After the page

In my Guardian column this week (nonregistration version here), I argue that we need to explode the home page — and our notions of the page and the site, for that matter. This is about the new architecture of content and media and the internet. The column is a shorter version of the post below:

* * *

After the page

It’s time to ask what comes next in the design of online news sites: What is the next home page? What is the next page, for that matter? Do we even need either anymore?

Every online site I know puts undue effort into its home page, even though in some news sites as few as 20 percent of users ever end up there. The rest, the majority, come directly to pages deeper into these sites instead through search, links, and bookmarks. Or sometimes they don’t go to the sites at all but read their content via RSS feeds or email or hear or watch it in podcasts.

And now that ajax, Flash, et al can make pages endlessly dynamic, infinitely deep, and utterly individualized, it is time to rethink the page itself. After all, Nielsen just decreed that it will stop measuring page views — because, with ajax, the page is being made into a meaningless unit of media. Instead, Nielsen will measure audience and engagement.

But engagement with what? Where? I’d argue that in Google’s distributed model — which makes this very page part of the Google empire, thanks to its ads here — even the site is an outmoded concept that is being kept alive artificially by the measurements that advertisers understand. That already-antiquated standard of measurement — who’s the host with the most? — forces sites to stay big — too big — under one brand and address, when I’d argue that they’d be better off breaking themselves up into a score of more viral — that is, more directly linkable — sites, brands, and addresses. That is, do you really want to have to dig into NYPost.com to find Page Six? Do you want to have to mine washingtonpost.com to find Howard Kurtz’s bloggy articles?

Finally, note that many news sites have now come to a common visual voice and grammar: Compare the recently redesigned Guardian, Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Telegraph, News.com.au; they are all graphic cousins with equal proportions of white space and blue type. They all look good and work well because they learned from each other. They have settled on a common if unspoken standard of the home page. Have we now arrived at the end of this process? Will the home page — like the newspaper page — now look essentially the same for decades to come? I hope not.

It’s time to break out of the old page and its now-common interpretations. But to what? I see a few possible models for a new architecture of the home page, the page, the site — hell, of the web itself. These models are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive.

THE VIEWER: So imagine if a site had only one page. You come to that and you can get anything you want there without ever clicking off to another page. Yes, this marks the welcome death of the click and its delays and uncertainties. Now you can get many things on this infinite page. It is a gigantic menu of media. Over here, I’ll put a video of live sports. Then I’ll replace it with a video of a news story. Up with it comes a list of related links and background. Over there, I’ll put a feed of headlines from elsewhere. Down there I’ll have discussion about what’s going on in what I’ve just pulled together. In another dimension of media, I have a separate soundtrack — perhaps my friends talking about the game, maybe music, maybe news. When something new happens in any of these, it will pop to the front and alert me; when it goes stale, it fades into the background. It can all be about one thing — every angle on a story — or it can be about many things and can morph from one view to the other. (And of course, somewhere in all this, there’ll be some new forms of advertising to support it but one hopes that is relevant to me more than my content.)

But, of course, why should all this come from just one source? Why couldn’t I get these things from any number of sources? It’s my screen, right? Who’s in charge of this page: me or the media outlet? That’s going to be a crucial question. But even if it’s the media outlet that gives me this — as it can today, on a page — it would be wise to give me the opportunity to include anything I want from anywhere in it. And that means that every media outlet must make itself ready to be included in anyone else’s page. Widgets gone wild.

FEEDS: Almost all media is a feed. Certainly news is. So’s broadcast. So’s adverting (a feed of commercials, a feed of billboards, a feed of classifieds). When I was at my last real job, as I’ve mentioned here before, I wanted to rearchitect my news sites around feeds: feeds of our headlines; outside headlines; blog headlines; prospective searches (that is, tell me when something new on a topic comes across the sources I specify); classified ads (but just the ones I want); photos; podcasts; vodcasts… and on and on. None of this is static, of course; it’s all fresh and dynamic.

Once you have everything made feed-ready, this allows a site to very easily construct new pages with any of these feeds on them. It means, for example, that a local news site can automatically construct a town page with feeds of inside and outside news and ads and more.

But then it’s a very small step to making this personalized: a page with my feeds on it. And then it’s just another small step to taking this out of the page and into a new application: a new browser — AKA, an RSS reader. This can feed any device, live or on demand. All it needs is for media to convert everything they do into feeds. (There are lots of sites I never read anymore because they don’t have feeds.) Those feeds can be raw — Dave Winer’s river of news — or they can bring smarts with them: prioritization, context, comment, ratings, rankings, freshness, expiration….

