Top 5 Home Page Mistakes

1. Not saying What You Do

The most obvious gotcha I see is a home page that doesn’t start off by describing exactly what the site is for. This usually means just saying What You Do.

The first content anyone sees on your home page is the most critically valuable, for usability as well as SEO. Don’t ever bother welcoming anyone to your web site. That goes without saying. If I wasn’t welcome on your site, you wouldn’t have put it on the world wide web!

The essential factor here is what I call “Getability”. There’s a whole chapter about this in my ebook Save the Pixel, but briefly it means, “How easily someone visiting a site/page for the first time can understand what the deal is, and if they’re in the right place”.

Whenever we visit a new web page, we’re looking for something. That may be information, to get something done, or just to have fun. Whatever it is, we always have these meta-questions in our minds: “Am I in the right place? Am I likely to get what I want this way?”

On a highly getable web page, the most relevant information that answers those meta-questions is made obvious, clear, and strong. That means using the most basic design techniques:

  • Position: the info should be high up the page, so I see it first, and understand that it’s important.
  • Size: the most important, meaningful, and helpful clues are made bigger and more visible than less important stuff.
  • Contrasting Tone & Colour: use strong contrast and/or strong colour to highlight the things I probably need to know first.

Some home pages don’t mention what the site’s about at all. So what are you meant to do when you land on one of these pages? You don’t want to have to deduce or guess what’s going on. Your only driving motive is to figure out “Am I in the right place to get what I’m looking for?”

So the web site’s first job is to answer that question, whether positively or negatively.

Don’t be tempted to try and retain people on your site who are actually looking for something else. They’re not going to stick around very long, and by not putting your wares on show first-up, the overall success rate will decrease because you’ll risk losing the people who have turned up to get what you’re offering.

How to Say What You Do

This is really simple. You just say:

  • What your company/service is,
  • What you do,
  • For whom

…in as many words as it takes – and no more.

So a good intro might be, “Collins Roofing is a small, family roofing company that has served homeowners in the Trumpton area since 1980.”

Or, “Abbrvtr is an easy web service that removes vowels from words and emails them to your friends.”

2. The Dead Pit

“The Dead Pit” is what you build for your visitors when you create spaces on your site that have nothing in them!

The classic old-school Dead Pit is the “Under Construction” or “Coming Soon” placeholder. Whenever you see one of these (hopefully in a museum), you think “This site isn’t finished, so I’m unlikely to get what I want here!” OK, so it only took a few years for web designers and owners to realise this was dumb and pointless, but the Dead Pit hasn’t gone away.

No News is Not Necessarily Good News

My favourite modern Dead Pit trap is the Empty News Section variant. If I ever have a client ask for a News page, I always ask them how much news they actually generate. If the answer is “One thing a quarter,” I’ll generally tell them they don’t need a News link on their main navigation.

If you don’t have a lot of News to give, it’s far better to show just a few items on your home page than to create a section with not a lot in. At least then the News is supporting the initial impression that your company is alive & kicking. Plus, you avoid the disappointing feeling of a visitor clicking “News” only to see one press release from 1998 (at which point they think – you guessed it! – “These guys must be out of business… I’m not going to find what I want here. Where’s that back button?”).

For more on the Dead Pit, and specifically how it applies to online communities, see my article on “How to Set Fire to a Web Site”.

3. Where are the Benefits?

Following on from Saying What You Do, you need to focus next on “Why I Should Care”.

Remember, when I visit your site, I’m trying to find out if I’m going to get what I want there. So a home page should focus on what I – the visitor – am interested in, not what you’re interested in.

Of course, all web sites have their own goals, but the best way to achieve those is by helping its visitors achieve theirs, because the better you do that, the more people will come back to your site, link to your site, and recommend your site to others.

The most successful web sites find win/win solutions, keeping people on the site by giving them what they want long enough for the site to get what it wants.

When you’re crafting the content for a web site, try to get out of the client’s head and into the client’s client’s head. Goal-oriented design offers some great techniques and tools (like Personas) that help with this process, but you can achieve the right result by remembering at all times what the visitor is trying to do.

4. Incredible Graphics

We’ve all been to web sites that rely on a big splash of stock photography or graphics to try and convey a certain first impression, but the effect doesn’t quite happen. This is what I mean by “Incredible Graphics”.

I’m a big believer in using the right content medium for conveying your messages. Text has its own strengths, able to convey information very quickly and accurately. Imagery, too, can impart a rich combination of “soft” info, or a high-level of complex info in the form of a graph, chart, or diagram.

But when you’re crafting a brand experience – or a getable home page – the selection of imagery has to be credible.

As an example, don’t use a generic picture of a shiny glass skyscraper, if your business doesn’t actually take place in that kind of location. The evidence on your home page, which helps build the “This is what we are, what we’re about…” message, should be made up of consistent messages.

5. Bad Production

Getting into the technical considerations now, but I have to say that shoddy production technique is one of the biggest factors that can impact your home page’s success rate.

Of course, Search Engine Optimisation must be one of the major considerations for any web site, which should support and not compromise your brand and messaging.

So a home page should have a high content-to-markup ratio, have well-written title and meta-description tags, and feature the most relevant content high up in the source.

Use of inline styling, tables for layout, lack of separation of style and code from markup, and heavy non-semantic HTML can all be detrimental to the probability that a visitor will proceed further into the site.

A poorly-produced page will also:

  • be slower to load
  • translate less successfully to other media (like mobile devices)
  • be less accessible to people with disabilities such as screen readers or magnifiers
  • be more costly to edit and re-design over time
  • etc…
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