Thursday, January 23, 2014

Actively managing the home page

As I mentioned in my last Eye on the Orion post, the home page is the most important element on a news website. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that daily papers have someone working full time to manage its content and configuration. Some newspapers have a real-time heat map of their home page traffic on a big screen in the newsroom that constantly indicates which stories and photos are getting the most hits.

Those are luxuries doesn't have, but there are some things worth paying attention to that would make the page more effective.

Sticky posts: The menu items at the top of The Orion's home page are designated to play there by checking a box in the site's back end. Any story from any section can be displayed there. It's a great place to promote stories that aren't time sensitive because they won't automatically rotate out of the menu. They should still be actively managed, though, to make sure fresh content is regularly displayed.

Breaking news: This scrolling news bar next to The Orion logo needs to be managed aggressively. I think it works best when it's tied to Twitter posts instead of regular news items. Notice that the City faces sewer strife item displayed in the scroll on today's home page also appears in the main news display on the left side of the page (second item). I don't think that duplication is the most effective use of the tools or page real estate. The sewer story does belong in the news roundup, but it should carry a slightly different headline than the breaking news hed and provide updated information.

Main news module: I'm on the website all the time (as you might imagine), and I use the news section on the left side of the home page to find out what's new on the site. It's tied strictly to the news section right now, and I'm wondering if it wouldn't serve readers better if every new post from every section was displayed there first, then channeled to its designated section on the website after a day or so. That would increase the number of new posts in that module daily and call attention to stories that readers (including me) might otherwise miss. I'm thinking of all the great arts content that went on the site last week that I didn't see until I went looking for it in the arts section.

The gallery: The photo gallery on the home page is a really nice feature of the Coverage template used by, but the site loads all the photos in the gallery at start up. That can mean a really slow load time unless the number of photos is kept to a reasonable number (five? six?) and the photos are optimized for the Web. It would be great, too, if photographers were assigned to shoot an event on campus every day so that first gallery image would be new every single day.

Optimizing photos: I suspect one of the big culprits in the slow-loading problem is photos that haven't been compressed. It's really easy to make photos big enough but not too big by using the Save for Web and Devices tool in Photoshop.

Here's a photo from the features section that was displayed on the home page this morning. It measures something like 150 pixels wide by 100 pixels tall on the page, a fairly small image. But when I saved to my computer and measured it, it weighed in at more than 7 megabytes, way too big for a Web page.

Using Photoshop, I opened it in the Save for Web and Devices tool in the File menu and converted it to a medium-size jpeg. That reduced its size to a svelte 60 kilobytes, a size  that would reduce the load time of the page by several seconds, but changing the original size of the image would have cut that in half or more.

Optimizing should be done with all photos and graphics displayed on the website. Remember that people browsing the Web are an impatient lot.

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