Home pages, such a quaint old-fashioned notion …
“Most news sites put far too much effort into the home page – as few as 20% of daily visitors see it, because they arrive, instead, via search or links”
Monday May 28, 2007
The Guardian’s website has a new home page and I am among those who like it. But I also think it looks of a piece with other newspaper.com redesigns of late, with a balance of white space and blue type and clean organisation similar to what you see at the Times, the Telegraph, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and News.com.au. Perhaps that means – as with newspaper front pages in black and white about 60 years ago, and in colour about 25 years ago – that we have arrived at a common visual grammar for news home pages.
Oh, I hope not. I think this aesthetic confluence demands that we reconsider – or explode – not just the home page but our conception of the web page and even of the website. Most news sites I know put far too much effort into the home page – as few as 20% of daily visitors see it, because they arrive, instead, via search or links. And with dynamic technology, such as Ajax and Flash, that can feed updated content into a page without the need to click away, a single page becomes infinitely deep and the page view ultimately meaningless. This is why Nielsen is to stop counting page views – instead, it will tally audience.
Allow me to propose a few new models for how we think of pages and sites. First, imagine if a site had only one page. Actually, think of it as more of a viewer, able to pull in modules of content from anywhere. So now you don’t go to the content, it comes to you. No more clicking, hunting, and waiting for a static, one-size-fits-all page to fill your screen. You decide what you should see.
Today, thanks to embedded players, you may view a video while reading an article. We could add a box that will recommend related links. We can also include a headline box with a constantly updated feed of news, scores, or stock prices. And if there’s news related to a story you have been tracking, you should be alerted. Maybe there’s even an alternative soundtrack: news or music or friends talking about what you are watching. Now think of any content as a feed. Almost all media is a feed already. Certainly news is. So is broadcast. So is advertising (a feed of commercials, a feed of billboards passing by). I think news sites should be designed around the notion of feeds: this site’s headlines, related blog headlines from elsewhere, alerts (tell me when something new comes in about, say, my favourite team or stock), classified ads (tell me when someone advertises a two-bedroom flat on Craigslist), photos, podcasts, and so on. So now we have an endless supply of fresh content to pour into those modules.
This makes it easy for a news site to construct new pages – feeds, say, about your town, or environmental news. This also makes it easy for you to construct a personalised collection of feeds you like from anywhere. Actually, you can do that today thanks to RSS (really simple syndication); try it at bloglines.com or google.com/reader.
There’s no reason why all these modules and feeds need to come from just one site; they can come from anywhere on the internet. Next to its own headlines and stories, why shouldn’t Guardian Unlimited also supply you with feeds of London blogs, world headlines, Flickr photos, and YouTube videos? This also means that the wise publisher will package up content for take-away: the Guardian should hope that its modules appear, in turn, on my blog, like YouTube players. Widgets go wild.
And now that content is distributed this way – displayed in many places, next to others’ content – this begins to collapse the notion of destinations on the web. It makes us see the web less as self-contained sites and more as networks. This essential change in the ecosystem of the web is what inspired CBS TV in the US to serve its video in many places; YouTube is its friend (even as CBS’ corporate cousin, Viacom, is suing the service). Said CBS interactive president Quincy Smith: “We can’t expect consumers to come to us. It’s arrogant for any media company to assume that.” Right.
But now take this, one, last, step further: who’s to say that the content itself should not become collaborative, with people adding in facts and commentary and remixes as it travels around the web in a new network of news?
All this can be done today. And doesn’t that make the notion of the home page, the web page, and the site sound antiquated and quaint like, oh, a newspaper?
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at buzzmachine.com