If you work for a big brand legacy title such as the Telegraph, New York Times or Guardian, it is likely that between 40 and 50 per cent of your readers may come in via the front door, either because they have typed your domain name, bookmarked the site or because they searched for it on Google.
If you work for a smaller or niche site, the homepage is less likely to be the first page people see, with some sites getting 5 or 10 per cent of their readers coming in through the front door.
The catch-all of 'direct'
If you use Google Analytics or Omniture for analytics, you will see a category called 'direct'.
The direct category not only includes homepage direct traffic, but also 'dark' traffic where the referrer data has been stripped.
This can include people sharing by email, pointing family and friends in the direction of an article, or via instant messenger. This means 'dark' social traffic can be misattributed as direct.
Zach Seward, senior editor at business news site Quartz, told Journalism.co.uk that the 'direct' category can lead to confusion.
"It leads to a lot of mistaken impressions about the nature of traffic on various websites," he said. "The reality is that some platforms, including Google Analytics and Omniture, don't pick up all referrer data. It doesn't mean that in not picking it up you should assume it's all internal."
He added: "It varies from site to site what portion is really homepage traffic versus just traffic for which a referrer wasn't picked up."
With that in mind, look again at your 'direct' traffic. Drill down and you will see that some of the direct traffic is to your homepage, and some is to long article URLs. It is unlikely anyone has manually typed in that long URL, so it is much more likely that it has been shared via email or IM. There is more on 'dark social' in this feature.
How much front door traffic do other sites have?
Analysts at Chartbeat, a real-time analytics platform, recently ran a study on news site traffic for Journalism.co.uk which we published this week.
The study – which looked at 60 billion page views over the course of a month – found that homepage direct traffic varies hugely. On average around 50 per cent of the audience is direct, the report states, with the proportion "ranging from 5 per cent to 90 per cent direct".
Josh Schwartz, head of data science at Chartbeat, told us that the 50 per cent figure is "radically biased" towards the largest domains, because "the largest domains are most likely to have the largest homepage direct traffic and the largest domains count more if you take a representative sample of traffic."
He added that "sites that are more likely to be shared on social are more likely not to have a large amount of homepage traffic.
Quartz, which launched just over a year ago, gets about 10 per cent of its traffic direct from the homepage.
"It stands to reason that the newer the publication, the smaller the percentage of homepage traffic," Quartz's Zach Seward said.
"Legacy organisations have had time to build a loyal audience," he explained. "But the other more important reason is that the notion of going to a homepage is quickly becoming out of date."
A new publication, such as Quartz, should not expect large numbers to enter by the front door. Seward said: "Assuming people are just going to come to you is foolish and your strategy ends up being based around trying to get people to come to individual articles, and the homepage becomes less important."
'Strong versus weak brands'
Andrew Montalenti, co-founder and chief technology officer of Parse.ly, told us one way he thinks of news sites is as "strong versus weak brands".
"If you think about a strong brand in the news sphere, such as Parse.ly customer Fox News, they have their homepage as one of the primary ways they communicate editorial intention to their loyal audience. This is what their editors are saying these people should be reading on a given day," he said.It's silly to say homepages aren't important given that they are so effective as traffic sources for a lot of major and strong brandsAndrew Montalenti, Parse.ly
"A weak brand will find that audience only encounters their articles via external sources," he added.
"A weak brand won't get a lot of people typing in the homepage and bookmarking it, or setting it as their browser default, and instead these people will sort of stumble on the articles via social networks or via search queries."
There is an aspect of branding to homepages, Montalenti said. And indeed the Chartbeat study proves the homepage direct audience is the most loyal, with 80 per cent of people returning within one week.
"It's silly to say homepages aren't important given that they are so effective as traffic sources for a lot of major and strong brands," Montalenti said.
"Maybe instead you should consider that the homepage is kind of an indication of whether you have a loyal audience that has a sticky remembering of your brand and is seeking out the editorial judgment of your staff."
'Front door versus side door'
The second way Montalenti thinks about homepages is "front door versus side door brands".
