Site visitors are decreasingly entering via the homepage and instead are entering through other entry points, such as responding to an offer or following a search inquiry.
At least one of the major portals is well aware of this occurrence.
"Yahoo! recognizes that internet consumers come to our sites from many different entry points," Meagan Busath, a Yahoo spokesperson, said. "We are focused on making sure that each of our very popular starting points helps people find and connect to whatever they want, including the Yahoo Home Page, Yahoo Search and Yahoo Mail, as well as our mobile services like Yahoo Go. As a result, we have seen usage of all of these Yahoo services increase over the past year (Comscore WorldMatrix, May 2006 - May 2007)."
But is the homepage dying a slow death? We reached out to industry experts and asked if homepages are still important. And how can brands approach site design and messaging differently to leverage new site access patterns?
Whether they liken the homepage experience to a book, a restaurant, a game of tag or a date, our contributors have a lot to say on the subject.
Author notes: Nanette Marcus is the cover stories editor at iMedia Connection. Read full bio.
Today’s digital consumer opts for an array of niche and broad web offerings, using emerging technologies such as AJAX, RSS and widgets to create their own personalized online experiences. Our largest and most well-known media clients now see more than 50 percent of their traffic originating from outside their domain (i.e., the content that is contained in search engines, blogs, et cetera). This is a far cry from a few years ago, when 75 to 80 percent of traffic originated at their homepage. In response, we’ve helped our clients gear their site designs to welcome consumers at a specific video page or at a specific article page rather than relying on the homepage, which helps drive traffic deeper into their site.
Simplifying homepages down to the core elements and providing intuitive, visually appealing paths to additional information contained within the site helps reduce confusion and increases consumer engagement.
In conjunction with this transformation, the page view is also dying off. This has led many of us, including Nielsen//NetRatings -- just this month -- to look for a new mix of more meaningful metrics. Savvy marketers have begun to eschew the page view in favor of much more telling statistics like reach, frequency and time spent on site. Also, there is a greater emphasis on user-initiated metrics, such as subscriptions to RSS feeds and widgets, which now play bigger roles in media consumption.
Let me explain how these technologies are contributing:
- RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is another major factor. Until recently, RSS was planted firmly in the domain of early adopters (e.g., geeks) who preferred to receive content from publishers like The New York Times or blogs and read the content in special RSS readers, all without ever actually having to visit those websites. In the near future, the notion of actually having to visit a website, let alone a page, will become antiquated.
Further outlook for more big shifts
Look for ‘08 to bring a host of new ways to actually measure how users are actively engaging with a digital property. From counting “posts” (commenting on a page) to quantifying submissions of content/media (such as audio or video) to a given site, we will see a number of new metrics associated with the social web.
After all, isn’t the property that causes the most conversation (or interaction) truly the most popular?
Are homepages still important? Yes, definitely. How we define homepages needs to change, though.
Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio.
People who enter a site via an offer or search query are essentially entering a site via a different mnemonic brand than what is traditionally recognized as a brand. The solution is to microsite the search query or offer it within the greater brand site.
The analogy I use with clients is (surprise) very familiar to researchers. You're using a book as a reference source. That book is really a collection of papers on a given subject and edited by someone prominent in the field. What you really want to reference is one section, chapter or paper in the greater collection. Somewhere on the page is the title of the book you're looking in; somewhere else on the page is the title of the article/paper/section/chapter you're interested in.
People entering a site via an offer or search query are in much the same situation. The traditional brand is the book as a whole; the offer or search query is the part of the book you're interested in.
What this means is that the chapter/section/paper can't exist without the whole book. The design consideration is to dual brand the website visitor, first with what they came for, then with the traditional brand. The goal is to create an association that what they came for -- a microbrand, if you will -- is encompassed in the more traditional brand (macrobrand). You want visitors to appreciate that they can't get one without the other.
Interestingly enough, some of our researchers in Europe just finished a study that supports this somewhat. For example, what happens when an established microbrand goes away? Do consumers return to the macrobrand for a substitute, or do they leave the brand completely?.
In summary, every page is a homepage. This concept also deals with increasing distractions. Each page becomes a product/query/offering specific homepage; each microsite becomes one to two pages deep. Fewer pages equates to a lesser chance that the visitor will be distracted and pulled away from what they came to do (some form of conversion).
First, the percentage of visitors coming to major brand sites through "side doors" is growing but is still a small part of the overall traffic for most of our large customers. The homepage is still king for branded sites. For unbranded sites, it never was.
In any case, homepages remain important, even it we think of them as "home bases" rather than "front doors." As home base, the homepage is the place to go to most easily re-orient yourself before branching off. The goal is to provide a "grounding" experience and make it easy to find a product, article or other place on the site.
In the olden days, sites were like grand manor houses where you entered through an ornate front door. Nearly everyone came through the front door, and the process through the site could be managed. Now a site might be more like an apartment building. Each major section might have its own homepage, campaigns have their own homepage and, with personalization, groups of users get their own homepage.
The question is if a page has to function in two modes -- inside page and hybrid inside/homepage -- what content needs to be included? And, should one page serve both functions, or should the page show different content under the different conditions?
I would recommend the following:
- Find out which of your pages act as an entry page for more than 100 visitors a day.
- Look at drop-off rates and conversions for this traffic.
- Look at your homepage and your entry pages that have low drop-off rates versus those that have high drop-offs.
- Identify content that is left out or included in each case and test versions of the poor performing pages that better match the high performers.
- Ask, "Who enters these pages and what are they seeing or not seeing that makes them leave?"
- Develop new versions that address these issues and test against the current one.
Long gone are the days of a single entry point and a controlled funnel for users to experience your site. Now, every page of your site needs to work as a first impression while responding clearly to the request that got them there in the first place.
The dynamic of search and email have forever changed our ability to "control" our user experience. I think this is a positive thing. Instead of being in the business of guessing, we are now in the business of responding. Basically, it would be like going to a restaurant and being served a meal you didn't ask for and the chef hoping he got it right.
Now you can order.
This does come with challenges, however. If we stick with the restaurant analogy, you still need them to like what you serve and provide more than they asked for so they will come back. In the world of websites and homepages, we see more traffic off the homepage then on. Since people search for what they want, if you have it, they will go there.
What to do? Forget the top-down model for starters. Think about every page on your site as a potential destination. What do you want to say? You can simply answer the request with your content. That's a start, but it won't build from there. Carefully assess your ability to communicate and your potential messages. In other words, if someone searched and found your page on shoes, maybe you should tell them 1) you make the best shoes 2) you have a lot of shoes and 3) you have more than shoes and would you care to take a look?
Lastly, you have a homepage. Just because people spend less time on it or find you through other means does not mean you don't need to have one or should ignore the opportunity it presents. As you think about making your whole site work harder for you -- to go from here it is, to here is more -- you should also ask yourself what your homepage should say to the world. Often it says way too much. Just when you thought you could throw everything at someone and hook them, you discover you said nothing and they didn't get it. Find a couple of things, products, messages, whatever, to say to someone and say just that. For example, my company's 'divine caroline' homepage says, "I'm a site for women to come share their lives in their words across many topics, here they are…"
Look at your homepage. What does it say to you?
Don't worry about being perfect. Just get better. We are all in the digital world because we love change, aren't we?
As a kid playing tag, you always had the safety of "base" to rely upon. If you could get to base, you could re-think your evasion strategy, take a breather or simply taunt whoever was "it." Ultimately, however, it gave you some degree of comfort and was always there for you. You could restart from base.
Site operators and marketers are now realizing that the homepage is not always a user's entry point, nor will it always be the optimal converting point of a user's path. Targeted, optimized landing pages are a must-have component of effective advertising, and the homepage is rarely the focus of successful search engine optimization. However, for many users, the homepage is still "base" for them. They can regain their navigational footing or mark it as a place to return to once they've become a customer.
There still are a few other traditional forms of "base," such as site search, a site map and consistent global navigation. These are the few cardinal directions that a user may rely on as a means of navigating any unfamiliar site. These tools are becoming increasingly important now that users are entering from other areas deep within the site, particularly as it relates to users coming from search results pages.
With search engines continually improving and providing deeper, more relevant results, clearly the issue of users quickly finding exactly what they want poses an interesting challenge for marketers. Ultimately, marketers want to propel users into a path that ends with buying something, subscribing to something or receiving ads. Traditionally they have fabricated their desired users' paths from the homepage. But now they have to re-think that practice as potential customers are coming from anywhere.
Where they come from tells you a lot about who they are
Conversion funnels can begin from nearly anywhere on a site, though it is important that marketers focus on a logistically realistic few -- or few categories -- if they want to optimize for desired results. For example, product detail pages are often critical entry points from search results. Those who've entered your site as a result of searching on a specific term (thereby communicating purchase intent) are highly lucrative users, and these pages should be considered "a new homepage" and given critical design attention for product- or sales-driven sites.
Alternatively, landing pages for advertising present a different situation, where a marketer may feel more in control of the experience. Minimizing choices for the user -- even those cardinal navigations as mentioned before -- typically help optimize the path toward a desired result. These circumstances often reduce the dependence on the homepage as part of the experience and actually reinforce that personalization as a useful way to optimize.
Personalization, while maintaining global consistency, is imperative for today's websites. Savvy marketers and merchandisers are now putting more effort into personalizing the homepage based on what they know about the user, which can often be as little as knowing that they typed in the domain. However, every little bit, or every visit, provides more information about the user. By maintaining flexible design and promotional space, marketers can deliver targeted, personalized information regardless of the user's entry point on the first or any subsequent visit.
Ultimately, as acquisition tactics continue to diversify, and as the web consumer becomes savvier, discriminating -- or perhaps those simply overburdened by options -- homepages will no longer be the starting points they once were.
For some users, homepages will simply become the familiar "base" or hub. Whereas, for others who are on a dedicated path to conversion, homepages may serve as a future resource where marketers will make more personal offers based on their growing knowledge of that user.
Chris Wooster, T3 Group Creative Director
I think homepages are still incredibly vital, but for a more specific audience than before. I call them "brand browsers." This audience might ask or wonder:
- "I heard something about Brand X, but I don't know much about them."
- "I had no idea that company did that. I wonder what other stuff they do?"
- "Five companies have this product. What's the difference between them?"
- "My friend told me about Brand Y."
This audience might have a brief understanding of what they're looking for, or an uninformed opinion about a brand. For them, the homepage is often the "first date" with a brand. It's the brand's best chance to make an impression that warrants more exploration. It indelibly shapes a brand, so it's vital that the homepage be clear and contextual, not just sexy or visually impressive.
The other crew of people is the search audience. They are motivated to locate information on a very particular issue. They want an answer, and 17 clicks from a homepage isn't going to pass muster. For this tactically-oriented crowd, brands need to make sure that side entry is as efficient as possible. In order to accomplish this, there's an ever-increasing premium placed on smart information architecture and clear navigation.
Also, organizational structures should instantly provide the site and brand context for an arriving user at every level. This has always been true, but as site designers we often begin with the homepage then design down. Doesn't this new paradigm suggest we design instead from the inside out? Designers should love this. By the time you get to the homepage, it'll be a relief to "remove things" from a structural layout.
Chad Currie, T3 Group Creative Director
Because of the increase in other avenues for brand interaction, homepages have largely been neglected. However, homepages are still highly important and brands should focus more attention on making them relevant to their customers needs and consistent with their current marketing programs. Many people still search for the brand name first when trying to locate specific information and arrive at the homepage as a starting point. Consumers also visit homepages when they don't remember the vanity URL from a recently viewed television commercial, online ad or direct mail piece.
Overall, homepages need to be well thought out because one way or another, customers are still arriving at the homepage and are usually entering with a specific need. Although this is Design 101, brands need to have a clear hierarchy of information on their homepages. Most brands have various lines of products and/or messages to communicate. However, it's important to focus homepage design around a dominant feature or theme that can rotate content to remain relevant.
Relevancy is key when approaching the design and messaging in other areas of a brand's site, banner advertising, microsites or search inquiries. When consumers commit to click, they expect to arrive at a destination dedicated to the topic at hand. If you are driving traffic from a banner, design a custom landing page or create an adaptable homepage to provide customers with a relevant payoff.
Many brands invest in microsites to stake out a separate space away from the homepage to tell a different story. Microsites have been very popular among marketers because they can track where consumers are coming from. Also, basic navigation on a microsite can help consumers decide where to go next and drive them to other parts of the site. Be sure to keep these destination sites updated with new information for the consumer. If pages are designed in a granular way, you can easily swap out elements.