Misconceptions About the Homepage

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Does the homepage really matter? Yes -- but not, perhaps, for the reasons you may think.

homepageschreenshot-615.jpg

TheAtlantic.com

The homepage is the single best way for editors to convey the sensibilities and values of their websites. Everything about the page -- the design; the selection of stories and images; the treatment of features and widgets; the language and cadence of the headlines; the typeface; the frequency with which the page is updated; even the ads -- is a statement about what matters to the publication. With one glance at the page (literally, a 10-second glance), a reader can get answers to these questions:

  • What's this site about? News? Analysis? Service? Gossip?
  • What's the sensibility? Serious? Playful? Quirky? Geeky?
  • What are the subject areas that matter most to its editors? Washington? Wall Street? Hollywood? Silicon Valley?

For these reasons, the homepage is, as the marketing team would put it, the ultimate brand statement. And, by the same logic, all this is true for the home screen of a magazine's tablet app, too.

There's one thing, though, that the homepage is not much good for: driving traffic. While I don't have data on this, it's my sense, anecdotally, that many editors continue to believe that one of the primary goals of the homepage is to guide readers to the articles on the site. I know that's what I long believed. But the evidence -- and here there is data -- suggests the homepage is overvalued as a mechanism for generating visits to interior pages.

Across The Atlantic sites, the fraction of visits that begin on the homepage is surprisingly small. About 13 percent of visits to our flagship TheAtlantic.com start on the homepage. That figure is about 8 percent for The Atlantic Wire and 10 percent for The Atlantic Cities. That means, of course, that roughly 9 in 10 sessions begin on an article page or, much less frequently, a channel or author landing page.

It is the case, of course, that getting promoted to the homepage can give a boost to an article. Just not as much as we might have thought -- and not the way we imagined. In the ongoing cubicle game to puzzle out the Google algorithm, our editors have noticed that a story that gets a big burst of traffic in a short period of time tends to fare better in search returns. The overall number of readers to the piece may not be huge, but if they come to the article within a narrow band of time, that may be enough to affect search returns, even days later. And, naturally, a story that does well in search tends to attract a larger audience.

So here's a traffic lever: a homepage tease can, in certain circumstances, generate a concentrated burst of readers to an article, which can tickle the Google algorithm and improve the story's performance in search. This peculiar bankshot is one way that a story's placement on the homepage can bring substantial traffic.

Still, with 90 percent of visits starting on a page not considered the homepage, one conclusion is obvious: Every page is a homepage. However readers arrive at our site -- from a Yahoo link or a Facebook post or a Google search or a mention on YourMomsBlog -- we need to find ways to keep them there. That means designing article pages to drive the next click: related content headlines, video boxes, most popular modules, most shared modules.

Many sites are good at this, but, paradoxically, being too good can be a problem. I've seen article pages on popular and respected sites with pop-ups, oversized social buttons, and right rails that look like Times Square. Don't forget why the audience came in the first place: to read the article.

For big media companies, all this can be scary. As powerful as the brand may be, it's disconcerting to realize that each article lives out there by itself and has to succeed on its own. This is more true than ever in the atomized world of social media, where the individual post, photo gallery, and infographic is untethered from the brand and shared as an independent unit.

You can post that unit to your home page -- and if it's good, you should. But that's not how readers will find it.



This post also appears at Folio, where Cohn writes a bimonthly column.
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Bob Cohn is the president and chief operating officer of The Atlantic. He was previously the editor of Atlantic Digital, the executive editor of Wired and The Industry Standard, and a writer at Newsweek. More

As The Atlantic's president and chief operating officer, Cohn oversees business and revenue operations for the company’s print, digital, and live-events divisions. He came to the job in March 2014 after five years as the editor of Atlantic Digital, where he built and managed teams at TheAtlantic.comThe Wire, and The Atlantic Cities.

Before coming to The Atlantic, Cohn worked for eight years as the executive editor of Wired, where he helped the magazine find a mainstream following and earn a national reputation. During the dot-com boom, he was the executive editor of The Industry Standard, a newsweekly covering the Internet economy. In the late 1990s, he served as editor and publisher of Stanford magazine. He began his journalism career at Newsweek, where for 10 years he was a correspondent in the Washington bureau, at various times covering the Supreme Court, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Clinton White House.

In 2013, TheAtlantic.com won the National Magazine Award for best website. During Cohn’s tenure at Wired, the magazine was nominated for 11 National Magazine Awards and won six, including honors for general excellence in 2005, 2007, and 2009. As a writer, Cohn won a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association for coverage of the Clarence Thomas confirmation process.

A graduate of Stanford, Cohn has a masters in legal studies from Yale Law School. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and two daughters.

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