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I have been (unsuccessfully) looking for some research that supports / rejects (or even discusses) the hypothesis that:

Once a user has entered a website a significant percentage of them do not return to the homepage.

Is this hypothesis true for all type of site (large corporate brochureware sites, blogs, ecommerce...) or is it only true for specific web areas / demographics. Or is the hypothesis completely false in all cases? What percentage of website visitors return to the homepage once they're already within the site?

This has basically come from a discussion about whether or not we can do away with homepages for a properly indexed website; users should find what they need directly from a search engine via good architecture and be able to navigate around from there to various sections of a website without ever needing to visit the homepage. The question then was: do we need a homepage at all? The obvious answer is "yes, or course you still need one". But once they're in the website do users ever return / visit the homepage?

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Well, I can only speak for myself, but I often return to home. Especially if the site's navigation is letting me down. You might say I use it as a sort of "reset" –  Marjan Venema Dec 6 '11 at 10:28
    
@Marjan yes, that's the main reason I can think of for people returning to the homepage. It's like an 'anchor' to pull yourself out of a complex navigation and back to 'normality'. However I'm curious if any actual research has been done into this. –  JonW Dec 6 '11 at 10:39
    
I was just thinking about this then I saw your question! are you thinking web site or web-app? I think for a web-app it wouldn't make a lot of sense, but for a website I think people would return but I have no research to back this –  Captain Dec 6 '11 at 12:06
    
The homepage is of varying use, often users may find your site from a "deep link" via a search page; they'll need your homepage if they want an overview of your site. Generally they're helpful; there are of course exceptions. –  Ben Brocka Dec 6 '11 at 14:10
    
On stackexchange sites, the homepage is "top questions", which is not reachable by any other means. –  Random832 Dec 6 '11 at 15:32

12 Answers 12

up vote 19 down vote accepted

It heavily depends on the site content and architecture. I believe it is very dangerous to try and make conclusions using statistics "on average" (moreover, I'm not sure such statistics even exist).

In my experience no matter how well your site is indexed and how many good entry points there are, it is always better to have a home page than not to have one.

I've been witness to the following: There was a blog service where the home page was needed only once - when new users signed up. We've decided to get rid of this "useless" page. As for new users, we've decided to allow them to first write a post and then create an account in a javascript pop-out.

Pitifully, the consequences were surprisingly terrible - user database growth reduced drastically and I came to the conclusion that a home page is a very important thing.

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Thanks for the response, it's interesting to hear some actual experience of what happens when you remove the homepage altogether. Does this mean users were looking for the homepage specifically, or just looking for somewhere to go to sign-up? –  JonW Dec 6 '11 at 11:44
    
@Jon W, I guess, the minimal answer is - homepage is plus one point of entry. Besides, regardless to how good is you navigation and interface, there are always such users who reenter home pages url. –  shabunc Dec 6 '11 at 11:46
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"there are always such users who reenter home pages url" this is one of the things I'm trying to find research into. It's one of those assumptions that we all make, but what is this based on? –  JonW Dec 6 '11 at 11:48
    
@JonW, this words are based on actual statistics. Working at web search company gives some benefits ) –  shabunc Dec 6 '11 at 12:01
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@JonW I use it all the time, esp when I get deep into some navigation. –  Matt Rockwell Dec 6 '11 at 13:15

It's not published anywhere, but when I was at university I had to do a small usability study. For the sites tested, I did observe significant attempts to return to the home page corresponding with user frustration, particularly in users with mental handicaps such as dyslexia -- often they would fail to notice that something was clickable where neurotypical users found it right away, leading to circles of frustration as they repeatedly clicked the wrong button, clicked back to the home page to start over, then clicked through to the wrong page again.

However, being a university project, it was a very small sample size.

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Does that indicate the user had to go to Home because the navigation was not helpful, at least for the mentally impaired? –  Kris Dec 7 '11 at 3:52
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@Kris Yes, but also that when confused, the natural instinct is to "start over" because "I must have missed something". I'd caution against assuming that a "good" navigational design negates the need for a Home, because people could be atypical, exhausted, distracted, or for whatever reason miss things that are blindingly obvious. –  Yamikuronue Dec 7 '11 at 13:48

Even if your navigation is the most perfect one, you do need a homepage, because the homepage is the one that serves these cases:

  • Users type the URL/domain name directly. Your loyal readers/clients may remember your domain and type it in directly, or find it in your business card and type it in.
  • As a corollary: When a user types a simple word in the address bar, many browsers try first to add .com/.net to it, and only if no site turns up do they send the query to a search engine. Users typing your company's name in the address bar will be implicitly served by your homepage.
  • User searches explicitly for your company/website name (i.e. type into search box). No other page is a good fit for that search, unless you can guarantee that the "About us" page will be the top result in search engines. But in that case "About us" becomes de facto the homepage anyway.
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Thanks, all good valid points for the existance of a page at the site root. However, that could easily be the about-us page you mention. I'm mostly interested in the stats/research around people returning to the homepage once they're in the site. That would help identify what people expect to find on the homepage once they get there. –  JonW Dec 6 '11 at 11:23

Yes, especially if navigation at deeper levels is poor. Sometimes the home page is the best summary of content and structure.

