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