November 4, 2015 Last Updated 8:20 am

Home page traffic may be declining, but redesigns may be accelerating the problem

The New York Times appears to be more conservative in their approach, but they may also be more sure of what they are trying to accomplish with their home page design

Website is a lot like fashion: every year or two a new look and philosophy is adopted and many designers get on board the bandwagon and begin redesigning their sites. A look at the websites at Tribune Publishing and Gannett show that their executives have bought into the idea that the home page is dying.

NYT-front-web-820This idea, that the home page is dying, is very popular today. But home page traffic has been declining for longer than many apparently are aware. In 2014, The Atlantic and Quartz declared the homepage dead, at least partially because of new data that showed that traffic had dramatically fallen at sites such as The New York Times. But this issue was well known much earlier as publishers could see that while their overall traffic was on the rise, their home page traffic was falling.

“Sixty percent of our audience is not coming through the homepage, so already the majority is not experiencing the homepage,” Raju Narisetti, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, told <strong>Nieman Lab in 2012.

This trend is easy to see, but what this means for the home page apparently is less clear. For many publishers, it has meant rethinking the look and feel of their home page and introducing a look that is closer in style to article pages.

“The old mantra that every page needs to be a homepage has never been more true,” Atlantic Digital editor Bob Cohn told Nieman Lab in the same article. “People come for the article, and the goal is to give them a clean and interesting reading experience for the article — elegant, not too crowded, some art, a pull quote if the piece is long enough — and beyond that to make sure that we are giving the reader a sense of what else is on our site.”

If this were true, why has the NYT continued to look very much as it did many years ago. Yes, it has changed its home page, but not in its basic look and purpose.

In its much publicized redesign, the NYT stressed its changes mostly to its article pages, as well as the way a reader would discover additional stories.

“Obviously, our website does a lot of things and you needed to make sure that while you move toward an improved experience, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Denise Warren, then executive vice president of digital products at the NYT said at the time (Warren is now at Tribune Publishing.)

The result was that the NYT’s home page remained very much as seen in the past, only a bit cleaner and with more air. But on any particular day, at least a dozen articles can be seen on its home page on a typical desktop monitor.

Contrast that with the Chicago Tribune, where I can see exactly half as many headlines, and much of the page is white space, with a top leaderboard that looks mis-sized for the page.

Gannett’s approach is to use one line headlines to bring more stories to their home page, but the overall look is that of an inexpensive WordPress theme (then once inside the website one is bombarded with pop-ups, autoplay videos and the like, as if Gannett were leading the charge to persuade readers to use ad blockers).

There is certainly room for a great deal of variation from one site to the other. Some websites will want to feature one important story – basically telling their readers that this is what is important for them to read today, right now.

Some publishers believe strongly that their home page design goal is to reflect their brand image. This works especially well with magazines.

Assuming more readers will enter a website on the page of a specific article, what remains the purpose of the home page? That will depend on the publication, but an editor or publisher should understand why that reader landed there to begin with. Were they looking for a specific article? Was it to find what was new? Was it to find a section, such as sports?

The function of the home page has not dramatically changed, even though traffic patterns have. This is why I believe the NYT has appeared to be conservative in their home page redesigns. Maybe they are just more firm in knowing exactly what they are trying to accomplish with it.

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