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.