Safe at home

Two headlines recently appeared within minutes of each other in my Google Reader feeds.

  1. Barnes & Noble.com revamps home page
  2. Do home pages have a place in Web 2.0’s future?

I love it when things like this happen. I really do. Because it shows that at the same time one party is trying its best to adapt and improve on the old model someone else is wondering whether that model is even still valid. It’s this sort of thing that makes people question their assumptions and really drives some serious thinking.

While the first story is interesting – B&N has added a number of features like search clouds and video on the front page – the second story is the one that really stands out. Essentially, a new study from Avenue A/Razorfish shows that search is the beginning point for about 54 percent of online shopping experiences. That calls into question the importance of home pages overall, since through search people are landing right on the page for the product (or story, or whatever) they were looking for, bypassing the home page layout completely.

While the study’s authors make the excellent point that what’s increasingly important is what’s NOT happening on the site (think widgets, links and more) I still think there is a point where home pages continue to serve a vital and important role, just maybe not the one they’re serving now.

The role of the homepage should be simple: Help the visitor find what they’re looking for. The problem is that pages are getting mucked up with flashy graphics and other junk data that is getting in the way of that experience. If there’s a model for the homepage it should be the sitemap. It’s clear, uncluttered and fairly simple to navigate. When people get lost on the site they should be able to hit the “Home” tab to reboot their visit and start fresh in finding what they’re looking for.

It should also provide the tools so that the visitor never has to come back to it unless they specifically want to. That means RSS feeds, email newsletter signups and other things that will let people get the information on their time instead of needing to hit the site for it.

Homepages are important – You have to do something with that pricey .com after all. But its use should be make the site experience as elegant as possible, not as a showcase for the graphic design department. If you’re hoping people will read/watch/buy on your site then the homepage is your first opportunity to make sure that happens.