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5 things your homepage says about you

17th May 2012

We’ve all seen homepages of companies or government agencies that have put us right off. But what is it that so many organisations get wrong on the most prominent part of their digital presence? Here are 5 common culprits:

1. Me! Me! Me!
After reading the first half-sentence, your mind starts to wander. Why is it the content can’t hold your attention for more than 5 seconds? Often it is because the organisation has written every title and every paragraph from their own point of view. They talk about their programs, products, services and activities in their own terms and through their own eyes. While this is completely understandable and natural, it has the tendency to lose visitors very quickly. They come to your website to have their problem solved. Unless your homepage gives them an immediate sense that it can do that for them, they will go elsewhere.

2. What is it again you do?
While it sounds like the opposite of the previous point, it is actually the logical consequence of it. Websites often neglect to tell their visitors what it is the organisation actually does. The remedy is of course not to start talking about Me! Me! Me! again, but to think about how little a first-time visitor may know about you and – in very simple terms – explain to them what you do.

3. Last update: June 2009
Very often, homepages are misused as nothing more than glorified navigation menus, merely illustrating the choices of the primary navigation. This is a missed opportunity to use this most prominent piece of digital real estate to its full potential. A homepage can convey how much is happening at your organisation. It can feature prominently the kind of content visitors love and search engines rank highly. Whether it be a news module, a blog or upcoming events, think about what kinds of interesting content your business or agency can generate on an ongoing basis.

4. That face looks familiar
We’ve all learned that photos are inherently attractive to people, and most prominently photos of other people. Many website developers thus go to any of the dozens of stock photography vendors and pick a few photos of generic models posing as business people. The worst clichés include the round-table business meeting, the female-in-a-suit pointing out something on a clipboard to the male-in-a-suit and of course everyone’s favourite, the business handshake. Ditch this tired imagery and replace it with photos that actually have something to do with your organisation. Invest in getting a photographer to create imagery that truly represents you, hire an illustrator or – if you must use stock imagery – go for quirky and unusual.

5. Lost in a sea of text
This may come as a shock to you, but people do not read on the web. Full stop. The chance of someone actually reading an entire webpage you present is about as big as that of someone reading the entire End User Licence Agreement before clicking Accept. When users visit a website, what they do is scan. And what they scan is, in descending order:

- images
- headings
- hyperlinks
- the first 2-4 words of each paragraph

This is why writing for the web is so fundamentally different from writing for any other media (and why Reading Room has been conducting dozens of “Writing for the Web” workshops around the globe). You need to convey what you are trying to say in as few words as possible, and it needs to be said in the language and from the point of view of your visitor (see point 1 above).

So what can we do about it?
The best recipe against committing these all-too-frequent web fauxpas’ is to apply a thorough, user-centred design approach to developing your website’s architecture, design, functionality and content. Find out who your users are. Get to know them intimately. Ask them about their interaction with you. Design and deliver your website to satisfy their scenarios.

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