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Great Homepages Really Suck

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Where would we be today without vacuums? Think about it: The vacuum is a brilliant invention. It sucks up your household dirt and puts it exactly where you want it to go – off your floor and into that little bag.

A successful homepage acts exactly like a “digital vacuum” – it sucks users in, away from the homepage, and straight to important content within the rest of the site.

Your site visitors are faced with only two choices once they’re on your homepage: Either they click past the homepage to your site’s secondary pages, or they click the back button and leave your site.

You’d obviously prefer they click past the homepage. But how do you get them to do that?

Pull, Don’t Push

What’s the best way to get users to click deeper into your site? By pulling, rather than pushing.

You’ve probably heard the terms “pull technology” and “push technology.” Our friends at LearnTheNet.com tell us pull technology refers to technology that allows users to pro-actively seek out information, whereas push technology refers to technology that delivers information to users, usually at regular intervals and without the user actively seeking the information.

I use these terms loosely to refer to the way in which a homepage can deliver content to a user. I’ve seen too many homepages that try to push users to other pages on the site by “feeding” them only a few simple links or very brief content.

I’ve also seen a lot of great homepages that successfully pull instead of push. Some of the better ones include the following:

  • 1-800-Flowers.com

  • Handspring.com
  • Fool.com
  • EddieBauer.com
  • Amazon.com
  • REI.com

The developers of these homepages understand how to pull users into important areas within their sites by enabling them to choose from a variety of both links and content. These developers understand that not all users even know what they’re looking for and need a variety of ways to gather information. And they understand that not all users are alike.

Two Kinds of Users

You may argue that the sites I just mentioned have visually “busy” homepages. You’re probably wondering, “Doesn’t that confuse the user?”

Good question. Good answer: not necessarily.

And here’s why: In his book “The Web Content Style Guide,” Gerry McGovern reports a study by the prestigious Palo Alto Research Center, previously named Xerox PARC. The study found that 75 percent of web readers are in “content-gathering” mode, while only 25 percent are searching for a specific document.

Granted, we can’t directly apply those findings to all Web users, since the study referred only to Web “readers.” But a loose application of the study’s findings shows why the Web sites mentioned earlier have so much content on their homepages. Yes, some users may be searching for specific products or information. But a larger majority may just be browsing for content.

These findings are harmonious with Jakob Nielsen’s argument that there are two kinds of users: those who search and those who browse.

A homepage that has only four links is definitely easy to navigate for those who search but does nothing for those who browse in content-gathering mode. Not only that, but users are forced to choose from pre-categorized links such as Products, Company Info, etc., when they may not even know what they’re looking for.

For example, take a look at the homepage for RentStinks.com, the Website for a local homebuilder here in Utah:

Really easy to navigate, right? Just pick a link and go.

However, put yourself in the place of someone visiting the site: Suppose you’re a first-time homebuyer (which happens to be the site’s target audience). You’re probably in content-gathering mode. Perhaps you’re looking for a three-bedroom, two-story home.

But is that all you’re looking for? What about the location of the home? The amenities? Do you even know what a “rambler” is? (Confession: I didn’t when we began searching for our first home.) Or perhaps you’re not sure what to look for in a home, or even why you should choose one homebuilder over another.

Therefore, when you put yourself in the shoes of the user, the homepage for RentStinks.com then becomes less and less helpful. It attempts to push you to Floor Plans, Communities, and so on, rather than pull you to the page that contains 20 convincing testimonials from satisfied customers or to the page that talks about Category 5 network wiring being a standard feature on all homes. What’s worse is it does all of this without showing hardly any pictures of its homes.

Creating a Homepage that “Sucks”

It’s easier than you think to create a homepage that draws users in. Take these three ideas for a test drive on your own site:

Bottom-Up Development

Perhaps the hardest obstacle to overcome is changing the way you mentally and physically approach the development of a homepage. Most developers start at the top and work their way down, creating all of the content and design for the homepage first and then trying to push users to other pages on the site.

