Four reasons your homepage isn’t working like you want it to
Lots of website homepages are kind of awful. Long, overwhelming, full of content that feels like an advert, and doesn’t help users do the thing they came to the website to do.
The problem’s not what’s on the page. Scratch that. Of course it’s about what’s on the page. But the best design and the most crisp copy won’t work if you haven’t put enough thought into why they’re on the page.
Let me explain. A lot of the time, people don’t actively decide what to put on a homepage. It just kind of happens. They look at what other people are doing. Google ‘what to put on homepage’, read an article that says they need a hero panel and a call to action. Take some requests from stakeholders. A homepage slides into being.
The problem with this approach? There’s no why. It’s not strategic. And a few days, weeks, or months down the line, they realise it’s not working. Maybe the bounce rate is high, the click-through rate is low, or key metrics are falling.
In my work as a content strategist, I’ve noticed four big underlying reasons homepage content doesn’t work, and they all come back to knowing the why.
1. The homepage has lost its purpose
The purpose of a homepage is pretty simple. It should do three things:
- Show people what your organisation is about — in terms that mean something to them and are quick and easy to grasp.
- Help people navigate — by providing direct routes to key content, products, services, etc.
- Act as a shop window — giving an overview of what you have to offer, in an appealing way that makes people want to see more.
But homepages can stray from that purpose without a strong strategy behind the design process.
It can become organisation-focused, all we, we, we, talking about the organisation in self-serving terms. For example, ‘We’re in number one x in y’. The CEO might care, but your user doesn’t – especially with no proof to back that statement up.
Often it can become a place to dump things that you want to link to that don’t have a home elsewhere, like that one-off report you did, that product that doesn’t fit any category, or that bit of content that isn’t news and you can’t place anywhere else. This might be a sign that your information architecture and content model need some work too.
And finally, it can be a tool to placate stakeholders. Of course everyone wants their thing to be on the homepage. But saying ‘yes’ to every request is the fastest way to turn it into a bloated, confusing monster. You need rules for what goes on the page and why.
2. It doesn’t reflect what users need
The most crucial thing your homepage needs to do – the thread that runs through the three things I listed above – is meet your users’ needs. You need to:
- Show people what your organisation is about: For users who are new to your brand and need to understand who you are and why they should care.
- Help people navigate: Users don’t come to your homepage just to look at your homepage. They come because they want to navigate to something else that helps them complete the task they have in mind.
- Act as a shop window: For people who are getting familiar with your organisation or topic, or aren’t sure what they need and need to have the options laid out for them
If you don’t know what your user needs are, hit pause before you do any more work on your homepage. Spend some time finding out. You could:
- Add a survey to your homepage asking why people came to the website
- Look at your analytics. See the most popular pages on the site and the most common paths
- Do user interviews and ask people what they need
- Use the top tasks method to get a prioritised list of needs (Learn about top tasks, A List Apart)
Getting clarity on what people want from your website — and by extension your homepage — will make it much easier to choose what needs to be on there and establish a priority order.
3. It doesn’t reflect your strategy
Your homepage can’t just be about user needs — it needs to meet your organisation’s strategic goals too.
So make sure you’re up-to-date with your organisation’s overall strategy and mission. If you’ve got a digital strategy and a content strategy, look at those too. Your homepage should be working to support your strategic goals, so you need to be clear on what they are before you start. This makes a huge difference to your homepage content design. For example, if your big strategic focus is on educating users about issue x so that they see the value of product y, then your homepage will need to look very different than if your focus is on customer retention via loyalty offers.
4. You’re not working well with your stakeholders
The most overlooked part of building a great homepage is your stakeholders. As I said before, everyone wants their thing on the homepage. But if you say yes to all those requests, you’ll often end up with a messy, cluttered page that doesn’t reflect user needs.
Talk to your stakeholders early and often about your homepage project. Tell them what you’re doing, ask for their opinions, and find out what they need from the homepage and why. This gives you the best chance of avoiding those ‘But my thing MUST be in bold caps with a red button at the top of the page’ conversations.
Later on in the process, you can show them the thinking and evidence behind your decisions. For example, you might want to share that you’ve decided to put a link to a specific service at the top, because that’s what 50% of people come to the homepage for.
You could also try to show them that while the homepage is important, it’s not everything. Something that isn’t on the homepage isn’t invisible. Not everyone will land on your homepage. Many people will land deeper on your site from a search engine. It might not even be the biggest page on your site by page views. Check your website stats — it’s pretty likely that your homepage isn’t your biggest page by pageviews, and it might not be your biggest landing page.
Long-term, you need guidelines for what goes on the homepage and why, to help you have productive conversations and push back on some requests.
What to put on your homepage
If all this is sounding painfully familiar, it’s time to think about how you decide what to put on the page, not just what you put on the page.
The reality is that there’s no magic formula for a great homepage. What works brilliantly for one organisation won’t work for another.
Ultimately, a good homepage rests on three simple principles:
- Know your users and their needs: Find out who comes to your homepage and what they’re looking for, and use that to guide what content should be on there.
- Reflect your strategy: As well as reflecting user needs, your homepage needs to reflect your strategy as an organisation. Make sure it supports any relevant goals or objectives.
- Remember it’s about navigation: People don’t come to your homepage to see your homepage. They come to your homepage to get somewhere else, so make it easy for them.
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