Site review: Omaha.com

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 31, 2002

Omaha.com, site of the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald, sports a modern-looking design that's heavy on drop shadows -- but we won't hold that against them. It's clean and airy, almost to a fault; information is spread so thin that it takes several clicks to get to it. A few thoughts:

  • Instead of using its home page as a site index, Omaha.com merely lists a handful of top stories. This gives Omaha.com a much more "point-and-click" feel than most other news sites, because users are forced to travel back and forth, from section to section, just to get the news they want. It's smart to encourage readers to explore the site in depth rather than rely on the home page as a one-stop index; but there's also something to be said for the one-stop shop approach.
  • Kudos to the site for using a liquid design (definition / tutorial) -- something most major-to-mid-sized newspaper Web sites don't do. Some might say it looks silly with extremely long lines of content on high-resolution monitors, but those people can feel free to resize their browser windows appropriately. Giving users the freedom to set the width of the text they're reading is a good thing.
  • But while they're granted that freedom, users of IE for Windows are barred from changing the site's font sizes, because the text is formatted using pixel widths, which Win-IE users aren't able to resize. I suspect this site's tiny related links boxes and page-bottom navigation links have frustrated many users that like to surf with "Larger" fonts enabled.
  • And speaking of frustrating users, every page's TITLE is simply "Omaha.com." If I were to bookmark 10 separate pages from this site and return to the bookmarks an hour later, I wouldn't remember which was which. (Not to mention it hurts Omaha.com's chances of being accessed via a search engine's results page; most search engines display pages' titles as indicators of the pages' content.)
  • The link to "Your First Stop" is ambiguous. As far as I can tell, it appears in the top horizontal navigation of each page, and for that reason I assumed it led to some sort of essential breaking news page -- or, at least, something else that merited being my "first stop" upon visiting Omaha.com. In actuality, following this link gives you a page that explains how to make Omaha.com your home page. I question the reasoning behind putting this atop every page sitewide and giving it such a unhelpful/misleading title. (On a broader scale, I question having this feature in the first place, but that's another can of worms.)
  • The horizontal, "point-and-click" feel I mentioned above is strengthened by the section pages' incomplete selection of links. For example, the Sports page lists a few stories with photos and blurbs. Below those is a list of a few more sports stories, with only headlines. You'd think these were all the sports stories for the day -- but there's an easily overlooked link to "More stories." Only then are the remainder of the sports stories available.
  • There's a jarring usability problem in the site's navigation scheme. On the home page, the navigation links for subsections are located in a blue area on the right side of the page. This is an unintuitive place to put them, as their placement runs counter to practically every other news site. (And this is further confused by the yellow links in the left rail, where users historically have been trained to look for navigation.) So it took me a while to get used to the placement of those section links. But once I finally did, they changed on me! On section fronts and story pages, the section links are on the left side of the page, with the yellow links shifted down. And to make matters even worse, still other pages (like the Search page) put that blue navbar at the bottom left of the page, not even visible in the first scroll! Consistency is so important.

A few more nitpicky comments:

  • The mouseover effect in the yellow left rail can be done using style sheets instead of JavaScript. That'd trim the page weight a tiny bit. (It wouldn't be visible in older browsers, but it's an inessential feature.)
  • The site's logo doesn't link to its home page. This goes against common Web style and causes users to waste precious milliseconds looking for the link to "Home."
  • There's a user-added-comment application at the bottom of story pages, and it requires JavaScript. That's fine, but a NOSCRIPT error message would be nice for people who have turned JavaScript off. (See my previous post.)
  • The left-rail links to QwestDex and MapQuest are kind of random. I expected them to be Omaha-personalized versions of these sites; instead, the links just spit me onto those outside sites. Maybe they could be designated as "outside links," or, to add some value, perhaps the MapQuest/QwestDex form fields could be prepopulated with Nebraska information. (For example, clicking MapQuest could take the user to a generic map of Omaha, instead of MapQuest's home page.)
  • On the weather page, is that animated graphic at the top supposed to be an indicator of current weather conditions, or is it a standing graphic, or an ad, or what?

As always, please add your own comments using the comment system below.

Comments

Posted by Paul on August 1, 2002, at 2:49 p.m.:

You don't mention the worst aspect of Omaha.com (perhaps because it isn't apparent): It does not update its pages until the stories have appeared in the print edition. This is a relatively new policy. I am not sure why they did it -- worries about losing print customers, insufficient staff are possibilities -- but the policy is a blow to those who want breaking local news.

Posted by Sara on August 1, 2002, at 4:46 p.m.:

I worked at a paper that didn't post stories until they were signed off the presses because the editors wanted every story to go through the entire editing process before posting. The online staff wasn't allowed to edit stories or make news judgements. Frustrating. I don't know about Omaha.com - but perhaps they have the same policy, or the online staff is production only, without journalism backgrounds. Or it could be that the Web site doesn't have the support of the editors, who focus primarily on the print edition and post to the Web site as an afterthought. Most likely, though, is that it's all of those things.

Posted by Paul on August 1, 2002, at 5:24 p.m.:

I find it especially interesting, though, that they did not initially have this policy. Are there any other Web sites that have posted stories immediately and then changed to a "wait until print" policy? I feel like this blog would be a good forum for pros and cons on the issue.

Also, according, I believe, to Omaha Weekly (an alt-weekly in town), OWH reporters are still encouraged to file stories early for the online edition.

Posted by Adrian on August 2, 2002, at 2:30 p.m.:

Thanks for the insight, Paul. I've heard of such a policy at converged newsrooms, where a TV station will ask the Web site to hold the story until after the newscast breaks the story -- because the TV station doesn't want its competitors to have the story too. Maybe this is (part of) the case in Omaha? If it is, that's awfully selfish.

Same goes for not posting stories online until they've been in print. Paper that do that are just shooting themselves in the foot...

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