Saturday, September 19, 2009

Can magazine publishers pick up where Google's FastFlip leaves off?

Google recently unveiled its Fast Flip experiment, which is a new way of "flipping" through web pages much like you'd thumb through a print magazine. The few reviews I've read have panned the user experience. But I like what Publishing 2.0's Scott Karp says about Fast Flip:
It doesn’t matter so much whether Google succeeds or fails with this particular experiment. What matters is that they are trying to solve the right problem.
He's dead on. The Web is a non-linear, hyper-textual medium. Great for discovering related content from different publishers. But pretty lousy for recreating a contiguous reading experience. Hence the abysmal stat that most content sites have an average of 2 to 3 pageviews per visit. (Five pageviews per visit is considered really good!)

Fast Flip has the right idea of flipping through content. But what's missing is linearity. They're just a bunch of disconnected web pages loosely organized around a topic. It's frustrating because it seems like a linear experience, but it's not at all. They're packaged, but not packaged well. Because they're packaged by a computer.

Magazine publishers of course, use humans for packaging content--we call them editors and artists. What we humans should be doing is riffing on Google's experiment, but going one better, creating and packaging "mini mags" in digital form -- not digital replicas, with their clunky user interfaces -- but creating multi-screen segments of content. I'll call these content tranches.  (Let's see if this bit of jargon sticks!)

I'm not sure a content tranche should be a magazine replica per se. I doubt it, actually. Rather, a content tranche could be multiple screens on the same article, or could be 4 to 6 different articles packaged together around the same subject matter, or could be a linear 5-page slide show, or what have you. Or could be videos interspersed. I'm not prescribing a specific formula for what content tranches should be, or how they should look. They will vary by publication and by audience. But I suspect they will NOT be a direct recreation of a 3- or 4-page print article. They'll be unique to the Web.

As Karp urges us, we should be experimenting with both the user interface AND the content itself, packaging it up in these content tranches, making them easy to discover, flip through, or consume.

By doing so, we'll be able to not only double, triple, quadruple (or more) our pageviews (good for ad inventory), but we'll create engaging, satisfying web experiences that will attract and retain users (good for ad performance). We'll create value for our brands in the eyes of our users. And maybe we'll even call them "readers" again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why the article page, not the home page, is more important to the success of your site

When we embark on a new Web site project or a Web site redesign, it's customary to first start with the design of the home page. Most of us have been in the endless meetings where everyone weighs in on what the home page should look like. Days, weeks, sometimes months later, we emerge with a final home page design. Then we focus ongoing attention to the home page as we continually tinker with our sites, attempting to improve our metrics.

However, at the same time, it's fairly common knowledge among e-media folks that most of the visitors to our Web sites don't come in through the home page. And that most pageviews on the Web site happen on article pages rather than the home page.

But it had been awhile since I had documented this, so I wanted to do a guy check. I analyzed, for our top two Web sites, two metrics side-by-side: how many people entered on the home page versus an article page, and how many pageviews the home page got versus the article pages. The results confirmed the supposition: That in both cases, article pages, not home pages, both attract and conduct far more traffic.

Yet during the Web site design/redesign process, they get far less of our attention. (Or at least my attention.) Indeed, in many cases we're guilty of hastily assembling the article page design at the last minute, or merely using an existing template in the content management system, or worse, letting the programmers decide.

What if we paid attention to the article page template first, when designing? What if we really thought through how the article page can be used to draw people further into the site, to other pages? What if we took these percentages to heart and spent 60% of our time and energy on he article page and 10% on the home page?

I think we'd see better outcomes as Web site publishers. Think if you were able to increase pageviews per visit by 50% by experimenting with the home page. Now say instead you took that time and spent it optimizing the article page, and achieved the same 50% lift. You'd get a lot more bang for your buck, wouldn't you?

I'm not saying the home page should be ignored! It's certainly the first impression many visitors have of the site, and it's especially important to advertisers. It should look good and function well. But in terms of moving the needle on your Web site's performance, the article page is where the focus should be.

