How did you get here?

Designing for visitors who don’t enter through the home page

By Jeff Lash

One of the most overlooked aspects of designing a Web site is how users get to it. Separate factions are often devoted to promoting, designing, and maintaining a Web site, and the lack of communication and involvement can lead to apathy or confusion. Too frequently is it assumed that visitors are knowledgeable about the company and Web site, and that they enter through the home page. False assumptions about visitor entry can plague even a well-planned, well-designed site.

A user-centered approach to Web site design generally includes research into the types of visitors, their needs and motivations, and their technical requirements and abilities. Scenarios usually detail what happens when the user gets to the home page. Personas are assumed to somehow know that the site exists and find it. Rarely does the design team take into account, for example, that Ann the Accountant searched on Google while Dave the Delivery Man saw the URL on a TV commercial.

Leaving a key under the mat

In reality, not all users enter via the home page. The people building the site often assume that visitors enter through the front door (home page) and walk in an orderly fashion down the hall, through the dining room, down another hallway, and to the living room, when, in reality, most visitors break a window and crawl in from the backyard, putting a hole in the bathroom wall in the process.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. On many Web sites, more than 50% of the traffic comes directly into a page other than the home page.”

On some sites, it may be only a small percentage of visitors that ever see the home page, much less enter through it. The proliferation of lasting URLs, deep linking, powerful search engines, email newsletters, bloggers, and URL redirection services has helped drive traffic directly to relevant pages, past sometimes-unnecessary home and main section pages.

For Web designers, this means that the standard approach of designing the home page first, and then figuring out what the rest of the site looks like, is putting the wrong effort in the wrong places. Internal debates where managers fight for home page links on the public Web site may very well be fruitless. More attention needs to be paid not just to understanding how users are getting to your site, but what their entry and referring pages are.

Making it happen

There are three steps to designing a site that works well for visitors who do not enter through the home page.

Step 1: Admit you have a problem

The first step is admitting you have a problem. On many Web sites, more than 50% of the traffic comes directly into a page other than the home page. Unfortunately, on the majority of Web sites, designers, developers, and business owners pay the most attention to the home page. Sure, it may still be viewed more than any other single page, but every other page is not the home page. Getting a visitor to your home page is one thing—getting them to look at other pages on your site is another story.

Web access logs are the best source for information on your visitors’ entry and referring pages. (An entry page is the first page a visitor sees when arriving at your domain; a referring page is the last page the visitor was at before viewing the entry page.) From there, you can construct a path backwards. My tutorial “Three Ways to Improve External Search Engine Usability” focuses on optimizing your site for external search engine usability, but the same techniques—recreating search logs and cognitive walkthroughs—can be used for tracking visitors.

Step 2: Fix, text, fix

Once you have identified the main pages at which visitors are entering your site, the second step is to optimize those entry pages for first-time visitors. At a basic level, this means informing them of what the site is, what section they are in, and what tasks they can accomplish. At a more in-depth level, this entails providing related pages or supplemental information, establishing credibility through copywriting and branding, and displaying privacy and security notices if appropriate.

These page elements should not come as a surprise—they should not be exclusive to entry pages alone. However, when treating these pages as entry pages, fewer assumptions can be made about a visitor’s prior knowledge of the company or Web site, and basic information may need to be repeated or stated more explictly. Though not designed specifically for this purpose, Keith Instone’s Navigation Stress Test can be incredibly helpful in optimizing your entry pages.

Treat every page as a possible home page. For practical purposes, it is probably best to focus on the main entry pages that you have identified from your access logs. However, problems that are apparent on the specific pages you test may apply to other pages as well (e.g. global navigation), and changes can be easily propagated site-wide.

Step 3: Lather, rinse, and repeat – always repeat

After identifying your issues and making the appropriate changes, the third step is to track the difference. Check your access logs and other key metrics—purchases, downloads, newsletter subscriptions—on a regular basis to see how your changes have influenced site visitors. Your listings in external search engines may change slightly as well, especially if you make major structural or intensive text changes, and the shift in search engine rankings may draw even more traffic to your lower-level pages. Additional high-traffic entry pages needing improvement may be identified. Pages that have not been as popular as entry pages may need to be re-examined and altered again. As new sections are added or removed, the common entry pages will need to be changed accordingly. This process should be repeated regularly for optimal results.

One important note: These three steps are designed for current sites. Obviously, incorporating these ideas into the development process can hopefully prevent problems before they occur. Nevertheless, analyzing entry pages after launch and continuing to do so periodically will provide even better results.

Leaving the house unlocked

No matter how you approach the task of identifying and improving non-homepage visits, it is important to understand that not all of your visitors will enter your site via the home page. Those making decisions related to information architecture, copywriting, content, and branding not only need to keep this in mind when designing new sites, or redesigning existing ones, but also need to understand how the visitors arrived on the site and ensure them of a positive overall experience.