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Inviting users deeper into your site


Picture of welcome mat courtesy of Ariane Middel and released under Creative CommonsA website's homepage is not just a place to display content, it's there to offer users a compelling experience that drives them deeper into the site.

Keeping it fresh and attractive requires a blend of awareness of audience need, careful planning, attention to detail, editorial flair and adaptability.

It's the window on your organisation’s output and the tool for winning and retaining your audience. Ian Davies who has managed home pages for itv.comAOL, and Orange offers his 20 top tips. (Note: First published in July 2010)

Image courtesy of Ariane Middel and released under Creative Commons


How to manage a news website homepage


Be accurate

Your homepage represents your organisation’s editorial and brand values. Ensuring that your content is free from errors, broken links and poorly presented images is vital. Avoid complacency - it’s not uncommon for problems to appear in a live environment, even though there were no problems in a staging or pre-production environment. Check all images, text and links before and after publishing - and involve a ‘second-pair-of-eyes’ (a colleague) to verify.

If your homepage looks broken users will think that the rest of the site will be too

Think what users might want to find out, not what you want to tell them

Use short sentences and get to the point

A homepage is a gateway to a website’s content and not the place for lengthy, wordy editorial. Sentences should be as concise as you can make them - using only the words you need to get essential information across and drive users deeper into your site.

Spare the words and speed the journey

Deliver strong calls to action

The purpose of the homepage is to encourage users to click through to subsequent pages and content. Use deliberate, actionable, instructional language (e.g. ‘Watch the video clip’, ‘follow it live’, ‘read the full story’, ‘view the picture gallery’, etc), but avoid appending ‘click here’ to links - it’s unnecessary.  See 30 tips for creating ‘must-click’ content.

Use calls to action to drive users deeper

Avoid out-of-date content

Your website is live 24 hours a day, so your homepage should never be out of date. If you can’t commit to updating an evolving story or event as it happens, do not promote it on your homepage. 

Keep the content fresh and relevant and if you can’t update a story don’t cover it

Avoid cryptic headlines

Website headlines are usually links. Text should be concise, accurate and informative. A headline should instantly convey to the user whether the story is of interest and should enable the user to click-through without having to read any accompanying promo text.

A headline is incomplete if it depends on accompanying text

Keep links to one line

Hyperlinks that ‘wrap’ onto two lines should be avoided.

Enough said

Give users options with supplementary links

Don’t assume that all users want the same thing from a particular story or content promotion; if you have the facility, provide supplementary deep links to supporting or related content. Remember that you know what content you have but the users don’t. If you want them to find it you have to provide directions.

Offer a variety of links to a wide range of supporting content

Focus on images

Images provide a key visual flag for users. They are as important as headlines and promo text. Select images carefully - and ensure that any image used is closely related to images found on subsequent linked pages, photo galleries or video content. Close crops tend to work better than large illustrative scenes, as do recognisable faces/personalities. Be careful, also, to consider the homepage in its entirety; if you have five available picture slots, ensure they’re not all head and shoulders shots.

Make sure every picture tells a story

Format text carefully

How a promo looks often defines how easy it is to read - homepage users who are scanning your content for items of interest will be put off by poorly formatted content. Ensure you craft your text to fill the available space and avoid widows or orphans.

Poorly formatted content will drive users away

Become an expert in web analytics

User behaviour on the web is almost totally measurable, so understanding when users come to your site, how long they spend accessing content, what content they access and the way in which they navigate your site will provide a vital insight. For example, if you know that the majority of your users visit your site at 8am, and 6pm, use that insight to define your content publishing schedules. Similarly, if your analytics tell you that certain types of content or story are not working, be bold enough to change them.

Regularly analyse what works and what doesn’t and be prepared to make changes

Don’t assume content ‘below the fold’ won’t work.

It may be a misconception that everything must appear ‘above the fold’ - the imaginary line that is marked by the bottom of the browser pane. Scrolling is a common behaviour for web users, so don’t be frightened about placing content lower down the page. As with any promotion, refer to web analytics to continually evaluate effectiveness.

The home page is more than what appears above the fold

Schedule content updates

Users expect websites to be updated frequently, so planned and scheduled updates to your homepage should form the basis of your website’s workflow. Work ahead; hold monthly planning meetings with contributors to set out a calendar of expected events, weekly meetings to define the detail around those events and daily meetings to allow you to be reactive. Develop structures and processes to allow contributors to communicate fresh content to homepage editors; consider standard templates for submission that include key story details, links and images to be used - and set strict deadlines for contribution.

Planning is crucial for proper homepage management

Be both reactive and proactive

A homepage - particularly for a news organisation - must also be both reactive and proactive. You need to be on the case as soon as news breaks, but you also need to be aware of what is coming up and need to plan ahead. There is a lot you can do in advance. Both mindsets are needed to ensure the homepage addresses the needs of the audience. Essential - or timely - updates to promotions should not wait for scheduled updates (see point 3 above).

You homepage must be both reactive and proactive

Consider user journeys carefully

Don’t frustrate users by taking them through a number of pages before they reach the content they want to access. If your promo reads ‘watch the video’, ensure the link you provide takes the user to that content.

Make sure your signposts take users to the place they thought they were going to

Understand dependencies

Make sure updates to any homepage promotion given to a particular story or event are synchronised with publishing updates across the site. Communicate with respective section editors to ensure that what’s written on the homepage matches any linked-to content.

Internal communication systems determine the effectiveness of the homepage

Commit proper resources

Effective homepage management should sit at the heart of your website’s operation. Understand the demand for your site from users - through analytics - and organise resources and shift patterns accordingly. Someone needs to manage this process; it can’t be left to chance.

Effective homepage management is at the heart of all good websites

Experiment and be prepared to learn

The beauty of the web is that things can be changed. Try things out, evaluate using analytics and feed that intelligence into the planning process. You will never know what is working and what is not working without testing your ideas. Do so in a structured way so that you can measure the audience response. Most of all, be prepared to learn from what works and what doesn’t work.

Always be on the lookout for new ways of presenting content{/xtypo_info}

Make sure your site is accessible

For visually impaired users - or for those with poor connection speeds or older browers, images can cause problems. If possible, ensure images have meaningful descriptive alt tags, rather than automatically generated image identities. Find out what other accessibility measures you can apply to your site at www.w3.org.

You site should have no barriers to entry and be accessible to all

Be pragmatic about the effectiveness of your homepage

Accept that not all of your traffic comes through the homepage. Good search engine optimisation (SEO) and sound navigation and compelling editorial may mean that the majority of users will not find content on your website via the homepage.

Users may, however, navigate to the homepage subsequently - so there still may be an opportunity to drive users deeper into the content you have. The homepage can only work if the content below it is of a high quality and focused on the needs of the target audience. It’s a entry point, but not the only entry point. Ensure every page is SEO-friendly.

Create a great homepage, but don’t depend on it

Ian Davies Ian Davies is currently product managing Content Discovery at Red Bee Media. Prior to that he was Head of Product Development at the Press Association. He has held senior positions at number of large web portals and managed homepage content for Orange UK, AOL and itv.com. He tweets at @ianjamesdavies


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