Eric Schmidt would approve of the new Quartz homepage

The homepages of all news websites are pretty much the same: some pictures and lots of headlines, all linked to full stories. Until last week, as far as I know, every news website in the world had a homepage except one. Now even that exceptional news website—Quartz—has succumbed.

Launched in 2012, Quartz wanted to be like The Economist but for the 21st century… “embodying the era in which it is being created”. When you visited qz.com, you didn’t reach a homepage. Instead you were dumped on to whatever was the top story at the moment. If you didn’t like it, simply scroll down for the 2nd most important story, or choose one from the sidebar.

Their logic for this design was pretty simple: most people were coming to news websites from the side door of social media. A few months ago, a leaked New York Times report showed that unique visitors to their homepage fell from 160 million in 2011 to 60 million in 2013, which only reaffirmed the Quartz stance. They proclaimed, while acknowledging the self-serving argument, that the “homepage is dead“.

quartz-s-audience-growth-since-launch-unique-visitors-trailing-three-month-average_chartbuilder

The audience growth chart would make it seem that the “no homepage” strategy seems to be working. And, yet, this week Quartz introduced a homepage. Living up to their spirit of experimenting, the homepage design is unusual.

Homepages are boring…

Most homepage designs are boring, partly because of their function (and partly because of the old mindset of the newspaper industry). If you want to give your reader what you think are top stories and still leave choice for them, you need a page where headlines and pictures can be placed strategically so that you can nudge the reader towards stories that you deem important.

Not having a homepage may seem to be the lazy approach. The common belief is that an editorial staff is paid not only to produce important and interesting stories, but also to help the reader navigate this complex world by showing them which stories are more worthy of their attention. When you don’t have a homepage, you are letting the reader come to their own conclusions about what is important and what is not. And for this extra effort that you demand from them, they may decide not to read your website.

But Quartz didn’t seem to care, and neither did their readers. In the two years since launch, only 10% of the visitors were coming to Quartz stories via qz.com. Rest were taking the side-door: social media, direct referrals, search engines and email.

…but they still matter

Homepages are designed to increase reader loyalty. This is one reason that despite falling traffic to them, they remain central to how news websites function. People go to news websites when they are bored at work or when they want to know what’s going on.

When you visit the website of a large news organisation, you are guaranteed that they will have at least one story (of course linking back to their own website) of the most important happenings in the world. But if you are a startup news website with a small editorial team, how do you compete with the big dogs?

Quartz found the answer in their email newsletter. In less than two years, their daily newsletter—the digital equivalent of a printed newspaper—was being to sent to 70,000 subscribers. More than 40% of those subscribers opened the newsletter every day, which is a surprisingly large proportion of readers.

The success of the newsletter—called the Daily Brief—spurred Quartz to create a homepage in a bid to leverage this loyalty further. The new homepage consists of tailored summaries about “your world right now”, which are continuously updated. Right now, there are 10 summaries with multiple links in each. And, like the newsletter, the links aren’t always those that take you to a Quartz story.

Eric Schmidt would approve

Not simply linking to Quartz stories is how their homepage could compete with the big dogs. This move gives Quartz the freedom to choose the best story from any news organisation in the world, and still build a loyal readership to their own homepage. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, would approve of the homepage. Recently he said, “The best way to stay ahead is a laser focus on building great products that people need.”

What people need from a news website’s homepage is an update about the world around them and high quality information to put things in context. It doesn’t matter to the reader whether that information comes from your own reporters or that from a Guardian reporter. As long as your homepage is providing the links to the best information, loyal readers will come back. This is one reason why news aggregation websites have become so popular.

The downside is that readers may not click through to Quartz stories as often. But that trade-off is worth it if the total number of visitors to the homepage goes up, because then the absolute number of clicks will increase both on Quartz and non-Quartz stories.

The new-style homepage is fertile ground to experiment. For instance, based on the number of clickthroughs, Quartz can gauge reader interest in particular stories. If a non-Quartz story is doing very well, it could inform the newsroom to cover that story in their own style. And when they do, they can simply swap the link and retain the reader.

If nothing else, as senior editor Zach Seward told Nieman Lab, “If you don’t build a homepage for people to go to, they’re not going to come to it.” I have a feeling that I will use the Quartz homepage more often than I use the Daily Brief.

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