The role of design in creating one of the largest media groups

Today, Spider’s Web is the most significant tech-lifestyle website in Poland and a part of a huge media group. But before that, it was just a mere blog, which nobody had heard about. A couple of years later everything has changed and I am proud I’ve been taking part in it.

Ever since my first days with Spider’s Web, and the internet in general, my paths have been crossing somewhere between design, management, and SEO. Unfortunately, I’ve never dedicated myself to one of those fields specifically, which was a mistake.

To be honest, I had been kind of a famewhore. I’d dreamt about success. In theory, I’d known how to achieve it, but I’d soon learned that reality of building my own products and running my own company looks nothing like what books and professional publication said.

I’d wanted to build a business, but with age and experience, I came to a conclusion that I’m far better at accompanying someone else in his endeavors, than pursuing my own. I’d made a lot of mistakes along the way, but today I like to think of myself as being for Spider’s Web what Johny Ive is for Apple. A design mastermind behind a product.

When I started working on this project 8 years ago, it didn’t even cross my mind to design anything with the end user in mind.

The project was supposed to be made to mine and my client’s taste. Therefore, first challenges were not all that difficult, but — as it turned out — they didn’t stand the test of time.

At first, the website wasn’t popular enough to create any sort of technical difficulties. Everything started to get more and more complicated in the following months. Along with a rapid user growth, we also reached more partners and expanded our editorial team. It was no longer enough to satisfy my own taste. We had to make the website work not only for readers, but for editors and partners as well.

Simultaneously, we started growing the business side of Spider’s Web, which imposed on us another set of demands and changes.

One of the most critical solutions, regarding the business side of things, was implementing a unique system of special widgets.

It was a brand new way of promoting articles on the homepage, which both we and our partners grew very fond of.

With the introduction of widgets, we saw a growth in statistics and reader’s engagement. Soon afterward we noticed that our solution is being copied left and right by other websites, which — just as we did — were using it to promote commercial projects on their homepages. To this day widgets remain popular, as they greatly harmonize with contents of websites.

In the meantime, another challenge came our way — popularization of the mobile internet.

Like everybody else, we started with responsive web design. Unfortunately, one of the traits of RWD is “shrinking” desktop elements, so that they can we displayed on top of each other on smartphones. It was alright for the time being, but in the end, it started to badly impact user’s behavior and average time spent on the website.

So we decided to use sliders in the mobile version of the website. It changed perspective and improved the results. We also introduced a number of new elements, along with the aforementioned widgets. The entire website was also optimized so that it remained fast and stable throughout its rapid growth.

And everything was working well, until “mobile first” came forth and forever changed the perception of the internet globally.

Even at that point in time, 70% of our traffic came from mobile, so we had to make sure that user experience was identical on every platform.

It wasn’t a big issue with the latest additions to Spider’s Web media group (Bezprawnik.pl and Autoblog.pl), as they’d already been created with “mobile first” in mind. The real challenge lied in the original website — Spidersweb.pl.

There was a couple of issues we had to deal with.

Issue #1: small number of page views in relation to the number of users

It took us a long time to figure out a way to increase the number of page views on the website. Changes made within internal linking were not performing as expected. All sorts of widgets located alongside articles on the website were converting neither to longer visits nor to an increased number of page views.

The best solution to this issue we found was displaying a couple of articles on top of each other. When a user finishes reading one article from given category, another unfolds below it. And then another one. Such a solution allowed us to rapidly expand our user base to over 1,5 million page views month to month.

In the following months, this new mechanism generated even more page views, reaching over 2 million. Additional improvements, such as optimization of Google Analytics code regarding Real Bounce Rate and visual changes in the mechanism (added information and the ability to click-through to another article) reduced website’s bounce rate from over 70% to 35%.

Issue #2: inconsistent navigation

For every website, which had to adapt to this new mobile reality, a huge issue was (and still is) adjusting navigation, so that users won’t feel overwhelmed with the overabundance of news and information coming in from various channels.

This was a great challenge for us, and to be honest, it is still an ongoing process. We’ve tried many different solutions, including a hamburger menu, but just as it wasn’t perfect on other websites, it was not perfect on ours.

We decided then to simplify not the navigation in itself, but rather the operation of the entire website.

Highlighted articles, as well as the ones with ‘hot topic’ label, were located in the form of a slider on mobile. A chaotic layout of the homepage was simplified as well. We’ve also added headlines, informing readers about which part of the page they’re currently at.

We had to wait for a long time to see the results of this effort.

Only after a couple of weeks, we noticed an increase in the statistics, but it wasn’t the change we were most happy about. The most important change came from silencing some readers, who had been telling us that our website is unreadable. After the changes came forth, those voices disappeared. Moreover, the overall time spent on the website increased.

