The Article Page: New Kingpin of Online News?

By: Steve Outing It's a trend that's been a long time in coming: More and more people bypass news Web sites' home and section pages, instead entering a site at the article-page (or "inside-page") level.

The home page -- where Web designers and editors have for so long poured so much of their effort -- is no longer the be-all, end-all. You have to pay serious attention to the home page, of course, but equally important these days is the template used for article pages.

Indeed, it may be that the best approach is to create an article-page template that serves as a sort of secondary home page. Assume that more than half of the people who see something on your site will not see its home page. At the article level, give them enough choices to guide them to other important content elsewhere on the site.

It's come to this

Has it really come to the point where significant numbers of people who visit news sites bypass the home page? Well, listen to the experience of the The Globe & Mail, Canada's national newspaper. According to its Web site's editor, Angus Frame, 41% of visits now begin on non-hub pages (that is, all but the home page and section pages such as Sports, Business, etc.). These are site visitors who come to article pages via search engines, news aggregators (like Google News), RSS feeds, news alerts, e-mail newsletters, notes from friends, and the like.

Other news sites report similar user behavior., the Web site of the Christian Science Monitor, tracks only 23% of its visitors' sessions coming in via the home page, with the rest entering at the article level or other page. The Monitor's Joel Abrams notes that "a shockingly high percentage of those sessions that start on a story end on that story." He says, "For an upcoming redesign, we're putting a lot of thought into [article-page design]. The Monitor, like other news sites, is trying to recognize that other editors -- and algorithms -- have become the gatekeepers to our reporting."

At the Web site of Spokane, Wash.'s Spokesman-Review, the home page brought in only 24% of all site visitors in the most recent seven-day period. Online publisher Ken Sands says there were 1,640 different entrance pages during that time -- although 90% came through the top 100 pages. "I'm astounded that there were that many entrance pages," he says.

Some sites report higher home-page usage. The Arizona Daily Star's site in Tucson estimates that about 40% of site traffic comes through the home page. The Web site of the Salt Lake Tribune on a recent day found that 62% of visitors were entering through its home page, according to news editor Manny Mellor. Perhaps that site's content isn't as widely referenced on news search engines as other news sites; or there may be other factors at play.

Let's fix it

At the Globe and Mail, Frame and his crew, to their credit, recognized that these stats indicated a problem in need of a solution. "Readers who went straight to a story page had no idea how much was available on," he says. "They only saw one story and then had no reason to stick around."

A few years ago, publishers might have taken the approach of trying to change consumer behavior to attack the "problem." You may recall a few lawsuits where some news publishers tried to prohibit "deep linking" to articles beyond the home page. That was a dumb idea (well, at least in my view), and for the most part prohibitions against deep linking were nixed by the courts. The trends pretty clearly indicated that traffic coming to inside pages would continue to grow and would make the home page less important.

Instead,'s managers decided last year to "improve the story-page experience." Explains Frame, "We allowed readers to change the size of the text to suit their needs, we improved the headline font, we removed the left-rail navigation to give the story some breathing room, and we added valuable, informative links to the right-hand side of the story in a fairly wide column. We turned every story into a mini hub."

Here's an example of a article page.

Right-side-of-page content that's now likely to be featured on a article page (beyond the article itself):

? A photo (which sometimes can be enlarged by clicking on it).
? Links to photo galleries related to the story.
? Links to stories related to the main article.
? Links to interactive features and/or other sites that are related to the article.
? Links to columns by columnists who write for the same section as the article is in.
? Links to top current stories from the same section (National, Sports, etc.).
? Links to the top story from other sections.

While not repeating the home page, the article-page scheme does duplicate in part the function of the section page.

So, did this design change make much of a difference? Frame reports: "Literally overnight daily page-views increased by more than 25%, from about 2.3 million pageviews a day to 3.0 million pageviews a day. That works out to about one extra pageview for each daily unique visitor to the site.

"It just goes to show," he says, "that small changes can make a big and immediate difference."

How far should you go?

I'm not sure I need much more convincing than that to buy into the idea that many news sites' article pages need to be redesigned. Take a quick tour of article links found on Google News, for example, and you'll find that the majority of news sites offer little on article pages beyond some basic navigation to other sections of the sites. There's clearly room for improvement.

