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Death of the Home PageToday I ask the question, how important is your website’s home page? A host of content vultures are circling, is it time to give your home page it’s last rites? Is the home page dead?

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‘Are we living in a post-home page world?’
That’s the quote from a co-worker that I wrote down in my notebook during a meeting this week, and I knew I had this week’s podcast topic. Like most weeks, this single thought led to a flurry of theories and research that would eventually form the script for this week. Of course, as the Wired Markting Guy, I quickly spun it into… ‘The home page is dead.’

Companies spend an inordinate amount of time designing and testing their home pages. Editors spend their days lobbying to get their stories front and center on the home page. And every salesperson tells every advertiser that the place they want to be is on the home page. But is that really the best strategy?

Lets look at the facts.
The Wired home page is pretty unique. Our talented design team took some chances deviating from the norm by placing the main navigation lower on the page, opting to focus on large photos and headlines at the very top. The result over the past 18 months has been tremendous growth for the site, nomination for a Webby Award for best home page, and more recently, increases in traffic to the home page each of the last five months.

But drilling down into the numbers a little deeper, in a recent month only about 20% of users sessions went to the home page, resulting in only 15% of overall traffic. So if you were to apply the 80/20 rule of effort, what we’re saying is that 80% of all Wired users, did NOT go to your home page. Shouldn’t web design schools across the country be spending 80% of their time teaching asipiring designers how to build the perfect article page? Because the fact is, for many media companies like Wired, the majority of your traffic is landing somewhere deep within your site.

Wait, what if the homepage was dead already?
In searching the phrase ‘Death of the Home page,’ I came across an article covering the same exact topic. But what’s interesting is that it was written in 2004.

In it, a man named Robin Cook, a new media communications guy, discusses a Digital Web Magazine article written by Joshua Porter that pondered the paradigm shift away from the traditional home page.

Below is a before and after chart (credit: Digital Web Magazine) outlining the three areas that traffic was coming from in 2004, causing a disruption in the flow from the home page.

Before: Intended navigational flow:

After: Disrupted navigational flow:

I’ve gone ahead and added a fourth item that has arisen since 2004, social media. Let’s call them:

The Four Horsemen of the Web Traffic Apocalypse:

1) Blogs. There are millions of them out there, and most likely someone’s blog is linking to a specific article they read, not your homepage.

2) RSS Feeds. People are getting the content they specifically want from their favorite sites. In the case of Wired, they’re usually subscribing to our Top Stories feed, but they also could be coming to a more focused segment such as our video game or science blog.

3) Social Media. Three of the top 10 referrers to Wired every month are Digg, reddit, and Stumble Upon. These sites always link to a specific story, not the home page. You can throw in Slashdot and Fark.com too.

4) Search. Probably near the top of most people’s lists are a little site named Google.com and his equally fun to say cousin, Yahoo.

So what’s the new home page?
For many, it’s their RSS reader. For others, it’s a site such as Digg or reddit or delicious, which is gathering stories from other people’s homepages around the web. Or maybe it’s a site such as popurls.com.  What does this site do? It aggregates the aggregators. So now you can see Digg AND reddit AND del.icio.us top stories – as well as 25 other aggregator sites at a glance.

The other new home page is the blog. The typical personal blog doesn’t have a set homepage structure, but rather brings you directly to the content.

For many years now, my old standby for my browser’s homepage was simply Google.com.  Why?

– It was clean.

– It was simple.

– It loaded very quickly.

But now I’ve been using Firefox, both at home and at work, and one of the features, is that the Google search function is integrated directly into the browser.

Am I really that lazy? It’s not easy enough for me to just type the word Google.com.

It’s not easy enough that I can just click a single bookmark.

No, I need to have it so easy that ZERO clicks are involved.

It reminds me of a joke I heard from some comedian talking about cruise control on a car. He says: Really? Are we as a society THAT lazy? We’re not walking. We’re not biking. We’re already admitting our laziness by being in the car. Are we THAT lazy, that even pressing our foot on the gas pedal is too much exertion now? We need to electronically push the gas pedal?

Maybe we don’t need the homepage anymore. As my super college intern # 2 Anuja suggested, maybe the new generation of web surfers are just better at finding stuff, filtering through information with ruthless efficiency and a much more precise result than ever before.

They don’t need to be guided with complex, cascading navigation.
•    First off, they’re Google search wizards
•    They can find the restaurant they want on Yelp.com in 10 seconds flat
•    Wikipedia waits at their beck and call for any information they could possibly want
•    And not only can they find the address of their co-worker’s condo on Google Maps, but they can toggle street view to look at what color it is, and jump over to Zillow.com to see how much they paid for it before you can say cyberstalker.

And what happens if by chance they can’t find something?

Well, I suppose they could send a friend an email and wait for a response. But why do that when an instant message or a triple tap text message can get a reply immediately. And if that friend doesn’t know the answer? Well, it’s just a Facebook post or a Twitter update to send the call out to their extended network like Aquaman summoning the creatures of the sea.

My friend Loren argues that even voicemail is obsolete. How so? If you see a missed call from him, you know it’s important and you need to call him back. If he had something quick to say, he’d have texted it.

So now that we have a clearer picture of what is happening, what do we do about it? For that, I reference a great article by a man called ‘the guru of web page usability,’ Jakob Nielsen. On his website useit.com, he says the fight is on for that second click. I couldn’t agree with him more. When I see one of our stories hit on Digg, sending thousands of people to a Wired article, I’m excited for the traffic spike, but I wonder, how do I get all those people to make one more click and read a second story?

He breaks out types of traffic into four distinct sources.

1) For social media sites such as Digg, don’t expect them to stick around. Any additional value you get is pure gravy
2) For direct links from other websites, users have a higher degree of interest, but still have a high bounce rate
3) For search engine traffic, these people have an acute interest. If they’re not sticking around long, something’s wrong
4) Lastly, for loyal users who repeatly come to the site, he cautions that it’s ok if they hit the site and then leave, as long as they’re coming back every day.

So is the homepage dead?

Hardly. It still represents the face of your brand and is most likely the single most trafficked individual page on your website. Give it it’s due. It’s still breathing.

But once you make sure there’s a consistent pulse there, dispatch the rest of the medical crew back out into the field, and start testing and optimizing the other 80% of your site. There’s a lot more bandages that can be applied.

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