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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why homepages still matter

August 31, 2017 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

Since the time people first began predicting the death of the homepage —from the edges of conversations to center stage at various panels — you could have already raised a teenager. And that teenager would, by and large, be consuming a news and information diet dependent on a few key ingredients: Snapchat, Facebook and other social media, push notifications, and maybe some newsletters. Mind you, the creation of the stories are driven by key metrics deciphering what she’s interested in, how long she might linger for on a given article, and so on.

But despite the rise of no-website news outlets like NowThis, it looks like most internet players believe a good recipe still calls for the original essential ingredient: the homepage. Coupled with recent research on user experience, it’s safe to say the homepage isn’t dead, probably was never endangered, and is being reimagined for the social age.

A Tale of Two Sites
HuffPost

When The Huffington Post, under its original moniker, first splashed onto the internet in May 2005, it doubled-down on bold headlines, reported with a liberal slant and quickly gained a huge following. This spring — under a new name, HuffPost — new editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen announced plans to shape the news website in the tradition of grand tabloids.

Redesigning the website was a part of that, and putting resources into the homepage made sense for HuffPost. As much as a quarter of its audience accesses content directly via the homepage. Internal analytics reveal these visitors also read six times the number of stories a month than the average reader coming in through the side door of social media.

In the way that a digital tabloid exists for a new generation, so too does the homepage for it. Today’s homepage has 30% fewer stories than what might have once been considered “normal,” and splashy headlines that aren’t fearful of punning and challenging the figures they’re portraying.

The homepage is meant to be a “snapshot” of the day, according to Polgreen. Video — while intrinsic to its editorial strategy, especially on social — doesn’t clutter the top fold of the website. Instead, a user encounters video clips only after several swipes or scrolls from the top, which still helps these videos gather 50,000 to 100,000 more views than videos that don’t make it to the homepage.

Bottom line: Be true to yourself, and you’ll realize the hows and whys of the necessity of the homepage. And remember that homepage visitors typically spend more time on the site and represent more loyal readers (i.e. ones you can monetize).

Reddit

Even though Reddit is the fourth most-visited website on the Internet, known as the “homepage of the internet,” it remains a mystery to the majority of consumers. But even Reddit regulars have pondered just why the website, which launched in 2004, still looks like it exists in the year 2008.

Take some user feedback from the sub-reddit “why_is_reddit_so_ugly:”

“I think a lot of redditors actually like the ugly look. And if you dare call reddit ugly or recommend changes in most subs here, prepare for an onslaught of downvotes.”

“My problem with the design is that it isn’t user friendly especially if you have a vision impairment like my best friend does. It has a terrible use of whitespace (what whitespace?). The line height is awful. The character count per line is way too long. These “design” practices aren’t just to make it look pretty, it’s also for usability and accessibility…”

Yet even Reddit is finally going for a redesign. The site recently raised $200 million in new venture capital funding, and a new site design will help it overcome “perception debt,” according to CEO Steve Huffman. “Reddit feels old. We don’t want to be associated with old,” he told Recode’s Kurt Wagner. A new design that’s in the works for the homepage mirrors social feeds a la Facebook and Twitter, showcasing visually appealing “cards” to help lure people into conversations. (Axios already uses a social-style story feed on its site.)

It’s worth it for Reddit to invest in redesigning a homepage meant for a desktop because that’s where their users are. Reddit attracts 300 million users a month, and about 80% of which come via the web. (Probably because that’s where it’s easiest to engage in long text-based, thread-based conversations and arguments.)

Bottom line: Reddit users may initially cry foul at a redesign (just as users anywhere do). But Reddit can get away with it because it’s shaping its design for its audience.

Test First, Revamp Later

If the no homepage/yes homepage binary argument is still leaving you ambivalent about what to do, take heed from the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas. “Different website designs can elicit different user experiences and influence what people recall,” the researchers said. “Site design can affect metrics like page views and time on site, but results can vary.”

In the study, the researchers examined how a newly redesigned homepage of one American news organization and one Canadian news organization changed users’ perception and ability to recall. The Canadian news site saw an improvement in metrics; the American one did not. Still, the researchers found that articles with less scrolling, which were located in the left-most column, and that contained a photo were all better recalled among users. A previous 2015 Emerging News Project study also found that contemporary website designs attracted more readers than sites with traditional newspaper layouts.

Together, the two studies suggest that redesigning a homepage — so that it’s fast, visual and user-friendly — could help in a few ways: By increasing the amount of time people spend on the site; by increasing the number of pieces they read; and by helping them recall what they read. All of this, too, helps make the content and reporting on such a website much more effective.

Of course, this all depends on the outlet and its audience. Do some testing. Examine where your audience is coming from. Think of the values of your brand’s identity. The biggest takeaway from the study? Experiment first before a full-blown redesign.

“Our results show that an online experiment can pick up on many of the same signals as a full launch of a site redesign,” said Emily Van Duyn, research associate for the Engaging News Project.

So, don’t tear down your homepage just yet.

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