To create a homepage that pulls, you need to develop from the bottom up, creating content for the secondary pages first. Then determine which of these pages should be emphasized and where to place appropriate links, images, and content on your site’s homepage.

Stephen Covey’s maxim “begin with the end in mind” is well suited for bottom-up Web site development. Determine the final pages on which your visitors should land, and emphasize those pages on your homepage.

Link Wording

What? You’ve already created your homepage? No problem. An easy fix: Try adding links or even rewording existing ones.

A couple examples:

- Instead of About Us, try

Find out why we’ve been in business for nearly 50 years

- Instead of Products, try

Let us show you how Product X can improve your health tremendously!

I’m not suggesting you rid your site of the About Us or Products links. I’m simply suggesting you add other links that may point to the same page or category of pages, but that are more successful at pulling users rather than pushing them.

Don’t Just Say It, Show It!

As obvious as it may seem, don’t just bore your site visitors with endless lines of text. Give them plenty of visual flavors to enjoy. If you sell homes, show floor plans and amenities on your homepage. If you offer Web development services, show some of your work on your homepage. You can rest assured a picture will often be understood more quickly than a sentence will.

What if RentStinks.com applied these three principles and restructured its homepage? It could end up something like this:

Finally, Don’t Forget Targeted Content

Is emphasizing a few important secondary pages and rewording a few links enough to create a homepage that “sucks”? What if your site visitors find the homepage content to be completely useless?

BlueLight.com, Kmart’s former Web site, faced this beastly problem. A study conducted by the site’s research team revealed a startling fact: Nearly 50 percent of the site visitors left before ever clicking past the homepage! Despite the fact that BlueLight’s homepage had sufficient links and content, the available information was apparently of no use to half of the visitors.

How did BlueLight.com correct the problem? They created eight targeted homepages, each of which was displayed based on the visitor’s preferences. When visitors returned to the site, they not only saw a variety of content but targeted content, as well.

Take a look at your site’s statistics and you may see the same thing BlueLight.com saw. If you don’t remember anything else in this article, remember this: Never assume your visitors will click past the homepage. They’ve arrived at your site somehow and for some reason. Now give them several compelling choices to encourage them to click further into the site before they have a chance to click the back button.

Does this article cover everything you need to know to create a homepage that pulls? Of course not. But it’s a start. Try a few of these suggestions and you’ll be well on your way to creating a great homepage that really “sucks.”

Bibliography and Additional Reading

The following resources were used in the compilation of this article:

Content Must Suck: Pulling Users In with Jared Spool
http://www.webreview.com/2000/06_09/developers/06_09_002d.shtml

Learn The Net
http://www.learnthenet.com

RentStinks.com (current Website)
http://www.rentstinks.com

Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab
http://captology.stanford.edu

The Web Content Style Guide, Gerry McGovern
http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/guide_design_3.htm

UseIt.com, Jakob Nielsen
http://www.useit.com

User Interface Engineering, Jared Spool
http://www.uie.com

Cameron Moll is the Creative Director for IDI,
a publicly traded Web applications provider specializing in the network
marketing and direct sales industries. He also co-owns a freelance web
development company, oddly named HashMedia.
Cameron’s award-winning work includes such clients as Tupperware Corporation
and Brigham Young University. Proud of the fact that his personal website is
quite boring, Cameron encourages you to bore yourself at
http://www.cameronmoll.com or by email at
bored@cameronmoll.com.

Great Homepages Really Suck
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About Cameron Moll
Cameron Moll is the Creative Director for IDI, a publicly traded Web applications provider specializing in the network marketing and direct sales industries. He also co-owns a freelance web development company, oddly named HashMedia. Cameron's award-winning work includes such clients as Tupperware Corporation and Brigham Young University. Proud of the fact that his personal website is quite boring, Cameron encourages you to bore yourself at http://www.cameronmoll.com or by email at bored@cameronmoll.com. WebProNews Writer
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