Why nobody clicks on your home page links

During my last trip to Boston, I asked a friend: "When is the last time you picked up the Boston Globe and read it cover to cover, every story?"

He starred at me blankly, not comprehending the question.

It was a stupid question, because pretty much nobody ever reads a newspaper cover to cover, not even a small newspaper.

We all read a newspaper the same way — we scan, looking for interesting headlines, skimming the leads, looking for something interesting.

Once we find something interesting, we will start to read and maybe even follow the story past the jump, but the vast majority of headlines that pass before our eyes are merely a blur as we hunt and peck for a useful nugget or two.

Yet, some people seem to think that just because a link on a home page exists, it gets clicked.

If you run a newspaper web site and are under the false impression that just because you put a story link up, people will follow the link, I invite you to open your login to Ominture and study the Paths report. You’ll be disappointed in what you will find.

What you will find, unless some sensational story hit that defies the rule, is that not a single story link is among the top-10 paths followed.

What you will find is the vast, vast majority of visitors hit the home page and left. They didn’t click a single link. The next most frequent path, at between 4 percent and 8 percent of your visitors, will be home page to obituaries.  The third most popular path will be home page, obituaries, home page and then exit.

The rest of your top 10 paths will round out with home page to another section front and then exit — meaning, still not a top 10 path that leads to a story click, not even home page, sports section, story link. 

When you do get to a home page-to-story-link path, that path will represent little more than 1 percent of your site traffic.

Before you start blaming your site design for this lack of story traffic, stop again and think about how you read a newspaper.

People go to your home page not to find stories to read, but to harvest headlines on the off chance one or two of them will be of sufficient interest for a click.

That’s one reason newspaper.coms are foolish to let aggregation sites such as Topix display all of their headlines and leads.

Topix is in the business of creating a substitute home page for your community news.

By aggregating all of your content, as well as other media covering your town, they are aiming to create an experience for users that says, "You don’t need to visit all of these other sites. We’re all you need. We’ve got all of the headlines (which you will only scan) and free classifieds, to boot (not that Topix free classifieds seem to get much traction).

At GateHouse Media we asked Topix to stop aggregating our content because we couldn’t figure out what value we derived from Topix trying to steal our audience. It would have been different if Topix actually generated traffic for our sites, but referrers from Topix never rose much above 1 percent of our overall traffic.  

Some would argue that Topix is paying for its headlines and leads by the traffic it generates, but if it’s not generating much traffic how do you measure whether it’s hurting more than helping?

Compare Topix, however, to a site like Google News.

Google News drives a significant amount of traffic to news sites.  Why? Because it has one primary purpose: to drive traffic to news sites. It’s a click-away site, meaning Google believes the greatest value it provides its users is to serve up links worthy of a click.

My bet is that most of the clicks driven by Google News are derived from search, not from the automated aggregation pages. People click on headlines when they express a specific intention through search to find a particular story.

As I’ve said before, the web is intention driven.  If your home page is designed to meet the intention of headline skimmers, that’s going to be the majority of your audience. But if your home page is designed to get people into your stories, like a blog does, then you will design your site accordingly.

Think of how you read a newspaper and don’t be surprised that few people click on your headline links. Think about how you want people to use your web site, what intention-driven mindset you want to satisfy, and design your web site accordingly.

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  • Kirk LaPointe

    It’s a typically smart post and message, but I wouldn’t mind some insight on what the home pages ought to be, not just what they ought not to be. In your experience, what are some guides on how to drive users into stories?

  • allyourtv

    We recently launched a new version of our website, and two things quickly became apparent.

    We had moved from a handmade CMS using Dreamweaver to Joomla. And when we looked at traffic logs, we noticed that two areas seem to consistenly drive clicks. A main media window on the home page, and indexes at the bottom of each story page that listed most recent, most popular stories and features.

    In particular, that most recent index is a strong traffic driver. I’m assuming that part of it is human nature, in that visitors respond to something called "latest"

     

  • Howard Owens

    Kirk, good question. I shied away from that point for two reasons. One, I’m building a particular theme in these recent posts; two, there’s a reason The Batavian is set up the way it is, related to this post, but I’m not yet sure how far  I want to stamp that, yet, as some sort of ideal.

    Rick, it doesn’t surprise me that "most recent" would drive a lot of clicks.  That’s one of the primary intents of people who visit a news site, an intent you can’t control you can only frustrate — "tell me what’s new."  People want to see what’s new since their last visit, not what some editor is the biggest story of the moment.  Editors have a hard time accepting that notion because they’re used to the print paradigm where you must order your stories in a hierarchical line saying which story is tops and which isn’t.  Online, that thinking frustrates users.  Just tell me what’s new.

  • lectroidmarc

    I’ve also noticed this trend at my site (and I seem to be the only one).  I’m not blaming aggregation for this, nor am I blaming our website design, I’m blaming our implementation.

    You’re right that people don’t read newspapers cover to cover.  They pick and choose.  It’s a potpourri model that has served newspapers well.

    But the web IS intension driven and our potpourri homepages (designed to capture headline skimmers) just don’t work all that well.  Our blog traffic supports this.  The "home page" to story link path off our blogs is dramatically higher (actually on blogs that post full stories on the top page it’s by definition 100%).  Why is it higher?  Because it’s an interested audience that is comming to the blogs to read that specific content and not just meandering by to see the paper has on its homepage.

    So I think the solution is a dramatic re-thinking of our web sites, maybe even new ones…

  • Howard Owens

    You’re on the right track, Marc.

  • tishgrier

    Hi Howard, 

    some very good points here.  Recently, I opined that Google’s aggregation site, and the new ads placed against the content on its aggregation site, could (might, may) be taking money away from newspapers.  Aggregation is quite different from search (as you note) and if we don’t see figures that show us that traffic comes from the aggregator, than, perhaps, the aggregator is making more money than we might if we ran ads directly.  We know what Google Search does, but if we don’t see some stats from Google News, can we be totally, positively sure that GN is sending traffic to sites, or if people are just perusing headlines and then clicking google’s ads?

    And, as you say, it all has to do with intention.  Intention is clear in search.  In aggregation, not so much.  It may be with GN, but we don’t really know people’s habits with GN to know the overall benefits to news sites. 

  • Howard Owens

    Well, I think you want to keep your content in Google News, regardless of ads or how well the automated aggregation pages perform on clicks — the traffic derived from search is just too valuable. It’s significant enough to matter.

  • tishgrier

    True, the search traffic is indeed too valuable.  I see what you mean.

  • Mario Garcia Jr.

    Howard. Very interersting points. I agree that the scanning behavior that goes on in print is even more prevalent online. Scanners are looking for items that are relevant or add value and when they find it they tend to click. Finding that in these days of visual clutter is a bit tougher, but clicking is indeed driven by motivation.Yet motivation is normally not part of the discussion when organizing a site’s content, especially a newspaper site. Too many "rules" from the print world carry over. For instance, organizing the website like you would the print paper, by section instead of by motivation. This print philosophy, along with the "above the fold" notion is what makes many newspaper sites harder to scan and what causes the high bounce rate from the homepage. I recommend starting with that question: Why would someone come to this site? Then organize accordingly.