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The ideal Home Page design

Monday, 28 January 2008 — by

In the age of the search engine, the Home Page has a diminished role in the broader context of your website or ‘blog. What with Landing Pages being de rigueur, is there still no place like home?

Websites — somewhere to call home

Quite recently, friend, web designer and fellow ‘blogger Heidi Cool talked about Home Page design, which is a strong article that includes solid take-away advice. So if you’re a web designer, I advise you to read it:

“Tell them where they are: your home page should make clear the name of the organization and the nature of your business.

Encourage them to come in and look around: give them a taste (but just a taste) of what you offer, so they want to learn more.

Provide clear directions to the entrance: show them how to enter and navigate your space.”

Heidi got me thinking. So much so, I commented on her article.

“OK, let’s take the bricks & mortar metaphor to logical next step, shall we?

Imagine you’ve just walked into a store, you look ahead and you see isles, each marked with a distinct heading: “Frozen Foods”, “Home Hygiene”, “Wines, Beers & Spirits”, “Pet Foods”, et cetera.

You don’t see all of the products at first glance, but at the end of each isle facing you, you see a selection of offers and featured products.

To your right is a selection of magazines, newspapers and candy / sweets next to the counter, while to your left is an assortment of books, videos and music.

Depending on what you’re looking for, you have enough information at first glance to make an informed decision…”

In life, there’s often inspiration through observation. But it’s not just about looking around you for inspiration, it’s knowing how to look around you — having an open mind full of questions helps you passively look for solutions.

With regards to web design — and specifically Home Page design — having some experience as a designer helps immeasurably.

Is the Home Page of a website still relevant?

Whether there is or there isn’t, if you’ve got a website, then you have a Home Page and guess what? You’re stuck with it!

My personal feeling is that the Home Page is still relevant, since it acts just like a Landing Page, the rules are broadly the same.

Although the theme must be more holistic, in that the Home Page must be more inclusive than a Landing Page, since they typically deal with a reduced / specific selection of products, services or topics.

If you’re running a website for a large business, then you’ll be familiar with the hand-wringing and the worried looks of the marketing team. It’s their job to decide what goes onto the Home Page.

Sometimes, it’s not just sales figures making this decision for them — inter-departmental politics can also play a part. In any case, as web designer, that’s really not your job.

An interesting point put forward by Daniel Szuc over on UX Matters had this to say about one function of a Home Page:

“For many users, the home page is a place where, if they get lost, they can start their journey again. Users often want to return to a site’s home page to reorient themselves.”

That’s an excellent point. One worth considering when assembling your navigational.

So yes, the website Home Page is still relevant, but it’s a question of traffic sources, too.

To those visitors that know your web address, then they will arrive at your Home Page. But those that have typed in a query into a search engine and arrive at your website will probably have been dropped either into a Landing Page or a specific product web page, such as one for long time client Kapitex Healthcare Limited — a specialist provider of devices for throat cancer patients.

a preview of a Kapitex Healthcare product page

In this example, keyword-rich body copy, clear headings, tabulated data and images with relevant text labels help strengthen the web page.

The reason your Home Page is likely to rank lower than your Landing Pages is one of specificity — your Home Page is too general to offer up the correct density of keywords & key phrases for the search engines to determine the relevance of your Home Page to the search criteria.

Whereas the more focused specific Landing Pages and product web pages will probably have the correct keyword & key phrase density.

The anatomy of a Home page

We’re now living in a world wide web that’s dominated by search engines, Social Media websites and Social Networking portals.

To some extent, some could argue that the Home Page is an anachronism — an artifact of the past. But if you take a look at the web statistics for most ‘blogs and websites, the story will often tell itself.

For my own ‘blog, I’ve added additional “starter” resources to my Home Page, in the footer. So for those less familiar with my writings, the Home Page is a good place to start. Also, my list of recent articles in limited to five, with just excerpts, rather than the full articles.

In many ways, a Home Page is largely indistinguishable from a Landing Page, which is often the parent page to an entire section, such as the Services web page for J.H. Davevenport & Sons Limited — a Leeds-based printers formed in 1888, who’re a client of mine.

a preview of a J.H. Davevenport & Sons Limited home page

Although the content is a little sparse right now (the website is still very much a work in progress), the concepts are in place.

An example of a Home Page that combines simplicity with specificity would be another client of mine, Trident Exhausts, who specialize in performance motorbike exhausts.

a preview of a Trident Exhausts home page

But if it’s a Home Page of consummate simplicity you’re looking for, then Apple Inc. is the place to look.

a preview of a Apple home page

Although I would mention that Apple probably make too much of a feature of their main product or service, which totally dominates the upper two thirds of the page, relegating their other products & services to below the “fold” of the web page.

That said, they can probably justify that given the conversion to sales rate they’re seeing by doing such things.

