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.