A friend of mine who is a Web editor at a political publication recently complained to me that his outlet’s clunky CMS made updating the homepage difficult, and he was worried this was hurting traffic to the top pieces of the day. I laughed at him! He couldn’t tell, because it was over Gchat, but I did. But then I typed a reassuring reply.
See, print-nostalgic editors (and even some editors who have only worked in digital media) take a certain amount of solace in the homepage. Online, it can feel like one of the only venues where editorial decision-making is visible at a glance (unlike newspapers, where the editor’s hand is in evidence on every page). As editorial agendas have become complicated with new concerns, like tweets and shares and clicks on individual stories, there remains a surprising amount of energy expended on the homepage. But as more and more traffic comes from search and social, the homepage as the entryway into a site’s content is increasingly obsolete.
Some stats: Last year, Nieman Lab detailed just how much traffic was coming to major news sites “through the side door”—aka article pages. Less than half of visits to nytimes.com start on the homepage. More than half of Buzzfeed’s visitors come from search and social. And a mere 12 percent of visits to The Atlantic start with the homepage.
Out of our system? Great. So… what next?
Zach Seward, a senior editor at Quartz, Atlantic Media’s newish business publication, told me that he instructs contributors to write each piece as if every reader has little-to-no context and isn’t coming from the homepage. Here’s how he put it in an email to me:
We tell our writers at Quartz to assume every post stands on its own and starts with an audience of zero. It has to earn its own audience out on the social web. That’s a challenge but a fun one, and it produces really strong material that readers like.
This is probably even more relevant to a startup like Quartz that’s still building an audience, but given the statistics about where visitors tend to come from, it’s probably a bit of advice that other writers and editors could heed. Seward continued,
We’re thrilled if people visit us through the front door, by typing in qz.com, but we know that most everyone will come through the back door. The site design also reflects that: the “homepage” drops you right into our top story and looks just like any article page.
The most high-profile attempt to turn article pages into homepages of their own was Gawker media’s much-maligned redesign in 2011. Readers (and other journalists) said they hated it, but it didn’t drive away visitors. At the time, Gawker CEO Nick Denton wrote, “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.”
And this, really, is the future of the homepage. It’s a brand billboard, not a way of funneling traffic. It’s gone from something like a newspaper’s A1—a glimpse of and portal to the day’s top content—and become more like a magazine cover, providing a tease and a hint at the editorial project, but not a direct path to stories themselves. (This analogy is admittedly imperfect. And let’s leave teasing and often misleading page references on the covers of women’s glossies out of this.) For a majority of readers, who come in through the side door and then pare back the URL or click on the publication’s logo, the modern homepage conveys what this news outlet is all about, but little else. It’s still valuable. It’s just not as important to the business model or editorial project. And the sooner editors come to grips with that, the better.