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Can you explain why? What are you basing this on? –  Rahul Dec 6 '11 at 11:26
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@Rahul Unless it's a plain splash page, new content is usually also on the homepage. Blogs, news sites, Stack Exchange, webcomics... As Mary said, a good place to get a summary. –  Izkata Dec 6 '11 at 13:08

Depending on the design of your pages and navigation, you could designate any or all/ none of the pages as "Home". As far as the visitor to the site is concerned, the landing page is of first interest and anything else he might want to look-up should be accessible from there.

What would you design the url structure like, though? That should be interesting.

Theoretically at least, I prefer such an egalitarian design, if only it doesn't have too many downsides to it from the design and maintenance point of view.

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"the landing page is of first interest and anything else he might want to look-up should be accessible from there." That's basically where the discussion I was having came from. However I'm curious if - just because the site is all accessible from the landing pages - do users do that, or do they return to the homepage and start again from there? –  JonW Dec 6 '11 at 11:58
    
We cannot speak on behalf of all users or users in general. However, my experience has been that it depends on various factors, the most important being the navigation design and the discoverability of the links. Take for instance a catalog site: I am taken to a specific product page, which also has clearly visible links to all categories of products and to the company details, and so on. Why would I then be interested in "Home"? Would I even have the chance to think of going home and starting all over if I get carried away by interesting stuff right here? –  Kris Dec 6 '11 at 12:10

I definitely use the home page for site navigation. I can't back this up with any statistics other than looking at how users navigate the sites I work on. Even if the site navigation is clear people still use it as @Jon W says, A way of restarting a search for content.

Regarding the argument of could we do away with the homepage, because we should be able to find the content via a search engine. Again I'd have to say no. A search engine may be useful in taking you to specific topic within a website but if you then want to find out more about the company/service/person etc... you go straight to the homepage to start your drill down for more information.

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I can only speak personally as I have no stats to back this up.

It depends on the structure of the site. On most sites I do find myself going to the home page often. Usually because I have access to certain content or tools from there or I use it as a point of orientation.

For sites I do have the analytics for it seems most users do start at the home page even on repeat visits. Why this is though I don't know.

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No research, but I think you might be asking the wrong question. The goal of creating a properly indexable site for google so that people can do a search and find the right page on your site is a great goal, but really does nothing to negate the potential need for a home page.

The question is really "can we be absolutely sure that our site will have such perfect organized segmented content and be so readily indexable by Google that a user would only ever need to look at one single page on our site and we have no desire for them to even want to see any other pages of our site?"

And, I imagine, the answer to that is likely no for a variety of reasons:

The primary reason for a home page for users that have entered your site elsewhere is that it acts as a 'you are here' on the map. A user should be able to go to the home page and get a quick overview of what the site offers.

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I think this depends a lot on the type of site and the types of tasks users visit the site to accomplish.

The cool thing is that you don't have to speculate about it since it's quite easy to analyze using your web analytics suite of choice.

You can make "pathing analysis" (named differently in different software) in most web analytics software which allows you to answer what pages refer users to the front page and where users go after they are on the front page.

In my experience a lot of users go directly to a site either by typing the URL og by typing the name of the site into a search engine (many users in my experience see this as essentially the same thing). Then once they are on the website they start their search.

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Website use cases are too diverse to generalize so broadly. So, as with most UX questions, my short answer is "it depends".

In a multi-task usage scenario (dependent upon the nature of the tasks and the content), hub-and-spoke architectures often fit naturally into the mindset of the user. "Mission complete, return to base to start a new adventure". This is especially true for hub pages that emphasize subsets of content based on some evolving criteria (like newest or recommended for you).

In a single-task scenario, Jared Spool calls this behavior pogo-sticking. His research into e-commerce galleries suggests this is an undesirable behavior (from a task completion standpoint) and an indication that the user is unable to properly assess their choices before navigating to the interior page.

Another consideration is first-time vs return visits. Often, first-time visitors require site introductory, credibility-enhancing content before they will trust your specific content and/or commit to diving deeper. And while return visitors may not need an introduction to the site, they might benefit from notifications about new content or changes to existing content before moving into deeper layers.

There is no one architecture to rule them all.

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Jon, I asked myself the same question a while ago when redesigning a web site. The general "it depends" attitude is absolutely correct; you can, however, find out what your users do.

The first thing I did was check what Google Analytics had to say about my Visitors Flow, which displays weighted user navigation paths through your site. This will show me if people are returning to the home page. See Christopher S Penn's recent article and Google's Support documentation for a prep course.

The second thing I did was consult Google's In-page Analytics, which tracks clicks (actually link activations) on every page. This shows me how they are returning to the home page (either by activating the logo link or by using the Home menu item, which is there on management's insistence).

I saw, much to my surprise, that a whopping 99% of my users were clicking the logo at the top of each page to return to the home page, and that only 1% of the users were using the "Home" menu item.

Furthermore, approximately 20% of all page clicks (across all pages) were on the logo. Like you, I was somewhat surprised that anyone did that at all, since the site architecture isn't designed to pipe users back to the home page.

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I think you have it the wrong way around. Rather than trying to identify if people return to the home page or not, why not try to identify what page people DO return to the most?

Whatever page people return to the most is going to have a reason why they return there. Identifying those reasons and applying them in your other pages would then be the next logical step. It may turn out the homepage is great for people who are not registered, but for people who are it's next to useless.

So who are your visitors? What is the homepage?

Your logical step is "If they aren't using it, then we can do away with it" - I feel the logical step is "If they aren't using it, replace it with whatever they are using".

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