The death of the home page has been greatly exaggerated
Personalization provider Cxense says its data shows that home page visitors may be fewer than social- or search-driven ones, but they’re more valuable.
Talk for more than a few minutes to content publishers, and they’ll often bemoan the fact that few visitors reach their sites through the home page any more.
The real action, they’ll say, is from “side door” visits directly to a specific story, via a link shared by social media, texting, email, or from a topic-centered search. This “death of the home page” wave became an accepted wisdom after mid-2014, when a leaked chart from The New York Times showed the steep plunge in that iconic newspaper’s home page visitors.
But volume alone is only the tip of the story, according to Tom Wilde, general manager for the Americas at personalization provider Cxense.
Based on recent data from the web sites of his company’s clients, Wilde told me that the “home page is dead” approach misses a key point.
While only “five to 10 percent of users on a typical site come through a home page,” he said, “they represent about 50 percent of page views.”
In fourth quarter of last year, he said, visitors who came to the sites through a social link viewed an average of 1.8 pages per session, and visitors via a search engine result saw three pages for each session. But visitors who entered the sites through the home page viewed between 10 and 30 pages per session.
It’s not that side door visits aren’t important, Wilde said. “It’s that [they’re] far less valuable.” He estimates that home visitors are “10 to 20 times more valuable,” because of the additional pages they view, and because of their apparent brand loyalty.
Wilde also touted page views as “a good indicator of engagement,” which, on a content site, is largely about the time spent reading stories.
“Social is probably the last to deliver engagement,” he said, since a link posted on Facebook about some individual story you should read tends to be a one-hit visit.
Most of Cxense clients’ sites are content-oriented, representing about 350 brands that each have between one and 300 sites each. They include such well-known publishers as USA Today, Better Homes and Gardens, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic and Viacom. In fourth quarter, he said, Cxense served about 45 billion tracking events through scripts on clients’ sites.
Wilde acknowledged that this home page assessment doesn’t necessarily apply to retailers, since his data doesn’t cover those kinds of sites.
Of course, return visits to content-oriented home pages may also be impacted by the home page design. The New York Times’s home page, for instance, strongly resembles its print edition and is difficult to quickly scan. I find myself rarely visiting it, although I will click on a link to an interesting Times article when I come across one.
By contrast, The Huffington Post’s visually-oriented home page is designed for scanning, including “quick read” overlays that allow you to get the essence of a story without loading another page. I visit there daily as one of the places I go to get a sense of the day’s events, in part because I can do so relatively quickly.
Wilde pointed out that the home page’s changing stature is part of the Web’s evolution. Initially, directories like Yahoo and The Open Directory pointed users to the home pages of sites. Then came the rise of search engines like Excite, Lycos, Google and Bing, which could direct users to topic-oriented sites through their home pages or directly to specific topics on sub-pages.
With the rise of link sharing through social networks, texts and emails, he noted, “atomic pieces began to exceed bookmarks.”
As is true for entry through any side door, the whole house can be readily explored if there are motivations and a clear layout. Wilde pointed out that personalized content on specific pages reached through a link or search engine result can encourage visitor interest in the whole site, as do generated lists of similar stories on the site and clear navigational structure.
Anecdotally, he said, we find that “when you give a good experience through a side door, they come back through the home page.” And home page visitors tend to respond to a greater variety of content, because they’re interested in the brand’s type of content.