Is the homepage dead?

Amongst the bits of digital lint that landed in my browser’s belly button last week was an intriguing blogpost which argued that the company homepage is dead, killed off by the rise of social media.

“There is a new Web”, John Brandon argued, “and it’s the Web of social media and links, not the Web of domains and dotcoms”. Businesses need to accept this reality and figure out how to make it work.

And to a certain extent he has a point. The social web has transformed the way consumers find information. It’s been a long time since your actual domain name mattered; Google is everyone’s homepage now. But that simple fact means that your website still matters.

Every page is the homepage

While it’s certainly true that the number of people typing www.yourdomain.com and arriving at your homepage has dropped like a stone, the number of people visiting websites hasn’t. They don’t arrive through the front door anymore, but via search directly to the relevant content.

That means every page on your site is as important as your homepage. So it needs to make the right impression, answer the visitor’s question, guide them through to a specific transaction, or whatever function the content needs to serve. And it has to do all of that quickly as over half of website visitors will spend less than 15 seconds on a site before deciding whether it’s worth engaging with any further.

The actual homepage still matters too. People may not arrive through the front door, but if they’re seeking out more information on your company, chances are they’ll take a look at it. It serves both as a means of navigating to more information, and creating proof that the company is one they’re comfortable doing business with. Just as you’d keep the porch tidy and the front lawn mowed if you were selling your house, you need to keep your homepage up to date if you want to create the impression you’re a thriving business you need your homepage to reflect your brand and narrative with steady flow of relevant content.

Content without context

There is a shift happening in the way people consume content, with a growing proportion of content now read on other platforms. I read the blogpost that inspired me to write this one within Flipboard, for example, rather than on the website that published it.

That shift means your web content needs to be produced and published in such a way that makes it easy to read both on-site and within aggregators — and performs the function you want it to even when stripped of the context your site design and navigation provides. That means thinking carefully about content design, taking into account changing patterns of consumption that the mobile web has created, and of the user needs at the point of consumption.

Why not just put your content on social media?

The article’s author argues companies could skip having a website altogether. If you’re selling widgets, he contends, you’re better served having people go straight through to Amazon to buy them.

But what if you’re not selling widgets? His suggestion that legal or insurance firms looking to attract clients can use Facebook instead seems a little naive, given the awareness-consideration-conversion process that typically precedes a transaction in the world of financial or professional services. Put simply, people just don’t buy such services that way. They seek out information, go away and have a think about it, seek out information from elsewhere, and come back later, with conversion potentially taking place via a different channel (some marketeers call this the Zero Moment of Truth).

If I were looking for a new credit card, for example, I’d start with search, maybe look on a product comparison site, Google around to see if there are large numbers of people complaining about the provider on social media. But I’d also look on the firm’s own site to get authoritative, updated product information, for example on introductory offers, as information on social media or third party sites can often be out of date, or laid out in ways that are difficult to consume or understand.

Of course a brand’s social media presence matters. But web and social aren’t a zero-sum game — being on one doesn’t negate the need to manage content on the other. Quite the opposite; they need to reinforce one another in order to gain the best returns on investment in content.

The rise of the walled garden brings new challenges

One of the arguments for being on social is to extend the reach of content and drive traffic back to your site. But this is shifting as social networks are developing ways to keep users within their ecosystem.

Facebook have long encouraged brands to publish to the platform rather than link out — for example using Facebook native video rather than sharing a YouTube link. They’ve developed this further in the past year with the arrival of Instant Articles, where articles are published to Facebook directly, ostensibly to speed up the user experience. Twitter is said to be getting in on the same game, with a new feature allowing content of up to 10,000 characters said to be coming in the first quarter of this year. While these developments will inevitably impact on the volume of referral traffic, they won’t do away with referrals altogether.

All of which places new and increased demands on digital teams. While the mechanics of publishing have been getting easier every year, the demands for digital expertise have not as the number of channels and touch points continues to grow, as does the competition for eyeballs online. Gaining most value from this increased channel mix means understanding the ways in which people consume content on each platform, and designing it accordingly so that it delivers its intended objective — wherever the audience finds it.

The homepage isn’t dead. It’s multiplied exponentially, and so too has the challenge for those managing digital content to ensure every interaction is as good and well-thought-through as the homepage of old.