A cursory Google search suggests the not-so-humble home page has been on death row since the mid 2010s.
It all started with a leaked graph from The New York Times revealing a sharp decline in visitors to the masthead's home page, marking the beginning of an era where home pages no longer reigned supreme. Users were engaging with media across multiple entry points, from long-tailed search to social media and video. They landed on their desired piece, consumed what they needed and either a) clicked away, or b) explored further articles.
In a world full of open windows, people weren’t using the front door with the same enthusiasm.
Because we’re a passionate lot, marketers, developers and designers were quick to set up a gallows, predicting this decline would soon herald the demise of what was once the backbone of every website.
Home pages used to be the cornerstone of content for a company. But now, home pages are dying.
Fast forward 10 years, and home pages remain entrenched in our daily language. Every brand has one. Whether we mean to or not, we’re clinging onto an idea that has lost much of its navigational oomph, but we still use the word to describe its utility. Even our UX and SEO briefs label it 'home'.
Why? Every web page is a potential point of direction, entry and exit, so why do we place so much emphasis on a digital front cover?
The golden age of the home page
Noun. Home page
- The introductory page of a website, typically serving as a table of contents.
Cast your mind back to the days when Google didn’t exist and the digital landscape was ruled by the earliest iterations of Yahoo! and Internet Explorer. Home pages served as primary directories – they helped people find what they needed through a series of internal links. Due to the way indexation worked at the time, it was impossible to interact with a website without going through the front door. And then returning to it, over and over again.
The Amazon of 1997 is completely unrecognisable. There’s no menu, sidebar or footer. No blog or About page. The home page was not pretty, but it did have a very important purpose. It was the epicentre of engagement.
If customers used the search page below, they had to click back home to explore the Book of the Day. And after they were done, they navigated home again to access the Spotlight category. It wasn’t possible to skip from any page to the Find an Author engine without going home again. Search, both on and off-site, was a linear experience.
You can see how the home page earnt its status as the be-all and end-all of digital visibility. Once upon a time, a thoughtlessly designed entry page would have the same consequences as today’s messy landing pages – high bounce, abandoned conversion and lost reputation. But it’s been 26 years since the heyday of home pages, so why does the mythology persist?
Why can’t we let go of home?
Home pages have long been haemorging the qualities that imbued them with undeniable primacy. And yet, there’s a disconnect between the way people use websites and how brands think about their digital properties.
You don’t know what you don’t know
1997 fact: Home pages are essential to navigational engagement – without a home page, your visitors won’t be able to enter your website, find what they need or convert at the right time.
2023 fact: Home pages are essential mechanisms for brand engagement – without a home page, your branded traffic will trickle through to your About page, missing an opportunity to communicate your core why and/or core call to action upfront.
Icons endure, despite changing meanings
Outside the digital bubble, most people haven’t been exposed to this historical evolution. Similar to the way a floppy disc is universally recognised as the perennial 'save' icon, despite leaving public usage in the late 90s (outside legacy save files), the 1997 emphasis on the home page has endured. Although website composition and UX have moved on, unless you’ve been in the digital weeds since point A, you don’t always know what came before point B.
Even if you’re picking up clues that something has shifted, it’s perfectly natural to seek out information that solidifies your sense of what is and what isn’t. And it’s easy to do; public and professional lexicons haven’t changed to communicate the what, when and why behind this digital paradigm shift. We’re too busy pronouncing things dead or revolutionary, with no nuance inbetween!
Making lexical change happen
Lexical change is like any change – everyone is responsible for making it happen. As we update our understanding of what a home page is and does in a post-dial-up era, let’s lean into the terminology behind the concept and think about the lexical usage of 'home page'.
Digital creatives, clients and people in general call it a 'home page' because everyone knows what the term implies. While we may have different ideas around the meaning, most associate the notion of home with a digital basecamp. A safe zone. Somewhere to go if you get lost in the navigation or you’re not sure what to do next.
So how can we connect what is accessible with what is true today? Although there is no easy answer, agencies and industry specialists are bastions of significant industry semantic switches. The words we choose during presentations, blogs, and daily conversations influence how those around us evolve their understanding of any digital concept. We know, it’s easy to say change begins with us, so let’s have a quick look at why digital marketers should be the spear wielders.
How people talk about websites
We are – as an industry – partially responsible for the continued proliferation of the dead and dusted meaning of the home page. We literally won’t let the home page, as it was understood in 1997, settle into its foretold death. So, how do we change that?
Although this is not an expansive list, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Reach alignment within your team – make sure everybody understands what a home page is and isn’t, and why there may be misconceptions around the role they play today.
- Change the words you use – during interactions with stakeholders and colleagues, use words that reflect modern purposes or user needs on that page. Eg. Brand pages communicate the core service/offering and the overall mission.
- Educate, educate, educate – Lexiconic shifts are intimidating, and while they do start with one person, team or agency, it’s okay not to take up that mantle. Instead, make education your mission and turn others into converts through consistent conversation.
Did the home page really die?
Yes. The purpose of the original home page is obsolete. Buried. Gone. Done. And yet, we retain its name because the innovations of the internet far outpace our ability to adapt to lexical changes. Unlike Google’s source code, our brains need more than an automatic algorithm update to attach new definitions to established ideas. So let’s reframe it.
The home page had some time to think. It’s come back with a new purpose, and now it doesn’t want to deal with the responsibility of every single parent and child page. Instead, it’s focusing on what it does best – capturing branded traffic. And there’s no going back.
We create, market and connect in an age where search intent is about more than just brand. There’s a science behind the queries we type into Google (and the results we get!), and while it does seem a bit wibbly wobbly at times with all of the updates, it comes back to the following point:
Search engines exist to connect users with what they need instantaneously, without having to navigate X number of websites – or website pages – to find it.
And sometimes that can mean a brand. Sometimes not. But if it does, home pages as they exist today are there to honour that need, communicating a company’s central ‘why’.
How search intent works
Take Luminary. Brand terms like Luminary, Luminary AU and Luminary Melbourne demonstrate the user is already thinking about us. They want to find our home page. On the other hand, phrases like digital strategy Melbourne denote a desire for options – they’re in the middle funnel, not quite on the conversion train, but they know what they want. Hopefully, with a solid SEO strategy and an optimised landing page, the first interaction this user will have is our Digital Strategy page.
And that is why we treat every page with the same importance as a home page. You never know when your audience will need you or what they’ll need from you, but you can ensure that what you serve is relevant, beautiful and easy to navigate… just like a classic home page. Well, besides the beauty part.
Main image: Brett Sayles – Pexels
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