How The Washingtonian grew homepage traffic by 18 percent

With their traffic increasingly coming from search and social, publishers are feeling freer to take risks with the homepage. So when the Washingtonian redesigned its site in January, it went all in, replacing its old-school homepage with a simplified, newsfeed-like one.

What happened caught them off guard: Four months later, unique visitors to the homepage jumped 18 percent, while the bounce rate declined 30 percent. (Figures are year over year from Google Analytics, Jan. 1-May 10)

Andrew Beaujon, senior editor at the Washingtonian, said the figures were unexpected, given the homepage had become a secondary priority, accounting for just 5.8 percent of the site’s traffic as most people were coming to the site’s article pages by way of search and social. Originally, the main goal was to make the then-cumbersome homepage easier to manage.

What started as a resource-driven approach has ended up validating the power of the homepage.

“When I ran the numbers, I was really surprised,” Beaujon said. “I thought because it was responsive we’d get a little bit of a boost in search results, because a lot of people come to us in search, especially looking for restaurant reviews. The homepage just started going up to No. 1 and staying there.”

The old homepage, above

The newsfeed-style approach also made it look like the Washingtonian had more content, said Patrick Thornton, who shepherded the redesign as head of product (he’s now at CQ Roll Call). “Homepages are for power users,” he said. “Part of the redesign was to say, if this is for power users, we have to give them fresh stuff.”

The Washingtonian may be an outlier among traditional publishers in abandoning the traditional homepage design. Such designs were built on the idea that the more editorial content you show people on the home page, the easier it is to show the breadth of content you have, with the hope that the reader can’t help but find something to click on.

wash 2 inside new
The new homepage

But the simplified, reverse-chronological presentation favored by newer publishers is actually more effective at getting someone to click through to an article, said Andrew Montalenti, chief technology officer at Parsely, an analytics platform for publishers.

Parsely’s data shows that on traditionally designed publisher sites, the best-performing links on the home page only get 20 to 30 percent of the clicks, and the top five performing ones account for 80 percent of the clicks on the page. “These very busy homepages are getting very abysmal rates,” Montalenti said. “Busy homepages are asking users to say ‘no’ to a lot of stuff, with the paradox of choice coming into play. The simpler homepages tend to convert better.”

Traditional publishers may have a valid worry that going to a generic newsfeed style will commodify their homepage, he added. That’s where strong leader positions can help communicate the publisher’s brand.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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