For those not familiar with the term: “the fold”, it relates to the contents of a web page that occupies the visible portion of the window on your screen. However, this region varies depending on what size of screen resolution your computer is set to.

As a rule, the resolution 1,024 pixels by 768 pixels is often quoted as the standard resolution these days.

Heidi offered up an excellent list of things that should and should not find their way onto a Home Page, which I’d like to expand on:

Do Include:

First impressions count — ideally, your Home Page will say something about your type of business, or the industry you’re in. This can be most easily accomplished with some kind of montage graphic, or a tag line.

Anything visual is a good way to go. After all, a picture paints a thousand words!

a preview of a JCB home page header

These days, people don’t really have the time to think. If things aren’t obvious, they’re just going to go somewhere else. If they’re looking for something specific and they’ve only found you through a search engine, then your Home Page is on the clock.

If they’ve come to your website as a recommendation or you’re a known quantity, then the chances are, you’ve got a little extra time. But it’s essential you deliver to the visitor enough information for them to make an informed, quick decision about your website or ‘blog.

A common theme is to add a tag line and / or a synopsis into the header of the Home Page. This will act a visual hook, to catch the eye of the visitor and help qualify their visit.

Simple layout — one which is clean, easy to follow and has a certain flow or balance, with no visual dead ends, such as a lack of CTA (Call to Action), or graphics that look like buttons but aren’t!

Obvious navigation — such that it is apparent what you need to do and doesn’t require precise mouse movements to get to sub items.

Answer a common question — you’d be surprised by the number of people that will come to a website just to find a phone number, postal address or a contact name. With that in mind, make this information more visible.

For those businesses that are selling a physical item, then include a telephone number in a prominent position, like the header.

Additionally, place links to FAQs (Frequently Asked Question) and contact lists into either the primary or secondary navigation.

a preview of a Xpandastand header

Don’t Include:

Sensory overload — audio or video that plays automatically, or intensive “Splash Screen” Flash animations, that sometimes appear as pop-up windows.

In the latter example, you’re asking your visitor to sit and wait patiently while you load up a ton of stuff that’s probably just visual puff and lacks any real content of value.

In some instances, the bigger brands, like Nike, Adidas, MTV or the movie studios for example, can get away with this kind of thing, mostly because you know what to expect when you arrive and that might be what you’re looking for, anyway.

But for the most part, those 99.9995% of businesses selling yellow widgets or green doodads won’t really feel the benefit.

Advertisements — if you want to keep the people that have just arrived on your Home Page on your website, avoid banner advertising.

The thing about banner adverts is that once clicked, the person is propelled somewhere else. Worse still, those that use Google AdSense are sending out a very mixed message to those potential customers.

The perception of Google AdSense is one of “cheap & cheerful” at best, with people looking down their noses with disdain. And yes, the same rules apply — once clicked, say goodbye to you visitor!

So unless these banner adverts are promoting internal products or services, then leave them well alone.

Be brief — overly-verbose essays, detailing company history, mission statements and welcome statements are the stuff of web pages in their own right. So avoid them. A lack of quantity has a quality all its own.

The design communication discipline

In a previous life, I once worked for someone else. And during that time, I learned a great deal about the presentation and the layout of products for printed collateral, such as brochures, leaflets, booklets, pamphlets et cetera.

In essence, design is about visual clarity, strong communication of the core message and impact. I’m sure more experienced designers will fill in the blanks, but I think as a basis, that’s enough to begin with.

You just can’t shoe-horn every product onto the front cover of a brochure, just as you can’t have every product on display when someone walks into a store.

So not only does real life provide inspiration, but so does print design. The rules of design communication are the same for both web design, print design and interior design.

Using technical terms, abbreviations and jargon is fine if you’re confident your audience is going to understand those things.

The business of web design & development

For those less familiar with me or what I do for a living, I’m a web designer & developer of some 11 years, 8 of those years have been spent running my own business, a web design and internet marketing agency called Octane Interactive, based in Yorkshire in the north of England.

For the most part, the websites I develop are written in PHP & HTML. If the project requires such things, I might use a MySQL database.

In addition to websites, I also develop web applications, for things like hotel reservations booking systems, CMS (Content Management System) applications, product cataloging systems and image libraries, to name but a few.

Additional clients of Octane Interactive include:

Also, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) comes as a standard part of the service.

Please do not confuse SEO with SEM (Search Engine Marketing) — they’re not the same, although enough people use those terms interchangeably.

The former is a mechanical function of a website while the latter is a function of marketing.

OK, enough with the history. If you want to know more about Wayne Smallman, there’s a page for exactly that.

In conclusion

To summarize, your Home Page is the front door to your store. From there, people will make their decisions as to whether they’ll linger or leave.

Getting the balance right is about dealing with the basics first, then folding in the knowledge of your customers and your brand second.

Put the hooks in place to measure things. But don’t be afraid to experiment, either! Some times, rules are there to be broken…

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