For example The Atlantic, which like Quartz is owned by The Atlantic Media Company and is another Parse.ly customer, is also a very strong brand, Montalenti said. "They have a major newspaper and people respect their writing widely and they have been around for more than a century – but their content has a side door orientation."The 'homepage is dead' is a meme I hear a lot in publishers, but I also think that it's Kool-Aid they shouldn't really be drinkingAndrew Montaleni, Parse.ly
"Even though many people do go to The Atlantic's homepage, their best pieces and their most viral pieces are long-form opinion pieces either that make controversial claims and are widely shared.
"Those pieces of content will draw in a lot of people through the side door, and so it is very important for them to orient their strategy around that side door as a brand," Montalenti explained.
"By contrast, Dallas Morning News is a front door orientation publisher," Montalenti said. "That's because people in Dallas, Texas go to that site in order to find out what's new locally in their area and they are relying on the editors to make their selections for them."
Montalenti added: "The 'homepage is dead' is a meme I hear a lot in publishers, but I also think that it's Kool-Aid they shouldn't really be drinking."
A growing site
Publishers in a growth phase, such as Quartz, should also focus their strategy on letting readers in through the side door, Montalenti said.
And this is exactly what Quartz is doing. Seward explained that the site "had ambitious goals for growing the audience quickly in the first year of operation".
The site celebrated its first anniversary last month and averages 3.3 million uniques a month, with 5 million uniques in July.
"In order to go to zero audience to where we are now, it was very clear that we would have to rely very heavily on distribution in social media," Seward said.We knew that we would live or die based on whether individual articles were shared on sites like Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, less than we would live or die based on homepage trafficZach Seward, Quartz
"We knew that we would live or die based on whether individual articles were shared on sites like Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, less than we would live or die based on homepage traffic.
"And there's really no limit on the potential growth you can achieve if the vast majority of your traffic is coming in through social," he added. (It is worth noting that Seward was previously social media editor at the Wall Street Journal.)
Quartz gets 35 per cent of its traffic from "light social" and between 25 and 30 per cent of traffic from "dark social".
At news:rewired, a journalism conference held last month, Jay Lauf, publisher of Quartz, explained how Quartz journalists are asked to write the headline to a story first, and to do it in 140 characters to see if it is sharable. If they cannot write that headline "it is not a Quartz story", he said.
Asked if he feels traditional news outlets perhaps spend too much time focusing on section homepages, Seward questioned the nation of sections themselves.
"I think way too many news sites are organised like newspapers," he said. "There's a lot of sense to the structure of a print newspaper being divided into sections, but when a lot of newspapers move to create their presence online they seem to have recreated a lot of the print metaphors, and the chief way that that is done is through these sections."
There may be benefits in terms of print readers understanding the web layout, Seward continued, "but for the most part people do not use section fronts".
Designed for the side door
Everything about the design of Quartz emphasises individual articles over a navigational structure, Seward said. There is a way to navigate around the site as readers can go to Quartz 'obsessions', "but we were set on the fact that all news websites live or die based on individual articles".
The homepage is dead, long live the homepage
Seward may argue that the "notion of a traditional homepage is going away", but he adds that "we are also seeing a number of sites that are structured kind of like homepages succeeding".
He gave three examples: Techmeme, an aggregator of tech news; Digg in its relaunched version, which is essentially a single page which links out to content on the rest of the web; and Drudge Report, which "is probably the oldest example of a site like this – it's just a single page of links to the rest of the web", Seward said.
"These are homepages, in a sense, and the three are very successful. People do seem willing to bookmark or otherwise remember to go to these sites and that's in tension with the argument that traditional news homepages are dying.
"I don't think that it's the case that there is no hope for landing pages or pages that have a collection of links on them, it's just that homepages as traditionally conceived by news organisations will have diminishing value."
This feature is based on a Journalism.co.uk podcast.
Free daily newsletter
- How Quartz redesigned its homepage to showcase different storytelling formats
- Data-informed: How the Guardian and the FT use newsroom analytics
- What the media can learn from coverage of the Paris attacks
- Tip: Bookmark this advice for covering natural disasters
- How the Guardian is building a homepage for the social media age