If we can all agree that there's a strong need to guide visitors beyond the initial story they came to read, then how far do we need to go? Within the news-site industry, there's plenty of variation.

The spartan approach.

A common article-page template provides a limited number of links to other content. A article page, for example, includes as a sidebar box a list of "Most E-mailed Stories" from the site, plus two lists of top international stories and top stories placed at the end of the article. An article page includes only two lists of headlines at the bottom of the page, for "More Headlines" and "Most Sent Headlines." Those examples include space-efficient site navigation, as well.

With home-page visits at most news sites coming in at between 25% and 50% of total vists, I don't think those approaches are sufficient. There's not enough there to entice article readers to explore elsewhere on the site. Should those sites adopt an article-page template similar to's, they well might see similar traffic gains site-wide.

A smart, middle-ground approach.

Increasingly, news sites are making their article pages busier -- including links to a fairly wide range of content that's related to the article being read. The thinking is not to repeat the entire home page, or have a condensed version of it, on article pages, but rather to offer a wide variety of link options to content that relates to the article itself or the section the article sits in.

An example of that is On its typical article page, you'll find that the article is just one component of a very busy page. In the right column are headline-blurb descriptions of articles and columns in the same general topic area as the article being read and lists of blogs on the site.

In addition, articles include a bunch of commercial links at the end of stories -- to webcasts, white papers, sponsored reports, and sponsored links. That's a good reminder that relevant commercial content can and should be promoted on article pages, not just on the home page.

CNET's also does a decent job with article pages (example), using a fairly large right column next to the article to include links to other content on the site: blogs, top picks from readers, most popular headlines, and latest headlines. At the end of the article are links to stories related to the article, related white papers, and related videos.

Online news industry observer Terry Steichen offers a credible justification for focusing article-page link offerings on content contextually relevant to the article being read: "Your viewers landed on your article page because of some interest of theirs that the article reference triggered. What you should try to do is leverage that specific interest. One way, and perhaps the best way, to do that is to include links to similar articles and/or links to relevant supplemental background information."

I tend to favor a healthy and abundant mix of contextual and overall links to content elsewhere on a site. If article pages are to become more crowded as they take on the role that the home page once played, then so be it.

The home page, repeated.

At the other extreme is taking the article page and turning it into a pseudo-home page. Yes, some news sites do this, putting most or even all of the content on the home page onto each article page -- using the left and right columns for some content, but putting most of it at the end of an article. (Scroll down below the last paragraph of articles on such sites and you'll see what's pretty much a repeat of the home page.)

This concept is demonstrated at the website of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, which repeats most of its home page on article pages. And perhaps it's a trend in Scandinavia, since Sweden's Aftonbladet does the same thing with its article pages.

JP Web editor J?rgen Schultz-Nielsen says the change to this form of article page was made last year with the intent of not requiring site users to click back to the home page or a section page in order to see the rest of the content on the site. While he doesn't have figures that break down usage of the home page versus the navigation content repeated on article pages, he believes it's "the right way to do it."

The disadvantage to this approach to article pages is that the pages can get pretty big -- and load slowly for those Internet users on slow connections. For the JP website it is possible to take this approach, says Schultz-Nielsen, because "here in Denmark almost everybody has a broadband connection."

Another disadvantage is that when people go to print out an article page, they'll get a pile of unwanted extra pages; ergo, such an approach does require a printer-friendly option be offered and that it be highly visible.

One approach that might work for repeating most or all home-page content is to condense it, for example by using hidden text that appears when the user moves his/her mouse over something. Top headlines, for example, might be a small "Top Headlines" box that expands to reveal headlines, blurbs and links on mouseover.

Some Web editors will object to the notion of repeating home-page content on article pages because of its repetitive nature; a site user who came to an article from the home page may become annoyed at the repetition. A possible solution to that is to detect where a user is coming in from: If it's from the site's home page or another page, a simple article page can be displayed that contains less navigation content; if it's from another website or search engine, the busy article page with home-page content included can be displayed.

In any event, there are plenty of options for addressing the problem of article pages that don't lead visitors to the rest of a website -- and increasing overall site traffic by fixing it. The first step is to admit that your site may have a problem.


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