Philadelphia Online Goes on a Home Page Diet

By: Steve Outing Long, scrolling news Web site home pages are generally acknowledged by Web usability experts to be not a good thing. Web users, in general, tend to browse more than read, and it's the minority of Web users who are willing to scroll down beyond the first screen to view content on a long, scrolling page.

That described the home page of Philadelphia Online for the last 2-1/2 years. The Web site for Knight Ridder's Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer newspapers often contained up to dozens of items and links and required a Web visitor to scroll several times to get to the bottom of the page. The site debuted a new home page design on June 15, and it has abandoned the old way of doing things in favor of a compact, one-screen design that better serves the reading habits of Web users.

It's an interesting move in light of my column earlier this week about news sites that are redesigning themselves with more of a "newspaper on the Web" mentality, a trend noted by newspaper and Web design guru Mario Garcia. An example of that is the Boston Globe's site, which in April abandoned its single-screen entry point in favor of a long, scrolling home page that features headlines and text summaries of numerous news articles and other site features.

The contrarians

"It seems we've zigged when others have zagged," says Philadelphia Online's managing editor, John McQuiggan. "We've long wanted to simplify our long, scrolling home page, which at its worst offered readers nearly 80 links to various stories, sections, features, ads, people and services. Talk about brainglut."

General manager Fred Mann explains that the site has gotten good growth over the years, but he felt that the slowness of the home page to load -- because of all its content, icons and graphics -- was limiting the audience the site was getting. "We wanted to speed it up" yet still offer navigation to all the content that's on the site, he says.

Evidence of a problem with the old design was high usage of the site's "Search" feature. Site visitors couldn't find what they wanted quickly, so they typed in what they were looking for and ran a search. That does not indicate a user-friendly navigation scheme.

The new home page fits on a single screen, no scrolling required (unless you're viewing it on a laptop or small screen), and features a dominant news story or feature of the day -- often from the newspapers, with links to coverage from both the Daily News and Inquirer. Below the main item are text lines to other major stories in sports, business, etc. On the right side of the screen is a graphical promotion for a feature, typically. The main navigation device is a 3-line, horizontal grouping of buttons linking to various sections of the site (News, Weather, TV Grid, Yellow Pages, etc.). Banner ads run vertically down the left side.

Traffic boost

Mann says that the new design seems to be a success, albeit a controversial one. In the two weeks since launching the redesign, average daily page views have increased by about 50,000, bringing the site up to a typical daily page view count of around 600,000. Considering the launch was in the summer, when Web site traffic tends to decline typically, he thinks that's a good sign. Why would this be so other than the novelty factor, as people check out the new design? Mann thinks it's because more people are finding what they want on the site and not being deterred by a slow-loading page that previously had people skittering off to other sites in frustration.

The old design also was more in the "newspaper on the Web" model. But "it's clear to me that if are going to succeed, we need to be more than just the newspaper online," says Mann. Focus groups and anecdotal evidence have shown that most consumers view Philadelphia Online as the online equivalent of the newspaper, he says, so the redesign is partly an attempt to say, "we are more than just the newspaper online."

Says McQuiggan, "I have to agree with Mario Garcia that less scrolling is the way of the future, and that sharp, tight display type is extremely important in this medium."

Response to the new design from the public has been mostly positive. Mann says 75-80% of the e-mail feedback is in favor of the redesign. Where it's less popular is in the newsrooms of the two newspapers. Reporters and editors are complaining that their stories are getting less play on the Web, now that they no longer have headlines, text blurbs and direct links on Philadelphia Online's home page. Mann says he's been visiting the newsrooms trying to sell the staffs on the benefits of the new look and explaining how it is better serving Web readers and increasing overall traffic.

Regional 'portal' strategy

Philadelphia Online in the coming days also will launch a new regional Web search and directory service, called PhillyFinder. It's basically a Yahoo!-like directory and search service covering the Philadelphia region. A search for "swimming lessons," for example, would turn up only those in the local area that are listed on regional Web sites. The Philadelphia Online staff also has catalogued about 300 regional Web sites and created a Yahoo!-like directory structure.

Mann says the goal is to make the site more of a "portal" and obviate the need for local users to go to Yahoo! or other national search/directory site when they are looking for something local on the Web. PhillyFinder's advantage will be that it returns information that's specific to the region, minus the extraneous results that a search of a national service will turn up.

While "spiders" are being used to keep the listings up to date, Mann says the service will require some human maintenance, and a couple people will be assigned to the task of maintenance and growing the directory beyond the initial 300 local sites. He says that creating the service with the first 300 Philadelphia area Web sites catalogued turned out to be easily manageable. The idea was to start out with a number that could be accomplished without putting too many staffers to work on launching the service.

The service is expected to go public today or Monday, with a "hard launch" scheduled for sometime in July. Serious promotion of PhillyFinder may not begin till the fall, when online usage tends to pick up after the hot summer months. Mann says that in-print advertising is likely to be supplemented by other external promotion, though details haven't been worked out yet.

PhillyFinder is homegrown technology created by Philadelphia Online's programming staff, utilizing Microsoft tools. The service was done independently from Knight Ridder's corporate new media operation in San Jose, California. It's possible that the technology might be later utilized at other Knight Ridder newspaper sites. The company's Kansas City Star also is adopting a similar local search/directory service strategy.

Contact: Fred Mann,
John McQuiggan,


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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