NETWORKS: But let’s not assume that media organizations own all content in the future. They don’t already. They will, I’ve been arguing until everyone around me is blue in the face, that wise news organizations must learn to work collaboratively. So coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, for example, will not be just what has been brought onto a news site but also a collection of links to witness-reporters’ own sites with their own live news, soon even live video.

But this, too, can be a two-way pipe. The witness-reporter’s content can be made into widgets and feeds and included on a news site (with branding, attribution, vetting, caveats). Or the media organization’s content can be included on the witness-reporter’s site. Or everything can be inside our user-controlled space: a new browser or aggregator or reader.

Consider, too, that advertising and sponsorship will be networked as well: Google is not Google.com but every other dot com with Google on it. The web and its support becomes massively distributed.

SHOWS: Maybe I want you to make a show for me; maybe I want a more passive experience: Feed me. But I don’t want to be fed what everyone else is fed. See Dave Winer’s request to get news without the story he has tired of. See also Facebook’s news feeds, which Mark Zuckerberg says are algorithmic, giving you news the system thinks you want based on your network, your stated preferences, your use, its smarts.

Now mash all this together: In one corner of my screen, I have a show; Along the side, I have lots of feeds. On the other side, I have dynamic, constantly updated widgets. This stuff comes from anywhere and everywhere — from my own network of news sites, from friends, from friends of friends. It can be fed through any device. In fact, it may not even have a screen; what if it knows I’m in my car and can only talk to me? when the system knows my only tether to the net is a phone, it sends me just what it knows I need to know and when I get back home it catches me up on what I missed. While at home, it projects what I need to know on screens or walls, and This isn’t just beyond the home page, it’s beyond the page, the browser, the screen, the computer.

And if I haven’t blown your brain enough — I keep trying — consider that I may be adding myself into this, bookmarking, tagging, annotating, saving. And all that adds more information to the information; my friends can get feeds of what is fed to me and all our feeds together become a kind of passive Digg. My act of consumption become acts of creation. The antisocial act of watching becomes a social act of sharing.

OK, let’s get real. But this is real — today. Any news site can do any of this today. It can make feeds and widgets and shows on what we still know as pages and it can operate inside larger distributed networks. Importantly, none of this requires what we have always thought reinvention required in the past: new systems, new backends, new infrastructure, millions of dollars and lots of consultants and deadlines that never come. You can do most any of this today with a little bit of coding — html, ajax, Flash (but not too much now), RSS — on what we still archaically call web pages. Now.

Many years ago, in about 1995, when I saw the odious Pointcast — the screensaver that ate office networks and gave you news when you least needed it, when you want to the bathroom — I left the demonstration telling my boss to go nowhere near investing in or using it. I went back to my office and worked with my team to deliver every bit of Pointcast’s value using nothing more than a refreshing web page that once a minute checked on the latest from the AP wire and included it. Newsflash, we called it, was dynamic, extremely popular, and elegantly simple. Now we can do much more.

So someone needs to break out of the sameness that has become news home pages, pages, sites, and services and start the next wave of reinvention.

Who will it be?

* * *

YET MORE: See also Seth Godin lighting dynamite under the home page:

Do you really need a home page? Does the web respect it?

Human beings don’t have home pages. People make judgments about you in a thousand different ways. By what they hear from others, by the way they experience you, and on and on. Companies may have a website, but they don’t have a home page in terms of the way people experience them.

The problem with home page thinking is that it’s a crutch. There’s nothing wrong with an index, nothing wrong with a page for newbies, nothing wrong with a place that makes a first impression when you get the chance to control that encounter. But it’s not your ‘home’. It’s not what the surfer/user wants, and when it doesn’t match, they flee.

You don’t need one home page. You need a hundred or a thousand. And they’re all just as important.

: Here’s an E&P feature about three recent newspaper redesigns.

  • http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/ Jay Rosen

    After the page… I like that title. Not sure it applies. After the home page, yes. You’ve shown me that, Jeff.

    By focusing on why the page isn’t necessary you have left out why it might be desirable, even when not necessary. Possible?

    As “solutions,” your basic piece of paper, as well the pages of a good book, and of a good tabloid, obey not only the requirements of information but the demands o the human body: comfort. Ease. Mobility. Adaptability. After the page there’s still the demands of the body, carrier of a news mind that prizes some better, more efficient and rational flow of information.

    For illustration, check out the reader comment Deb Howell used in her ombudsman column about the Washington Post’s decision to begin publishing “half pages” when there isn’t enough advertising to justify a full page in some sections.

