Anatomy of a Home Page
Critical Components That Draw in Users
By Gabrielle Mosquera
Here's a ratio: Home page is to Web site as storefront is to retail and cover is to catalog. In short, it's the first impression prospects have of your company, and a critical one at that.
In fact, a home page has to work even harder than a retail storefront or print cover because it must facilitate transactions further on in the site, says Bridget Fahrland, executive creative director at e-business consultancy Fry Multimedia.
"It can't just be about catching the eye. Something there has to get [customers] to go deeper," she explains.
Though much of home page design depends on each cataloger's company size, product offerings and target audience, there are a few things that every home page should have—and a few that it shouldn't.
Brand Consistency: First and Foremost
Of all the messages a home page must communicate, brand may be the most important. "There are two types of people who come to your home page: people who know your brand and people who don't," asserts Fahrland.
Beyond communicating to users that they've reached the right place, a clear brand message helps establish their trust in the site itself. Fahrland notes this is particularly important for small catalogers with lesser-known brands—they need to immediately convince users that the site, and by extension the company, is a reliable one.
To establish this, first ensure that your logo is prominently (though not overwhelmingly) displayed, and that the colors used align with those in your print catalog.
But don't stop at your logo. Carry the message through in the language, tone and graphics style as well, says Ken Burke, founder and CEO of e-consultancy Multimedia Live. For example, lifestyle and/or product shots speak volumes for your brand message—they communicate whether or not your catalog concentrates on the merchandise itself or the way of life associated with it.
Also, says Burke, remember your brand image when designing your home page's "kicker" spaces (the larger, clickable sections of the page). Both what you say inside these kickers, as well as the language used to say it, carry strong brand implications.
Products and Promotions
Brand comes into play again in your selling space. Burke proposes using promotions only if your message speaks to such offers. If it does, have both your pictures and copy match your message.
For example, catalogers that rely on promotional material should use the word "sale," while those who stay away from discounting can use "clearance" or "outlet."
Fahrland lists banners or spotlights with text overlay, tastefully designed price call-outs and special sales sections as some of the most successful promotional sections of e-tailers' home pages.
She also recommends devoting roughly 65 percent of your home page to selling product. When doing so, she says, use photos that are bigger than thumbnails, but smaller than the photos used on full product pages. Correctly optimizing these will help keep your home page size to less than 80K (a measurement Burke uses as a standard), which keeps your site's load time to a minimum.
Of course, promotions all should be bolstered by prominent purchasing and/or shopping cart buttons, as well as a button that links the user to information about his or her account or list of favorites.
At the same time, keep the page looking clean and simple. Burke advises catalogers to limit the "clickable" spots on their home pages to less than 25. Any more, he says, and you've lost the customer.
Search and Quick Order Area
Include both a search box and a quick catalog order box on your home page, states Jim Sterne, president of e-consultancy Target Marketing of Santa Barbara.
Fahrland agrees. "There's a set of people who have your catalog in hand, and a set who only remember 'that red merino wool sweater,'" she affirms.
Sterne also recommends supplementing your search box with filtering options that specify product or age categories (e.g., "gifts" and then "4- to 6-year-old girl").
Adding a box to the search/quick order area where users can type in their e-mail addresses to receive e-newsletters and promotions is another handy home page tool, suggests Burke.
Opinions on up-and-down scrolling vary. Some experts view it as a deterrent for customers and advise against using it. Others, such as Marc Waldeck, managing director of marketing strategy firm Brave New Markets, are less resistant, but stress keeping the most pertinent information "above the fold" in the page's top 600 pixels.
However, all experts interviewed here give an unequivocal "no" when asked whether side-to-side scrolling is advantageous or even necessary for a home page, saying it not only makes the customer work to view the page, but it goes against the basic principles of Web design. Waldeck compares it to a partially viewed catalog cover: "How successful is the front page if I can only see half of it?"
Company information, while important, should take a backseat to the previously mentioned components. Try putting links to the following at the bottom of the page: