statistical test can compute the contribution that each factor makes to the correlation. My comment was that it is very easy to cite factors other than the one you picked that would better account for not using the home page. I cited “free” because this is usually a very powerful motivator. The power of social recommendation is another factor. The branding power of Google vs NYT is another. Another is having an ugly or hard to use home page (reproducing the journal’s cover might qualify as that). I doubt that home-page phobia is going to trump any of those factors. So the statistics you cite cannot be used to support your conclusion. Whew!

Sophistry. Every page of nytimes.com is governed by the same business model. Business model is not a factor. It is a null value. Put that in your statistical model and you still get zero relevance.

Perhaps the information missing from this sub-discussion is that sites like NYT & WSJ offer free access via links from social media and search engines for articles that they might otherwise charge for. Here’s an in-depth explanation of Google’s First Click Free program, which shows that sometimes readers have incentives to not use the nytimes.com homepage. I’ll leave it to the experts to analyze what actual impact that has on homepage usage.

By the way, you are taking this speculative post far too seriously. It’s not a study, just a summary of some observations.

Here in Washington it is all too common to see people cherry-picking their facts. It leads to a world of hurt.

The point the author is making is that homepage visits and views have decreased. The causes for this phenomenon is irrelevant; the trend stands, and this is his point.

Worth discussing. I always thought of a home page or a book spine or cover as the flag, a brand, or representing a brand. Something that identifies “here” as in “you are here”. Going forward we would like to maintain discoverability of content. Once we discover, the publishers should do themselves a favor and let us know where we are, what they have to offer and a reason to return. Even if we barely pay attention, we may begin to notice trends or notes of interest.

Seems like Pinterest is what’s driving traffic most to a LOT of sites! I have to say, if I’m searching for something, I very rarely go through the front page- but directly through a link I found…

I absolutely agree that the front page is an artifact from the age of print. If we can, and we can easily brand the specific page that the consumer is looking for, then there is little if any reason to push them through a front page that, inherently, is more confusing and likely to lose the visitor. Google, Ask.com, Bing, and the other major search engines share the role of front page with a host of social media tools, too broad to count.

Nothing wrong with home page as a primarily promotional centrepiece or at least a starting point. How is this different from a book cover or journal cover? It is to capture a reader’s attention. In today’s of competing infoglut in blogosphere, some careful but relevant promotion in an eye-catching style is a good thing.

A reader sometimes just needs 1 page to express the content “essence” and style of the web site or blog. An “about” page is not going to really serve that purpose.

The essence is an about, is it not? The core about. But in many cases home pages have instead become navigational nightmares. There has been a mania to have one click access to everything. As a result I have seen home pages loaded with pull down menus that combined provide over 100 cryptic links into the site. This is more likely repellant than helpful. Imagine going into a building and being confronted by 100 doors! This is the opposite of expressing a brand or an essence.

A badly designed home page should not be used to tar all home pages. The quality of the navigation provided is just one more factor to consider when evaluating the phenomenon. Many buildings around here have more than 100 doors per floor and and perfectly navigable.

I did not say anything about all home pages. But the bad design case I described is pretty frequent. As for the building metaphor it refers to entering the building into a kind of entrance room which has no guidance except 100 poorly marked doors. I have not seen that. But your version works too. If you get off on a floor with 100 doors and you have no prior guidance, like a number to look for or some directions, you are in a tough spot. But perhaps this is your idea of fun. Most people not so much.

A lot of home pages are like this. Forbiddingly complex, especially when you have to execute the links (open the doors) to find out where they lead. I call these opaque contexts.

I don’t think the homepage is entirely dead, although it may not be terribly useful for everyone. If you come into a site from social or a search, and you like what you see enough that you want more, you usually get it in some form from the homepage.

Advertising is most effective when it’s aimed at the highest-volume users. In other words, you can get a better market share capturing the 2 percent who use a product the most–rather than trying to capture a lot of low-volume users. For a website, the high-volume user is probably one who reads. If you want that reader, you need to give them a way to find more interesting, well-written things to read in a nice browseable format.

I know on my blog, most traffic comes from searches. But then every so often, a reader will come along who clicks on 10 or 20 posts in a row. That wouldn’t happen with just a search feature on the page, because at that point the reader isn’t looking for anything in particular. They are just looking for something interesting in kind of the same vein because they liked what they just saw. That’s what a homepage can do. So, while the homepage may not drive most traffic, I think it does something else important. Because I think the idea is, once readers arrives, to keep them reading your content as long as possible.

Volume is a good point to raise. Homepage traffic may indeed be down, but is there any other individual page on your website that sees a higher level of traffic?

Well put. The home page is not the only way to engage. I recently added a “related items” sidebar and will be monitoring to see if my bounce rate declines.

I’d say this article is right on target based on my own small experience. For a little guy I’ll never get anywhere with getting traffic through search engines, so my various links in comments are seldom to my home page.

But then for what I sell, an aggressive push on the home page can be tricky and a huge negative, so it really is kind of ‘won’t you come inside’ kind of page.

As for mainstream new site, for me they just aren’t that interesting…they somehow look ‘desperate’ for lack of better word.

Thanks for the article Kent.

I greatly enjoyed reading this article. i oftentimes spend so much time, thoughts, and frustrations on designing the perfect homepage. Your article has inspired me. Thank you.

Before writing off the home page, it would be worthwhile learning how many of the 88% that linked elsewhere on the site did so because the 12% that started with the homepage re-posted what they found in other venues.

Apparently so! At least as far as WordPress is concerned 😉
I arrived here directly from the “Freshly Pressed” link and won’t actually see your homepage unless I try to find it.

But at least in my (our) blogs, the home page still topping the stats. although the visitor come via social media, the still (sometimes) hit the “Home” button.

I think on editorial sites the homepage is in retirement somewhat. I imagine that many vistitors who come in through other doors, if they like what they see, will then navigate to the homepage to take their next step or to be inspired more.
For e-commerce, I would say the homepage is very much alive.
In both cases, I would say that the homepage is mostly visited by loyal visitors and it shows them the best of the new content, inspires them and so on and so it will never truly die.
Where there is a middle and a back, there must always be a front! Perhaps they just need a little reinvigorating…

A home page is still nice to have as a center piece of navigation. If the search terms used brings me to a page that sparks my interest, I will usually go to the main page to see what else if offered. You are right in the aspect that homepages as we know them will no longer be around, but you always need a base or index.

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