For some time now Google has been working hard to add meaning to its users’ search terms. Ask Google “who is the President of the United States” and unsurprisingly it will tell you “Barack Obama”, ask it “who is his wife” and it will respond “Michelle Obama”. This may not appear particularly striking; however note that without the first question, the second question is meaningless. This straightforward example illustrates that Google is increasingly responding not just to an explicit search term but also to an implicit search context.
Google will use any contextual information it can get its hands on to provide increasingly nuanced responses, using sources such as geographical information, cues from social networks, and previous user behaviour. Search for “the tube” in London and Google won’t take you to the Transport for London website, rather it will display the tube station nearest to you, ask it for the “best” hotel in a city and it won’t show you the hotel with the word “best” most in its keywords, rather it will search hotels.com, Google reviews and other trusted third parties to actually seek the best hotel.
The Germans swept all before them at this year’s World Cup and throughout the competition Google demonstrated an efficiency even they would have been proud of, answering the laziest of questions and accurately understanding the context implicit in each search. Each day throughout the tournament one only needed to ask “what time is the match on at” it would display the time of the next match or matches.
However its SERPS included much more than just the time and location of the fixture. Predicting follow–up user needs it displayed kick off time (local and BST), team lists, TV schedules and other key match details. Many Google users throughout the World Cup, looking for tournament information, never made it near the home page of any site because Google provided all of the information that was required.
On the flip side of the coin, a Google search for a specific product (e.g. an electronic good, or a piece of clothing) will frequently, and quite rightly, provide SERPS pointing the user straight to that product or a product category page on the appropriate e–commerce websites.
What the various examples have in common is that at no stage does Google steer anyone towards a home page.
This behaviour isn’t unique to Google. All major search engines are similarly working hard to get users to relevant authoritative content more quickly. The vast majority of social network links are to specific types of content, or particular articles, or blog posts, not to home pages.
This dynamic was at the heart of the leaked New York Times innovation report, which was described by Nieman Lab as “one of the key documents of the media age”.
The newspaper was shocked to learn that whilst overall traffic to its site has increased year on year since the late 1990s, home page traffic dropped by 50% between 2011 and 2013. This was a shock to a newspaper organisation which for over a century saw the front page as its most valuable property. Journalists aspired to get their story on the front page, editors poured over the stories of the day to see who would make the cut and the front page impact was recognised as a massive driver of brand, perception and ultimately sales.
As the organisation reoriented its processes around digital publishing it accepted slowly that it needed to fall out of love with the home page. Rather it needed to appreciate that every day the online version of the newspaper had hundreds of front pages, as its millions of online visitors visited hundreds of different pages as their entry point to the site.
And so each of those entry points had to have the same impact and relevance as the printed front page.
This understanding is at the heart of interactive content design and its implications are clear. Your home page is not the entry point for every visitor and many visitors may never see it, so design your information architecture accordingly. Many users will want to access your information without ever visiting your site, so let Google understand you better by using the Webmaster tools. But most of all don’t design your website like a brochure, obsessing about the home page and signing it off from a flat printout. Accept that many pages on your site are of critical importance and you are likely to have tens if not hundreds of pages which give your customers a first impression.
And you only get one chance to make one of those.