How often do you start a journey on a website by landing on the home page? Most of the time? Occasionally? Never?
Chances are that the number of times that you land on a site's home page, as opposed to one of its permalinks, has been consistently falling for the best part of half a decade.
This is because of two reasons - search engines and social media. In the early days of the web over a decade ago, many of the people who visited news websites had a degree of loyalty to the media brand that they were visiting. So they would start on the home page and continue their journey from there.
Search engines, and especially aggregators like Google News and News Now, have changed that behaviour and have made us more promiscuous in where we go to read our news. More recently social media has accelerated this process as we share interesting stories and links with each other via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
To see how this is affecting media brands we only need look at one of the very biggest - The New York Times. The Nieman Labs reports that, today it is seeing more than half of its traffic entering the site through internal pages mostly due to search engines. And this is a media brand, like The Guardian and The Telegraph in the UK, that still has significant brand loyalty from its readers.
Imagine then the percentage of traffic to the home pages of smaller, less prominent blogs and websites. A good figure here is probably around 20% of traffic to the home page. For many sites it is much lower.
The shop window?
It is a tad ironic then when editorial teams begin work on new sites, and redesign old ones too, a great deal of thought and effort is spent on creating the home page.
There are good reasons for this as in many ways the home page still stands as the shop window of the site. The CMA believes though that the time has come for designers to start thinking of the home page as the secondary source of navigation and instead focus on the concept of turning every page into a home page.
To do this successfully the key elements of what we have traditionally positioned on the home page - the links to sub-pages, categories and more - need to be incorporated on each page.
In fact web builders should ask themselves this question. After clicking on a permalink (a story) where next do they want their readers to go? Is it to another similar story, to the home page or somewhere else? Much of this decision may be governed by where a person is most likely to click on. If keeping a reader, even if they just shift between two similar stories, is more important to the publisher than migrating them to a navigation page like the home page, then links and navigation devices have to be very prominent.
Editorial eams need to focus on making the navigation between pages as simple as possible. It is no coincidence, for example, that CMA partner Outbrain has been very successful in driving traffic as its image based links are perfectly positioned at the bottom of a story. So, just at the point when a person has finished reading, they are presented with new places to go which are delivered in a visually enticing way.
Of course focusing on the bottom of a story is only one option. The Daily Mail style side bar where the newspaper website stacks a huge amount of links with images, has been widely copied, and is very successful at driving readers between stories.
However there are still key design elements to bear in mind. Delivering a cluttered permalink won't encourage anyone to click through, so the page needs impact. It needs to have bold, large sized images to excite the reader. Once those have been built in then it is time to hit them with the navigation options.
Another key decision is where and when to add pop ups or navigational elements that offer calls to action like signing up for email newsletters or Facebook pages. Traditionally these have been offered via the homepage, but it might make more sense to add these to the permalinks too, providing they enhance and don't detract from a user's journey.
Finally it is worth bearing in mind the type of experience the reader will have on a home page if they are visiting the site via a mobile phone. Many large news based sites don't seem to have yet developed home pages that work especially well on mobile. Yet is this really such a bad thing? If you think access to your home page via laptops etc. is low, then in many instances the number who visits home pages via mobile is very small.
Perhaps as time goes by the home page will either evolve into something different or disappear altogether. At the moment though the home page is very much alive. It is just that it isn't one page on your site, it is every page.