Traditionally, a website’s homepage has been treated like a book’s cover. When designing a website, marketers imagine that most of a website’s visitors will pass through the homepage en route to their destination. This is bedrock conventional wisdom in the web design world.
New research indicates that it is (increasingly) incorrect.
A major shift is occurring in user behavior — and people are now bypassing the website’s front door at a striking rate. The new data are compelling — and have major implications for the design of all websites, including those of law firms.
Studies of content-heavy news sites are showing that homepage traffic is dramatically declining. For example, in 2012, fewer than half (48.8%) of the visits to NYTimes.com started on the homepage. The Wall St. Journal reported, less than 40%. Meanwhile, Yahoo.com saw a 24% drop in homepage traffic. Fascinating.
Law Firm Websites
Naturally, we were curious about the trends occurring on our law firm client websites. So, we conducted our own study. What we found was remarkable.
- On average, only 39% of the traffic enters through the homepage.
- That’s a 17% decrease just within the last year. Nearly every law firm website we manage has experienced a significant decrease in traffic entering through its homepage.
- The greater the number of visitors to a website, the smaller the percentage that came through its homepage. For example, a client with over 25,000 unique visitors a month had only 24.5% of its traffic entering the website through its homepage.
So, what’s driving this decline? “Sideways surfing.” People are entering content-heavy websites sideways. They’re clicking on links in social media posts, emails, and Google searches, to be taken directly to content deep within a website (like a bio, or an article, or a case-study). The confluence of two major trends — content marketing and social media — are the driving forces behind sideways surfing.
Website Design Implications
So, does sideways surfing mean that the homepage is dead? Definitely not. The homepage is still, by far, the most trafficked page on your website and thus deserves special attention. However, we still need to rethink the website’s content and features, to account for diminished homepage traffic. Here are two recommendations:
- Let your content brand you.
Traditionally, websites have relied on graphics (and key messaging) on their homepage to brand the firm as sought-after experts or world-class specialists. Given that users are bypassing these homepages and heading straight to content pages, firms need to focus more on producing great content that will help brand the firm: richer bio content, more (and better) case studies, better articles and blog posts. Content pages are where people are landing, and we need to put our best foot forward.
- Eliminate the dead ends.
If someone clicks a link and reads a great article posted on your website, you would like for the person to then click around, read more articles, and learn more about your firm. If a visitor reads an article and then immediately leaves your website, it means that the marketing value of this piece is minimal. Unfortunately, most law firm website content pages are lonely dead ends that encourage visitors to leave.
So, how do we solve this? Many lessons can be learned by observing content websites like NYTimes.com — which is packed with compelling teasers and pop-outs that offer related content in order to keep you surfing there.
Time to rethink the homepage?
If fewer people enter the website through the homepage, does that mean that it’s time to rethink it? Perhaps someday we’ll recommend this. However, right now it’s not clear how it should change. So, we would argue that before firms radically change their homepages, they should focus on how to make every other page into a better landing page. Sideways surfing is here to stay. Just think about it — what was the path that brought you to this blog post?