Issue #3: image scaling and cropping

Yet another challenge was to make images display and scale properly on every device. This problem seemed banal, but with our ever-growing editorial team and different shooting styles of editors, it was difficult to maintain uniform compositions of the photographs.

Improper cropping of press materials (or our own, for that matter) resulted in lower-res photos being randomly cut. Unfortunately, the previous incorporation of titles being displayed atop images greatly limited our possibilities to fix the matter.

This is why we dropped a grid layout in favor of images being displayed above the titles. Effects? Readers stopped commenting on badly cropped photos, support team stopped receiving as many inquiries regarding this topic, and our editorial team was allowed to work faster and smoother.

But that’s not all. Since making changes, we saw a great increase in new users coming to our website — according to Google Analytics, ranging from 300 to 600 thousand new users per month.

Issue #4: evolving from a blog to a professional tech-lifestyle website

In order for Spider’s Web to be perceived as more professional, we did a number of things. First and foremost, we’ve increased the quality of published material. Hard work of our editors resulted in better articles and photos.

On my part lied necessary changes in the presentation of these materials, with emphasis on a better exposition of photos.

To achieve that, I suggested expanding the photos, so that they would stretch beyond the column, as well as greatly increasing the size of photographs in premium articles. Those changes were approved immediately by our staff.

The goal here wasn’t really to increase traffic, but to alter website’s perception amongst users and partners.

As a cherry on top of those visual changes, we’ve also improved the presentation of long-form articles. Long reads had to obtain a place, in which they would be properly exposed. And so we created a ‘premium’ section, which got its own color scheme and became a separate, now greatly popular part of the website.

Another element, which has become a staple of Spider’s Web over time (and which was copied by competing websites soon after) was a widget, promoting current events. On the widget, we group articles, videos and live coverage so that readers looking for information on a given topic — eg. new iPhone — are being served essential informations on a silver platter.

Ever since the introduction of this element, we’ve reached over 100 thousand page views within the live blogs promoted by the live module.

Issue #5: increasing interaction

Alongside the increased traffic, we had to improve interactions on the website. To fix this problem, I incorporated a number of changes.

One of them was adding an extra description below a title on the homepage. A small change in theory, but in practice it turned out that shorter titles with descriptions underneath perform better than long-winded titles — because users are actually more eager to click them. Additional description granted editors greater flexibility when it comes to providing a context of an article and therefore, encourage readers to click the title.

We’ve also introduced interaction bars, which to this date have a huge impact on users engagement.

Exchanging social media buttons for interaction bars was one of the best ideas we deployed.

How exactly does it work? Well, instead of displaying buttons for each social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) we focused on one platform, in which we felt strongest. So we bet on Facebook and our internal comment system. Instead of showing a number of shares from Facebook and a number of comments separately, we merged them into one meter.

Issue #6: traffic diversification

Depending on one source of communication to drive traffic (in the case of Spider’s Web, it’s Google) is a mistake. Therefore, as part of our expansion strategy, we needed to consider broadening our reach on other channels.

One of them was Facebook, which required the greatest attention. Spider’s Web profile had been far behind competitors, not only in terms of reachability but also in numbers of fans.

Thanks to aforementioned interaction changes, we made one step towards increasing this channel’s reach. The second step was to significantly increase the number of new followers. We’d tried pop-ups and ‘like’ buttons placed beside logo on the website, but they hadn’t performed well. Users didn’t like the displayed pop-up, and linking to Facebook in several places was not effective.

What finally worked was a simplified Facebook widget. We engaged a Facebook module, encouraging readers to like our profile. It wasn’t a standard widget, though, but graphically simplified element with ‘like’ button and avatars of friends, who’d already followed the profile.

It turned out to be a wonderful cure for poor social media reach.

Combination of the new widget with the interaction system resulted in an enormous increase of user’s engagement in Spider’s Web community. Starting from a 20 thousand likes threshold, we’ve managed to outrun our most significant competitors, and the number of interactions on the website increased by over 140%.

Issue #7: low conversion

As a website heavily basing its revenue on content marketing, low conversion rate is an issue. Internal linking and a couple of other small changes increased the conversion rate on the website itself. What remained, was the topic of external linking.

Fortunately, the solution here turned out to be very simple. Instead of a traditional hover, we’ve implemented underlined links, animated whenever a user hovers a cursor over a link. In return, we’ve been seeing CTR growing — depending on a campaign — sometimes by over a dozen percent.

Spider’s Web turned into a hub for the entire media group

After several years of operation as a lone being, spidersweb.pl became a hub for all of its channels. The homepage has started to include YouTube videos and links to Bezprawnik.pl, Autoblog.pl and SW Rozrywka. Every outlet gained an individual character while still remaining visually compliant with the general UI of the website.

All the changes described in this article continue to result in a constant growth of both traffic and revenue. Today, Spider’s Web reaches over 5 million users, ranking amongst the most popular websites in Poland.