Digital Publishing: The Death of the Homepage Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

By: Rob Tornoe
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For a second there, many of the smartest individuals in the news business seemed to buy into the great “Death of the Homepage” scare of 2014.

Mostly attributed to the revelation of plummeting homepage traffic numbers at the New York Times in the newspaper’s now famous Innovation report, experts like Quartz’s Zach Seward quickly proclaimed “the social web has won” and that the future was an endless stream of “side door” traffic coming in from websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Luckily for all of us, editors and product managers came to their senses before every major metropolitan newspaper in the country turned their homepage into the equivalent of an RSS feed.

The homepage of 2016 isn’t the homepage of 2006, the heady days before social media companies would disrupt how journalists view their relationship with readers. These days, an increasing percentage of traffic comes from outside sources such as Google and Facebook, while on average just 15 percent of referrals come directly from the homepage.

Then why is your homepage strategy more important than ever?

For starters, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t plucking stories from your website and sharing them on Facebook. Every publication has a group of devoted users that are committed to your homepage, and find stories there to share with other readers. Those readers in turn share it with other readers, and before you know it a story becomes a social media hit without any analytics to show how important a role the homepage played in driving traffic.

In fact, the amount of homepage play a story receives plays a large role in its potential to go viral. According to a new report by Parse.ly, a popular analytics firm that tracks data for a number of high-profile media websites, there is a clear relationship between the number of homepage referrals an article receives and how well it performs across social media.

“Homepage traffic is often required for stories to go viral in the hours after publication,” a spokesperson said, noting that the homepage is among the most effective and reliable “seed” sources for social media users.

In that way, a strong homepage strategy also helps protect an organization from the constantly-changing priorities of sites like Facebook. Yes, social media is vital to a website’s success, but it’s important not to put all your traffic (and the future of your organization) in the hands of these sites.

All this points to the idea that the homepage for a news organization plays a much different role than the front page of a newspaper, where story placement is determined by the news judgement and values of editors. Think of it more as the cover of a magazine, offering the overall vibe of the editorial product and a glimpse at some stories without pointing to them all directly.

“The front page is our branding opportunity. It’s a rebranding opportunity, too, a way to demonstrate intelligence, taste and—yes, snicker away!—even beauty,” said Gawker CEO Nick Denton, who is constantly tinkering with the look and feel of his popular websites.

In a way, the diversification of traffic sources to media websites should make it easier for news organizations to experiment with their home pages and make bold statements about what their newsroom is all about, and stake out their place in the town, state, region or the world.

Maybe that’s why over the past year several high-profile news organizations rolled out new homepages, not surprising given the hyper-competitive market online news gathers find themselves in. What does stand out is how each homepage makeover and tweak tells us a little bit about what their newsrooms values.

In July, editors at ABC News unveiled a redesigned homepage (as well as new Apple and Android mobile apps) with an emphasis on video consumption. Users can now watch video directly inline on the homepage, which they say has led to an increase video plays, especially on mobile.

“You can’t design products in a vacuum,” Colby Smith, ABC’s vice president of digital, told NiemanLab. “You have to have the product reflect the content strategy, and you have to have the content strategy reflect the vision for the products. They have to be tackled together.”

For some news organizations, that strategy involves redesigning the homepage to help drive more traffic to stories. The Washingtonian grew its homepage traffic by 18 percent after pairing down its cumbersome homepage and installing a newsfeed-style approach.

“Homepages are for power users,” former Washingtonian senior editor Andrew Beaujon, now at CQ Roll Call, told Digiday. “Part of the redesign was to say, if this is for power users, we have to give them fresh stuff.”

Even at the New York Times, where the “homepage is dead” cry originated, the devotion to the front page is just as strong today as it was when the site first launched way back in 1996.

At the Times, the current strategy is the growth of digital subscriptions, and a heavily-curated homepage managed around the clock by assignment and digital editors plays a huge role in getting users to pony up.

“When there’s a major breaking news event, whether it’s the Paris attacks or the San Bernardino shooting in California, we get a flood of readers who come to our homepage directly,” Clifford Levy, assistant masthead editor at the New York Times, who oversees the title’s digital platforms, told Journalism.co.uk.

The philosophy at the Times, especially for new readers who come to the site through social media or search engines, is to get people “to do one more thing.” So editors developed a popular scrolling slot on their homepage for daily briefings that sum up the most important stories twice daily—in the morning between 6 a.m. and noon EST, and during the evening between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. It has quickly become a staple for readers and as a result led to an uptick in homepage traffic.

“People know they can always come to it and this is another example of how we are always thinking about ‘what is the native expression of the New York Times on digital’, as opposed to ‘what is the print expression of the New York Times on digital,’” Wells said.

Then there’s Quartz, which in 2014 barely had a homepage at all, has refreshed its landing page to feature more content and native ad placements. The goal isn’t necessarily to grow homepage traffic, which has reportedly remained steady at 10-15 percent of traffic. Instead, Quartz wants to use its beefed-up homepage boost return visits and loyalty with the readers that already use it.

Seward summed up the change (and the newfound importance of the homepage) to NiemanLab’s Joseph Lichterman about as perfectly as anyone could.

“If you don’t build a homepage for people to go to, they’re not going to come to it.”

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

Published: September 21, 2016

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