    “To hold or fold the half-width page, or turn it, without putting the paper down or going through contortions, would require a third hand, something few of us come equipped with. Please make them stop.”

    The body has to rest “from” information, but also with it. These create requirements the page has solved for its time. After the page there will still be these requirements.

  • http://craigslistcriticism.blogspot.com Delia

    Jeff,

    It seems to me that Facebook has great potential as a classified ads medium: I mean there seem to be superb built in controls from both sides (classified advertisers and those interested in those classifieds) — it appears that this would prevent a host of problems that mar most advertisement mediums, such as spam, waste of time due to having to sort through a lot of ads that will ultimately prove not to be of use to the particular individual etc.

    Delia

    P.S. Still, I’m wondering if there would be legal issues. For instance, would it be ok (from the legal standpoint) for a company to advertise a position *only* to those somehow known through people already working at the company? I mean, it’s nothing knew, it’s not like it’s not already happening through word of mouth but this would presumably be deemed to be actual advertising that would have to comply with specific laws. D.

  • http://craigslistcriticism.blogspot.com Delia

    oops! …. I meant the above comment for your Facebook entry, of course… D.

  • http://pegasusnews.com Mike Orren

    Jeff, since you’re talking about newspapers here, I’d say another solution to the “Page Six” problem is to customize for each individual user. We’re doing that in a closed environment now, but hope to open that up as we can:

    http://www.pegasusnews.com/about/dailyyou/

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  • janice

    I use bloglines to read/scan about 74 feeds (2-300 blog posts daily) from nyt, my newsletter stats, xchd, tech president and science daily and then about 60+ others in my technological core competency areas.

    I’m not a neuroscientist but I’ll tell ya what: I could NEVER take in the amount of data and information I inhale daily if my brain had to cope with 74 different data formats!

    Design formats are not any different. All these visual bells and whistles, dressing up INFORMATION, drive me nuts, slow me down and make me less effective.

    If I had to pick thru the NYT home page everyday with my coffee and my 12″ ibook on my lap I would NEVER READ IT.

    Maybe blind people want to pick the voice and speed, maybe boomers want to pick their font and line spacing, maybe kids want it all on their wristwatch.

    In my perfect universe, design is driven by the individual needs and lifestyle.

    It’s all about text, video and voice, where we want it, how we want it, when we want it.

    The first genius that gets that working has the web 9.0 killer app.

    -j

  • dloye

    Fwiw, I checked out the listed home pages, and the Guardian’s shows up with headlines overwritten in Foxfire. Whoops!

  • http://bgok.net Ken Heutmaker

    I started working on a blog entry just last night on a related topic: A shift in the model of how the web is built and used. The web is becoming more like the computer desktop. This shift is being driven by these trends:

    1) applications that traditionally ran on the local host are being developed for to run remotely through the web (like Google Docs and spreadsheets),
    2) Unifying ‘desktop’ sites like iGoogle, Ripl, Facebook Platform that provide APIs to hook web based applications into the desktop environment (also see my home page at http://bgok.net to see a desktop-like website),
    3) mashup sites like Yahoo Tubes and Microsoft’s mashup engine (the name escapes me at the moment), and
    4) mashable sites like Twitter, Jaiku, Tumblr, Google Maps, and any site with an RSS feed.

    Sites will are becoming less site-like and will tend to have one or more of the above characteristics. There are some types of sites that don’t neatly fit into one of the above categories (e-commerce, tech support, wikis), but these can be thought of as applications.

    If this analysis is correct, there are deep implications to the internet and information technology as we know it. Figuring out the implications will be left as an exercise to the reader…or I’ll have a few ideas in my blog entry on this topic in the next few days.

    Ken Heutmaker

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Just a practical affirmation of one of your points — i used to try to read Howie Kurtz pretty regularly, but hardly ever do anymore because the structure and format of the WaPo site and pages tends to herd me back to a main page to then go looking for him, and — yes, it’s a new kind of lazy, but still — i just don’t bother. If i have to hunt and click and type and click and click, even for superior content, i feel nudged and even manipuated, and just stop going back.

    Mind you, none of this was conscious “i’ll show the sob’s” behavior, but something i realized when i followed a direct Instapundit link and thought “Hm. Why haven’t i read Howie for so long?”

