Home Page Essentials: Five Questions Every Home Page Should Answer

By Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan

We’ve noticed a disturbing trend in home page design -- information overload. Web designers and developers seem to have resolved the "to click or to scroll?" controversy by loading everything onto the home page. "More and more and more is better," they seem to be saying.

But, to our mind, home page overload creates more problems than it solves. When there’s too much information on the home page, users can’t process it. It’s similar to driving down the highway (the real one, not the information one) and being inundated by so many billboards that you miss the one sign you’re actually looking for.

We understand how home page overload happens. An e-commerce developer wants to use the home page to announce every product the company sells. Or dueling departments within a company fight for home page real estate. And advertisements produce revenue! It’s often easier to put everything on the home page than to make tough editorial choices.

Overloading the home page may quiet your colleagues, but it’s a disservice to your site visitors who then have the frustrating task of sorting through and processing the information. And, as we all know, frustrated site visitors don’t stick around to figure things out; they simply click off overloaded home pages.

To make your home page do what you intended it to do – earn money, build community, disseminate information – be sure it answers these five essential questions.

1.  Who Are You?
First of all, tell visitors who you are.  If you're a household name—Cocal Cola—your logo may be all you need.  If not, you need a tagline or statement that says what you're about.

As you write this important identifying statement, keep your visitors in mind. Don’t post your mission statement: "...our goal is to optimize our relationships with customers..." Instead, write a concise, user-focused phrase. A couple of good examples: Mayoclinic.com ("Reliable information for a healthier life." ) and Magellans.com ("America's leading source of travel supplies."

2.  How Is Information Organized At Your Site?

The home page should indicate to the user how you’ve organized or structured your site. And the site structure should be obvious and logical. Is the site ordered by product or by service? By department or by region? The home page must enable the user to determine where he will find answers to his questions. If his first attempt doesn’t yield pay dirt, he may not try again.

Think of a home page as the table of contents in a magazine – organized, annotated, enticing. Magazine contents are organized by departments: feature articles, short tidbits, columns, letters. A short blurb describes each item and provides a hook, a reason for the reader to turn pages. A home page has a similar function. Its purpose is to provide a logical structure for the information the site contains, preview the information, and give the user a reason to click or scroll for more. Though it contains a great deal of information, the home page of ISP Earthlink is clearly organized and easy to follow.

3.  What's New, Hot, Or Timely?

The home page is the right place to tell the user about sales, new products, or web site updates. Time-sensitive information -- contests or product offers, breaking news -- deserve space on the home page. You want visitors to come back frequently so the home page should tell them what’s changed since their last visit.

4.  What Can The Visitor Do At Your Site?

Remember that websites promote interaction. At your home page give the user a way to interact: sign up for a newsletter; enter a contest; participate in a poll, quiz, or chat. Even better, some home pages allow users to personalize the interaction. A return visitor to Amazon.com can get personalized product recommendations.  At office supplier, Staples, a return visitor can "check order status" or "view order history."

5.  How Can The Visitor Get Help?

Don’t make users go on a scavenger hunt to find out how to contact you. Place contact information, or a button that leads to complete contact information, on the home page. Complete contact information includes e-mail, telephone, fax, street address, and the name of a contact person will will answer questions. The Internet is about customer service. If you don’t want to hear from users, and if you won’t answer their questions fully and promptly, don’t put up a website!

(c) E-WRITE, 2004 - 2008.

Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE , a training and consulting company that specializes in writing for online readers. Rudick and O'Flahavan are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.