The evolution of the most innovative home pages can be viewed through the lens of three interrelated disciplines: design, marketing, and technology.
By Rob Stocks
In 1747 a British naval surgeon by the name of James Lind set sail aboard the HMS Salisbury to the Bay of Biscay off of the coast of France. It was on this voyage that Lind developed a tool that altered the course of science. And marketing. For anyone in the marketing business, for anyone who is employing a strategy to improve their website traffic, for anyone who wants higher conversion rates, it all started here. You could say the evolution of the home page started with Lind as well.
In Lind’s time, and for previous generations, sailors on long-distance sea voyages we plagued with scurvy and many died. According to Lind, British sailors suffered more fatalities from scurvy than from battles with the French and Spanish.
For hundreds of years it was known in small pockets of the world that citrus fruits had an effect upon scurvy – it was simply not well known. Lind was not the first to make this observation, but he was the first to test the theory in a systematic experiment. He is acknowledged to be the first to conduct a clinical trial – or an A/B test in marketing vernacular (also called split testing).
Since the development of the first transactional website, marketers have been driven to increase the engagement of site visitors and elevate conversion rates. The home page, the most visible of the website, has been the page that has undergone the greatest experimentation and the greatest change.
The evolution of the most innovative home pages can be viewed through the lens of three interrelated disciplines: design, marketing, and technology. In this article we examine three of the latest trends in each of these disciplines – trends for which the DNA can be traced back to a British surgeon 267 years ago.
If there is one tidal wave in home-page design it is its adaptation to the multi-screen universe. 2014 was the year in which the number of mobile internet users exceeded the number of desktop users.
While the migration to responsive has been impressive, many business websites still function without a mobile-optimized website. When Morgan Stanley issued its report in 2010 predicting this quantum shift, there was a great deal of debate regarding the best model for which to operate in a multi-screen universe: adaptive or responsive. Adaptive promised faster load time, but required different manager for each different sized screen; its drawback was a heavier administrative burden. Responsive detected the size of the screen and served up the correct template from a single manager; its drawback was a slower load time and less focused information.
That debate is largely over – responsive has won.
There are a myriad of reasons for migrating your website to responsive if it isn’t already. Among them:
SEO: Google rewards search on mobile devices for websites that are mobile responsive. So if I’m looking on my smart phone for a brand of cat food, the store that is optimized for mobile will rank higher than the store with only a desktop version of their website, all other things being equal.
UX: A 2013 study by Vibes Mobile Marketing show that 89 percent of mobile users want a customized experience. If you’re not on the responsive boat then you are increasingly being left out of the conversation.
Digital Wallet: A 2013 study by Carisle & Gallagher found that 50 percent of current smartphone owners will use their mobile wallet for daily transactions by 2016. Again, are you in this loop, or out of it?
The appification of the web
A trendy, relatively new term, in the web universe, you’ll hear a lot more about Appification going forward. On one level Appification refers to the influence of mobile Apps on the development of websites. This expression can be seen most plainly in how both Apple’s desktop OS and Microsoft Windows user interface has become more App-like over the past two years.
A more subltle and useful definition, however, is to look at how websites and Apps differ in use – and how that functionality is beginning to merge.
Since their birth seven years ago with the first iPhone, Apps have been designed to serve a single function. Think of the calculator, map, or weather App on your smart phone.
The other characteristic of Apps is that it is a dialogue of information. In your map App, for example, you query a location and the App serves it up. Historically websites have been a monologue for information, meaning a visitor to your site typically gets information, but does has little interaction with it aside from a form or query for more information.
But with Appification this is all changing. For example, with one of our clients, RCPets.com (an online distributor of pet supplies), we have built a sophisticated store locator into their mobile responsive website. So whether you are browsing their website with a laptop or a smartphone, it can geo-locate where you are and the website will serve up the nearest retailer that stocks their goods. So, an interactive, two-way exchange.
If you understand this principle, there are an unlimited number of ways you can create a more powerful relationship with your site visitors who land on your home page.
**Supporting graphic: RCPets.com Appification
Cards as a design template
Websites such as Etsy and Pinterest are exemplar of a movement that is radically affecting the design architecture of home pages: cards or tiles.
Cards can be described as elements of information contained on discrete rectangular blocks. These design templates are ideal for transmission of information on mobile screens. Cards are infinitely flexible in terms of their delivery of information. Physical cards have been around for centuries (business cards, trading cards, playing cards), and have now been adapted for the web.
Facebook’s single-page newsfeed is an amalgamation of numerous cards. Twitter has moved to cards and, of course, Microsoft’s entire new Windows 8 platform is based upon cards.
