No place like home – how people use our website, and what we need to learn

When we look at new designs for websites, it’s common to go straight for the home page. This is the shop window, the first thing people see, our first impression. It’s important to get that right, to set the tone of the experience. Laying everything out clearly so people can find exactly what they need to.

Except, well, it’s not actually what happens.

In the real world, Google is our home page.

We use Google analytics to find out how people are using our website, and after having read and said ‘every page is a landing page’ so many times, I wanted to look at the actual numbers.

Because numbers are convincing.

Sessions graphIn February, 88% of sessions on our website, did not include a single visit to our home page.

Just under 9% started on the home page.

Our home page is the home page in less than 10% of visits.

Not only that, but we can also tell that people who aren’t visiting our home page are probably having a better experience, finding what they need quicker, with less work, how can we tell?

It’s the analytics again.

People who use the home page are 12 times more likely to use search.

We tend to see site search as an indicator of bad content, as it means people can’t find what they are looking for. This isn’t always the case, as sometimes people just prefer to search than navigating through the website, so we probably need to do a bit more research here, but it’s an interesting bit of data.

We can also see that people who don’t use the home page spend half the time and half the pages on their visits. This is probably a good thing for them, as it implies they’re finding what they’re looking for quickly.

We’re making assumptions here, but actually, we can check these assumptions by thinking about our own experience and how it matches with user testing, by us and across the sector.

There’s no place like home (except everywhere else)

We need to remember we’re building all of our web pages to be the first page people look at.

We need to be sure our page titles are precise and particular, and our content is focused enough that people find the right page when they need it. Fancy people call this SEO, or search engine optimisation, I prefer to think of it as good, clear content.

We can’t rely on a good page structure or a clear home page to make our website work, it’s about making every page good. Every page linked to other relevant content. Every page clear and easy to use.

Without being mentioned, this was made really clear in our first beta website designs, which didn’t even include a design for a home page. The home page isn’t the first thing to get right, it’s one of the last.

We can see this in other organisations. The NHS alpha website launched it’s content without a home page, writing:

In NHS Choices, 1.4% of total visits start at the homepage. The vast majority (78.6%) come via search. (Data period: 11/2014 – 11/2015). For a high traffic site like NHS Choices, 1.4% isn’t an insignificant figure as it translates to 8.7million visits. Therefore, the homepage is still relevant, but it’s all the more important to get right what it navigates to first.

Another interesting example is Quartz. They’re a news organisation, and even with digital variants of these, it’s hard to find a sector more obsessed with the front page. Both Reddit and Digg claim to be the front page or home page of the internet. The old newspapers are all clamouring for their home page to be your home page.

But Quartz came along with a new idea (probably the right idea).

Quartz launched without a homepage. If you went to QZ.com, you just went straight to their most popular article at the time. They know that news is being shared directly by people on social media. Why would you want one home page, when you have the home page built by your own personalised stream of recommendations from friends, influencers and interesting people. Everyone is trawling the internet and sharing the best bits. Who has time for a home page, when you have that?

In an interview with Fast Company design Quartz’s executive editor said:

The idea of a strictly traditional homepage that people bookmark to find stories is, we think, outdated. But at the same time, we don’t want to be defeatist about it. There’s still a large number of people coming to the homepage each day. So we’ve asked ourselves, ‘If you start throwing out the old conventions, what can you do instead?’

So they started with nothing, and have iterated new and different home pages since then. (Though I think they were bolder when they went without).

We aren’t a news company, but we can take inspiration from them.

The way social media is disrupting news is similar to the way google has disrupted how we find information.

The key is, it’s not about home pages, it’s about users. We need to put the information exactly where people look for it, rather than trying to push people towards it.

It’s a big job, but we’re up for the challenge.

4 thoughts on “No place like home – how people use our website, and what we need to learn

  1. lizzistanding 4 April 2016 / 8.03 am

    This is a great post and it’s nice to see the facts about it laid out so well. Is there any chance you can share any custom reports you used so we can run something similar on our site?

    • Alex 6 April 2016 / 10.57 am

      To be honest, I just set up four segments (landing page is home page/page includes homepage, and their opposites) and then roamed around audience overview and a few other sections looking for changes. You can see one of the segments here: https://bhccdigital.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/landing-page-segment.png
      There may be a more elegant way of doing this, but it seemed the quickest way to get what I needed.
      Let me know if you need any more detail.

      • lizzistanding 6 April 2016 / 11.51 am

        Thanks Alex, that was really helpful. I have managed to set this up for us and it looks like 80% of our customers don’t use the homepage!

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