/ 23 January 2007

Decline of the Homepage

Remember when the main way to surf a website was via its homepage?

Well, that was the old days. The rise of super-fast, super-efficient search engines mean that users are increasingly accessing websites via deep links that bypass their homepages directly to a website’s articles. It’s essentially a backdoor into your website.

Search engines aren’t the only ones to blame. Bloggers generally link directly to the articles they are writing about, ignoring homepages. RSS feeds, which allow users to subscribe directly to article feeds, are also responsible for the decline of the homepage.

So what does this mean? Paradoxically it is both a problem and an opportunity for publishers. What publisher wouldn’t want search engines to send traffic to his or her site, even if it is via a backdoor? It’s no secret that the news sites dominating the top of the South African website rankings are getting a huge chunk of their traffic via deep links to their articles by Google.

But there is also a downside. A homepage is important real estate to a publisher. It is the grand entrance hall and the wrapping for the site. It is a carefully constructed mix of links and graphics designed to deliver the right message and the right stories to the user.

If a news website’s homepage is bypassed then the news-gathering, agenda-setting function that is so key to all media companies is effectively bypassed. In effect, Google is telling your readers what the most important story on the site is – not your editors!

Another problem is that this search traffic is often not particularly loyal. The reader finds the link in a search engine, parachutes in, without noticing or caring about the brand, gets the article and then leaves as quickly as he or she arrived – probably never to return. It’s a very different reader from the one who regularly visits the homepage, understands the website brand and attaches some loyalty to it. This is the reader most likely to interact with the advertising the online publisher places around articles.

So what should you, the online publisher, do? Well, you could block Google from visiting your site. This is quick and easy to do – and Google will obey. In fact, the worldwide media industry is now coming up with its own protocol to control search-engine access. But I doubt any online publisher in their right mind would block off this valuable source of traffic.

So online publishers have to live with it and adapt. You are fighting a losing battle if you don’t think users will increasingly bypass your homepage as internet consumption patterns evolve. The trick is that you need to understand users’ habits.

It means that you should treat every article as if it’s a “mini-homepage”. Stack all your article pages with links inviting users to your homepage. Ensure that you have links to other articles from your article page. Have a headline feature that lists the top stories appearing on your homepage on every article.

An article may be the first time a user comes into contact with your website. This is your chance to not only present the article, but market the website brand. If you present a good image the user may come back for more.

The homepage will never die. A loyal, core base of users will always access your site from the homepage. But it’s important to understand that it’s not the only way users are arriving at your site.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of Mail & Guardian Online. E-mail him at [email protected]