From a design perspective this can allow for a unification of the look and feel of your home page and website across all mediums (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop) which leads to a more powerful an consistent user experience. It will also enable quicker turnaround times in terms of development as there will be less necessity to reimagine the design for each screen width – which in real terms will translate to cost savings.
** Supporting graphic: Pinterest Card Design
Omni channel and storytelling
The advent of a fragmented omni-channel digital landscape has presented many challenges to marketers and designers alike. But those who are willing to think deeply about how their brand and story can be manifested in each avenue can reap the rewards of greater customer loyalty and higher conversion rates.
The trick is to understand the strength for each channel and how what part of your story is best suited to that medium.
For example, if you’re a retailer, understand that the principal reason someone will search for you on their smartphone is to find hours and location. They may also be doing product research or comparing prices while in-store. The question then becomes, how do convey your “story” during each of these activities. Do you have free WIFI in-store to encourage price comparison? Do you have an intermediate landing page where you capture customer information before accessing WIFI?
Evolution of content marketing
The days of keyword-stuffing in to your website are long passed. Google’s search algorithm is widely acknowledged to have a bias toward real content, not content that is trying to game the their spiders. If you want to drive visitors to your home page, fresh and original content is a great place to start.
A recent study by Kapost (http://marketeer.kapost.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Content-Marketing-Kapost-Eloqua-eBook.pdf) has demonstrated that content creates three times the leads of paid search and costs 31 percent less. And over time the cost for content diminishes as it remains active in comparison to paid search for which there are no returns once your budget is spent.
Another important consideration with content marketing is Google Authorship. Google started this author verification program shortly after launching Google+ in 2011. Once registered with Google (http://blog.kissmetrics.com/google-authorship/), your photo and a short bio will appear next to your indexed articles. There is some debate about the efficacy of this program, but one study by Catalyst Research Marketing showed that having this snippet next to your article citation can lead to an increase in clicks of 150%.
Another channel for content marketing is sponsored content, which resides in the spectrum between advertising and editorial. Google recognizes content in editorial sources as having more validity than the same content on the sponsoring company’s website. By placing subject-area-expert content on editorial pages, sponsoring companies are able to get high rankings in organic search.
Supporting graphic: Google Authorship Graphic
The Internet of Things – Google Glass, i-watch, wearable technology
According to the GSMA (Group Speciale Mobile Association) there are currently 9 billion connected devices at present. By 2020 that number is expected to grow to more than 24 billion.
The phrase The Internet of Things refers to all of these connected devices (the current 8 billion mobile phones will grow to 12 billion in 2020). At the moment we think of connectivity in terms of smart phones, but in the very near future your home page (website) will have to take into consideration Google Glass and Apple’s soon to be released i-Watch. These devices will need a new design architecture and will present new marketing channels for your products and services.
The same GSMA study predicts that there will be tremendous opportunities for software and mobile-mediated hardware in verticals such as: consumer electronics ($445 billion), automotive ($202 billion), healthcare ($69 billion) and utilities ($32 billion).
Not only will these new opportunities bend the shape of how the home page will look, the interface will as well. We are currently well past point-and-click and into the swipe era. Vision tracking and voice will soon be common command inputs – how will your home page and website take advantage of these?
** Supporting Graphic: GSMA Internet of Things graphic
Data driven design
In this new era of big data we are sometimes subservient to the volume of information we collect. But it is wise to understand that quantitative data (numerical information that describes the who, what and where) alone is pretty useless unless it is paired with qualitative data (the why and the how derived from user observation, testing and surveys).
Take for example raw data from Google Analytics about a high bounce rate from a certain page on your website. On the surface that may seem bad, but when we learn that the page in question is intended to direct the visitor to a vendor, then the high bounce rate actually is positive.
We have enormous resources available to us in terms of data and analytics software. It is A/B testing on steroids and I’m sure Dr. James Lind would marvel at how far his innovation of the clinical test has evolved. The most important strategy to remember – no matter what new trend you decide on in pursuit of a better home page – is to test for data and then contextualize with observation. You won’t discover a cure for scurvy, but may design a better home page.
Rob Stocks is the founder and president of ideaLEVER Solutions, a BC-based web and e-commerce development company that serves clients across North America. For nearly 20 years, ideaLEVER has built partnerships with entrepreneurial organizations to grow their revenue with powerful and innovative online solutions.
Lloydmedia, Inc is based in Markham, Ontario, Canada, and is a multi-platform media company which delivers a total audience of more than 100,000 readers across four national magazines, three industry directories, and a range of events and online marketing.