Link abundance gives false illusion of completeness

Written by Adrian Holovaty on October 30, 2002

In "News Sites Need To Go On Diets," Editor and Publisher columnist Steve Outing says: "The mistake at too many news sites is to overload the home page to demonstrate how much you've got." The column points to Google as an ideal example of simplicity, as previously discussed on this weblog.

A negative side-effect of displaying too many headlines on a news home page is the tendency for users to assume the home page is a complete index of all the site's content. Here are two problems with that:

  • It discourages users from exploring the site's non-home-page offerings. If a news site overwhelms users with home-page headlines, what incentive do users have to dig deeper?
  • It encourages "ping-pong browsing" of news articles. Go to home page. Click on article. Read article. Go back to home page. Repeat.


Posted by Jay Small on October 30, 2002, at 6:57 p.m.:

Right you are. That ping-pong effect has also been shown in research to provide diminishing return on a visitor's workflow. In other words, if a visitor comes to your site with a task list in mind (many do), the more times he/she bounces back up to the home page looking for the next item on the task list, the less likely he/she is to find it.

Ping-ponging is by definition an inefficient workflow. The effect is compounded when a home page is loaded with headlines-turned-to-links that are not displayed with any sense of visual or hierarchical order.

Can't we, while wearing our editor hats, determine that maybe only Stories X, Y and Z really earn a home page link in the Nation category, rather than Stories M through Z, or everything we've posted under that category in the last 24 hours?

Posted by Mike on October 30, 2002, at 9:10 p.m.:

I have some issues with Steve's column though...he is comparing news web sites to Google's home page? I'm sorry, but these two have completely different functions. Why doesn't Steve compare newspapers home pages to Google News (which has more links than I'm willing to count) anywhere?

This subject is interesting though and was one we discussed with our recent redesign. We really did want to cut down the number of headlines on our home page and make people go inside for more.

Unfortunately, we've had very mixed results. We seem to be able to drive people

inside for niche areas like specific sports teams. We have not been able to

drive people inside for things like more local news (our bread & butter).

After we cut the number of headlines on the home page, we received complaint after complaint. People just wanted to get a quick idea of what was going on and what was new or updated. Most didn't want to have to search for it. Most said they didn't want to have to jump from section to section (local to business, etc.) to get an idea of what was happening, it just took too long.

And this didn't appear to be a case of users saying one thing and doing another. Our traffic numbers to articles (particularly local news whose headlines got cut the most in terms of percentage) decreased noticably.

I won't say that many sites aren't all cluttered up especially as sites are adding more ads or other revenue driving promotion (like classifieds). I think bad organization and design are as much to fault as having too much info.

Posted by Sara on October 30, 2002, at 11:24 p.m.:

I'm with Mike on this one. For news sites, its much more convenient for users to go to the home page, get an overview of the news and then decide which articles are worth reading. Having to go to 4 different sections - such as national, local, sports, features - to do the same thing is tiresome.

A news site with just a few stories on its homepage is frustrating for users who don't know which section to go to for what they want. It's better to have a lot of links on the home page, organized in a sensible hierarchy and clean design.

Posted by Jay Small on October 31, 2002, at 6:25 a.m.:

I wish I could be that confident about how many links (and in what mode of organization) would constitute the "sweet spot" for consumers. Fact is, the number and mode are probably different for each Web site audience, and possibly different based on other variables such as time of day or bandwidth.

The only way to know with any certainty is primary research -- your users trying things on your site.

Everything we're saying here appears based on assumptions or personal behavior, and I'd venture that almost no one who posts comments here fits the description of an average user of Internet news sites. Until we know how our users truly expect to work with our sites, I'd shy away from design rules based on assumptions -- though I'm as guilty as the next guy of making them.

Posted by Craig on October 31, 2002, at 6:49 a.m.:

Did Steve Outing forget that CNN's lastest redesign is actually a return to the headline index approach for them? I suspect it was CNN who started the ball rolling on this type of presentation.

I think the differences in the production rhythm and consumption of news between broadcast and print organisations needs to be taken into account when examining site design, though that has become less of a factor as newspapers have added wires services and updates to their web sites.

I don't have a problem with the "ping-pong" effect. From the studies I've seen, it would seem that building the "ping-pong" effect into your designs supports the way many people use the web, especially news consumers.

Anyways, I think the focus should be on how best to design site content pages to support the user when they do follow a link. News site home pages are becoming increasing irrelevant in the face of Google and news aggregators.

Posted by Julie on October 31, 2002, at 8:14 a.m.:

I think the format used above the scroll by most major news sites -- that is, the day's top headlines with brief one-sentence descriptions -- is right on (with some designs delivering that formula more eloquently than others of course).

Where it all falls apart, IMO, is in the endless sea of links below the scroll. Sports, link, link, link, link, link ... News, link, link, link, link, link, link .... Features, link, link, link, link, link ad naseum. (It takes a dedicated news junkie to wade through all that, no? I've always suspected that most people who actually scroll down take one wide-eyed look and scroll right back up as quickly as possible.)

I think Outing is not entirely accurate though when he attributes the link overload to news sites trying to show how much they've got. I suspect it is more a "we're important too" internal issue -- various sections/departments fighting for territory -- not unlike the battle for 1A, only without the space limitation of print to cut the arguments short.

What would be better? That's the $64,000 question. I think definitely fewer links below the scroll than we're seeing now. Possibly taking an age-old tease from print: "Inside..." (kind of an extra subconscious push that yes indeed there is more to this site than the home page) with only one (or two) of the "juciest" headline(s) per section.

Posted by Steve Yelvington on October 31, 2002, at 1:59 p.m.:

Read George Miller's classic essay on the limits on human beings' abilities to process information.

Posted by Curt Wohleber on October 31, 2002, at 6:51 p.m.:

I must be in a small minority, but I loved the CNN home page circa 1997 or so. A clean layout (before clutter set in) with top headlines organized by category, with clear links to category pages for the complete list of stories. I think one textbook printed the home page in four-color as an example of how not to design a web page. Yet I found it the most usable news site front page I'd seen on the web.

Compare that to the much-lauded or Some good content inside, but Christ almighty. Add a little animation and you could induce grand mal seizures.

Posted by Steve Yelvington on November 1, 2002, at 9:12 p.m.:

Guardian Unlimited continues to be a strong example of how solid thinking about site organization and a focus on clean presentation can make a very large news site not only readable, but navigable. And it's all done with the Guardian's sense of visual style, which is very powerful in terms of branding. The biggest area where it falls short is common to most European sites -- it does not confront the advertising challenges that we face here in the USA (where we're selling a lot of it).

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