  • janice

    looks like you can get a RSS feed for Kurtz…

    http://projects.washingtonpost.com/staff/articles/howard+kurtz/

  • http://www.mediaflect.com Dorian Benkoil

    I agree that distribution is key — and distributed models are going to gain ground — but I also think it’s idealistic in a capitalistic, “bizdev” driven universe to think we’ll reach the kind of ideal Jeff espouses. More here: http://mediaflect.blogspot.com/2007/05/on-jarvis-distributed-world.html

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  • http://web.newsguy.com/dainbramage/blog.htm Dann

    Jeff,

    I read your suggestion of an unlimited single homepage in abject horror. A substantial percentage of web users do not have access to anything better than dial up. Such a page would take forever to transmit to those using dial up services.

    Already we have the problem of companies using nifty images for buttons and menus where simple scripts and/or text would suffice. Such companies deciding to make a single, mega-homepage would produce an insufferable melange of data.

    Regards,
    Dann

  • laurence zankowski

    random thoughts of how to display, get and or use the information you gather, collect

    pervasive immediacy, wireless everywhere.( undiscovered technologies for distribution of access)

    where the limitations of hardware meet the expanse of the virtual desktop( remember sun’s CDE for their solaris based machines??)your desktop is a big as you want it( logically, not physically)

    the poineering work at Yale Cs in the early 90s

    http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/freeman/lifestreams.html#what

    remember what david gelernter said, computers have no prejudice and have infinite memory

    look up tuple space

    p.s. I was also thinking about how I hate the “go to this homepage” idea of information portals

    drop the home page/index page clicking paradigm

  • http://abc.net.au Cam Parker

    You’re very enthusiastic about your own opinions.

    Do you have any real statistics and research to back up ypur CBGing?

  • http://www.villagevoice.com.au Adam McWhinney

    Feed-ized, widget-ized, what you want, when you want, some e.g.s that present 2 x variations on the theme:

    http://www.netvibes.com/

    http://www.yougetit.com/

    Enjoy.

  • Kirk Varner

    When does the call finally end (or at least the claims of “abject horror”) for slowing down the growth of a richer web experience–because “so many” people still only have dial up? Didn’t we learn anything when the government fumbled the converstion to digital television for decades because an ever-shrinking percentage of people still only have black and white television sets?

    According to Nielsen/NetRatings: “US broadband penetration broke 80% in February 2007, growing to 80.16% among active Internet users. Narrowband users connecting at 56Kbps or less now comprise 19.84% of active Internet users, down 1.09 percentage points from 20.93% January 2007″

    Bring on the better web with as much media and user customization as we can make work and someone will find a way to push that envelope too. I for one, can’t wait for that melange of data to be at my fingertips.

  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk Edward Roussel

    Jeff,

    Where I work, http://www.telegraph.co.uk, the homepage plus the 13 other top channel homepages (sport, news, business, travel etc) only account for a combined 20 percent of global page impressions. Putting it another way, we get 80 percent of our traffic through means other than people coming via our channel homepages.

    So why the obsession with homepages? Homepages provide the same function as shop windows – they are bait to people passing by, and they are a marketing asset. They define who we are.

    But that doesn’t justify the amount of energy and time given over to homepages. So where should we focusing resource, given that none of us is flush with cash. Three areas, predominantly:

    1. PULL – allow Google’s crawlers to penetrate deep into one’s archive of content through improved SEO.

    2. PUSH – get on top of technology that tags content and bundles it into RSS feeds that are consumer-friendly (i.e. don’t frighten readers with terms such as RSS!)

    3. Focus on article pages. The article page IS the new homepage. It’s where a reader will land first after entering a word in the Google search box. So once he or she is there, it should be an integral part of a journalist’s job to provide all relevant content to the designated search.

    None of the above comes naturally for traditional media companies. We assume readers are linear in their thinking – moving seamlessly from the homepage to news, sport and business – even though the evidence points to the contrary. Pushing content is counter-intuitive because for decades readers have come to us, and not the other way round. And linking to other people’s content is still anathema in an industry that created the NIH syndrom (Not Invented Here -we didn’t write it, so you don’t need to know about it).

    But change, we must.

    Edward

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  • Laura Shang

    I am using a new great website to aggregate my content :

    http://www.itsmynews.com

    They have a lot of news feeds in their database and it is very easy to set up.

    Have a look.

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  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2007/05/29/web-strategy-how-to-evolve-your-irrelevant-corporate-website/ Jeremiah Owyang

    Don’t stop with the irrelevant homepage, I saw that corporate websites are irrelevant and need to evolve:

    Read the manifesto:

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2007/05/29/web-strategy-how-to-evolve-your-irrelevant-corporate-website/

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