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Homepages - The great divide

User Lab (Social Media Portal) - 13 March 2006

Homepages - The great divide

The nature of the web is changing and websites need to adjust their homepages accordingly, argues John Knight, director, User-Lab

If you were to sit down and think about it, how many sites would you estimate that you visit in a day?  I hardly ever venture further than The BBC and about four work-related sites and I’m guessing that this is the same for most people.  It wasn’t always the case though; I remember when we all used to visit numerous sites every day.  But the four – five sites I visit daily have developed a reputation of trust with me, I can rely on them for security, information and / or entertainment and are ones I would sorely miss if they disappeared or were transferred solely into RSS feeds.  Photograph of John Knight, director, User-Lab

Remember the bad old days of the Web when it would often take an entire afternoon to find a single piece of information?  Coined ‘Surfing the Web’ though drowning seemed a more appropriate word.  Every few months there would be a new type of browser that claimed to make this easier but few lasted… does anyone actually use Netscape anymore?

These were the days of Web directories; searching for a plumber and being unsure whether it would be in 'emergencies' or 'services'.  Back then the pundits saw the best sites as the ones that had the best structure.  Good sites provided a hierarchy that anyone could drill down to find information, and information (rather than content) is what the Web was all about.

As well as having a 'good' architecture the pundits at the time loved standardisation.  Yes, the best sites all looked the same, had the same structure and did the same things. This meant that Web design was something you could do once in a lifetime because all you needed to do was to follow the standards and guidelines.  You could then rest assured that once the site had gone live you could put your feet up until the marketing department had the rebranding brainwave.  In this world homepages had one job to do - to make sure that people knew what the site was about and how to 'work' it.

Fortunately (and that's my opinion) things have evolved someway since those days, making the Web a better place surf.

But how did this happen?  Did the usability gurus effect change?  Did developers become more user-centric? No, the most crucial improvement on the Web has been a technological one and the main example of this are search engines.  This technology has fundamentally changed the way we interact on the Web; who goes to directories anymore?  In fact when I land on a new site (its normally hotel related) that looks like a directory I click the back button to straight to my search engine. However, this is only the beginning (of what?).

As the hype around Web Version 2 subsides and we begin to see consumer versions of Web services, our whole conception of the Internet is likely to change. Web sites, home pages and menus are all likely to become as distant a memory as web directories. These innovations mean that rather than surfing, users will be ordering up content.  Whizz-bang technology will then run off and collect all of the information we need and give it to us via voice, text, video (or whichever other medium we choose). It should make the Web more useful, accessible and engaging.

In this fluid world you might begin to miss the stability of a really solid directory.  You must ask: How reliable is this syndicated content? How are you going to know where it came from? Is it accurate? Think Wikipedia trebled or April Fools Day - everyday.  

Being kept up to date every minute is great but is this going to lead to information overload in an already overcrowded market.  Which is why I predict that in a world of fluid information users will continue to value content provided by good old websites. In essence the web is splitting into two.

One part is the highly dynamic world of Web version 2.  Here, content will have to be mutable and able to be interpreted, organised and rebroadcast by the new technologies.

The other side of the new Web is the more prosaic world of big branded 'home' sites. Homesites are those sites that you keep in your favourites, the ones you visit everyday, trust and buy from (the ones I listed in the first paragraph).  What should those sites do?  They need to look the part, have quality content and all the usual stuff that costs money in order to keep regular visitors happy.  The challenge is how to do this and also tempt new visitors to homesites.  This is a challenge that has been a regular part of life on the high street, and we should perhaps welcome its appearance on the superhighway.

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