Okay, I've made my point. Here is one neat trend I'm seeing others do on their articles that I hope to steal during our next redesign:

Browsable horizontal scroll device with big headlines and pictures -- This example is from the Wall Street Journal. Also, note carefully that they number the articles: 1 of 10, 2 of 10, 3 of 10, etc. They're trying to re-introduce linear reading habbits into a hypertextual medium. Each article becomes a mini 10-page magazine or reading experience. It's crude, and it feels automated (several of the articles I saw didn't really seem to belong) but it's a great start.

The Huffington Post article page does something very similar, though they lack the "1 of 10, 2 of 10" linear numbering system. But they use wide, engaging pictures for each article, and have the self-same left-right arrow tools, though on opposite sides of the page. Also note on the Huffington Post page the very large headlines and photos for each article in the boxes down the left hand side.

There are many, many other clever things Web site publishers are doing to rethink the article page to increase engagement with our sites. We should all pay closer attention.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Web metrics: Why bounce rate is a good idea that you should ignore

Recently we converted our Web analytics over from NetTracker, a log-file based analytics tool, to Google Analytics. After the initial vertigo that accompanies the jaw- and traffic-dropping shift from log file to page tagging analytics software I began to look closely at some of the metrics that Google Analytics offers.
As media companies, we tend to focus, with some bravado, on our traffic--this many visitors, that many visits, and this many pageviews.
But the fact is, many times visitors come to the site, realize that they've hit the wrong site, and leave. This is called a bounce. I'm pretty sure most publishers aren't reporting this metric to advertisers.
The bounce rate is basically the number of single-page visits as a percentage of all your visits. The intent behind the bounce rate is very good. It asks us to focus on visit engagement or quality, and shift away from the raw numbers. Put another way, if you have a site with 100K unique visitors per month, but 88% of them came once and left, is that such a good thing? Is that audience really engaged?
When content site owners first look at bounce rates, they can seem rather scarily high. Across our sites, bounce rates range from 50% to 80%.
When I shared these with our sales team at a recent meeting, there was mild panic in the room. Our most numbers-oriented, analytical salesperson asked me for a set of reports that excluded those who bounced. Which would leave a puny core of die-hard users.
So, does everyone who bounced (that is, visited one page and left) count as a useless visit? No, and that's the problem with bounce rate.
Bounce rate is a good idea that's an unreliable metric for content sites. Consider these three scenarios that are typical of the way people consume content on the Web these days:
  • A visitor clicks through on one of your headlines in an email newsletter to read the full story on the Web site.
  • Another visitors does a search in Google, finds one of your videos in the search results, clicks through to watch the entire video (highly engaged), and then leaves.
  • A third visitor clicks on an article to your site that was forwarded by a friend or colleague.

In all three cases above, I would argue those are highly engaged experiences. But Google says they're bounces. Hence the problem with bounce rates.
Bounce rates make sense for e-commerce sites, which of course, is what drives a lot of Google's advertising business, and hence, its entire product suite--a relentless focus on conversion optimization. Bounce rate figures into that.
But for content sites, bounce rate cannot be considered a reliable measure of engagement. What is?
Return visits and time on site. The're oldies but goodies. (For more, I recommend reading this article on audience metrics on the newly launched eMediaVitals web site, which is the most intelligent site I've seen on emedia, hands-down.)
A new metric is emotional reaction. How do visitors feel about our site? Maybe 100K people visit the site, but 90% of them hate it. That doesn't get captured in any traditional analytics software. That's why we've started using Kampyle on our sites--it's a brilliant way to unobtrusively capture feedback from site visitors, with a little device that hovers quietly in the corner of every page. Definitely one of those "Why didn't I think of that" ideas.
And of course, my favorite metric, outcomes. Some folks call them conversions. I.e., how many people signed up for a newsletter or registered for a white paper or video? We recently learned that for one of our brands, we had over 80,000 registered users register for 290,000 pieces of content over the last three years. That metric didn't even come out of Google Analytics. (It came from our LeadWise-powered AccelaWorks platform.) And yet it is the most accurate measure of engagement that I can think of, because it's where the rubber meets the road -- a web site visitors taking a defined action that creates value for both them and the advertiser.