Guardian office
Credit: Michael Bruntonspall on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Social media has largely become the shop window for consuming news, bringing in most traffic alongside search engines.

But does this mean publishers should no longer invest in redesigning their homepage? This article is the first in a series looking at how news organisations are now approaching the homepage, after it was pronounced dead by many in 2014.

The Guardian launched an international homepage in October for readers outside the UK, US or Australia, to capitalise on the 20 per cent increase in global traffic that occurred since the website redesign in January.

The flexible design allows international editors from the US or Australian edition to make their own choices around the stories they wish to promote on the homepage, which could be features or more analytical pieces rather than hard news for example.

The outlet's in-house analytics tool, Ophan, informs editorial decisions about the homepage, said Matt Wells, senior digital editor at the Guardian.

We use real-time analytics tools to inform our editorial decisions and our homepage choices, not necessarily lead themMatt Wells, the Guardian
Ophan has a heatmap that can be overlayed on top of the homepage to show how every story is performing in relation to the others, based on the click-through rate.

For example, editors might choose to feature a piece about the current elections in Myanmar as top story on the website, but analytics might show it is only the fifth most clicked story on the homepage.

"We use real-time analytics tools to inform our editorial decisions and our homepage choices, not necessarily lead them.

"If we were data-led, we would put the most clicked story as a top story. But if we see our main story isn't performing perhaps as well as we thought it ought to, it might make us consider using a different picture or adjusting the headline to make it more clear for the readers," explained Wells.

The Guardian recently built a custom offline experience that readers can access when they visit the website without an internet connection.

If they are using Google Chrome to browse on their desktop or mobile device, they will see a Guardian branded page and a crossword puzzle to solve while waiting for their connection to return.

The Service Worker technology used to develop it is currently supported only by Google Chrome, but the code used by the Guardian is open source and available for anyone to explore.

In the future, there could be an opportunity to build an offline homepage that enables people to read the Guardian in their browser without requiring an internet connection.

A few smaller changes have also been made to the live homepage since the outlet's website redesign.

One of them has been improving the way in which it displays bigger news stories, although Wells explained this particular design is used only on certain occasions.

For example, it was employed when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party, and when the news about a US air strike targeting a well-know Isis extremist broke earlier today.

"We had dozens of pieces, from live blogs to picture galleries, videos, interactives, comment pieces and so many angles that were being covered," he said.

"And we wanted to display the best of them in a way that did not only involve a long list of sub-links.

"We found that with the initial iteration of the homepage, a lot of secondary elements to the news story tended to get lost."

guardian homepage
Screenshot of today's Guardian homepage

The Guardian also improved the way its sports content was displayed on the homepage, particularly at weekends.

The outlet's content management system (CMS) allows editors to update the homepage simultaneously. On most days, the sports section is edited by journalists on the sports desk, which means "you can devolve responsibility for certain sections of the homepage to different people and it can be useful if you're looking for particular expertise".

The CMS makes updating a simple task – a quick 'drag and drop' feature mirrors the display of the live homepage in list form, and shows what stories are being published in real time.

The Guardian is "far from thinking that the homepage is dead" and recognises that even if readers come to the website via social media, it does not necessarily mean they are less likely to be regular readers, said Wells.

"Editing the Guardian homepage is a 24/7 job and readers' habits are changing all the time," he added.

"So we're constantly looking at ways of improving the experience for them, and that means using everything at our disposal to put our stories in front of as many people as possible."

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