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The Home Page

Making your most important page count.

    Caveats:
  • This information applies to business web sites only - personal, government, portal, or special interest web sites are not considered.

  • The first page that shows up when you go to a web site using just the URL (www.thewebsite.com) is considered to be the Home page regardless of what it may be called. Some web sites call this page by other names such as "Welcome" or "Introduction" or "Entry" or even "Index".

  • There are always two types of visitors to your site that should be considered, people (actual human visitors to your site) and robots (automatic software, also called spiders, or web crawlers) used by search engines.
Why is your home page so important?

Your home page is important because it is the page on which the crucial decision is made:
Is this web site relevant?

There is so much information and so many web sites on the World Wide Web these days that the first decision made while surfing the web site always "Is this web site relevant?" Does it cover the topic I wanted? Does it have the type of information I need?

For example: If you are looking to buy shoes, you may go to Google and type in "shoes". On the results page, you may find a site that is all about the history of shoes. While on the right topic, this site would not be exactly what you where looking for.

As a surfer, you will likely skim the home page and notice first whether the web site is about shoes. Then you will look to see whether there are shoes for sale on this site. If not - or it is not clear, then you may just move on to the next site in the list.

Search engines use your home page when evaluating your web site for relevance to key word searches. In fact it is the most heavily weighted page. If the word "shoes" is not on your home page, then your site may not come up at all in a Google result page for the search term "shoes".

Other pages may well be used by both types of visitors, but often the crucial decision has already been made on the home page.

If your home page does not supply the information you think a potential client will need to make a decision to stay on the site or not, in a way that can be easily and quickly assimilated by both types of visitors, then your home page has failed its most important task.

If people never see your web site, nothing else matters.

Your home page is critical to both getting people to your site and keeping potential clients on the site once they find it.

Traditional advertising and business marketing is essential to the success of a business and must be included in every business plan. You should be driving as much traffic to your web site as you can by using traditional marking methods. Web marketing should never be considered sufficient on its own.

However, for most businesses, search engine optimization is very important. Search engines can provide a significant portion of traffic to a web site. But this can only happen if the web site is properly optimized. Optimization starts with the home page as it is the most heavily weighted page for search engine purposes.

What information should be on your home page?

"A concise and specific summary of the site, using as many key words as possible. The summary should include products and services offered, by brand name and in lay language. The primary competitive advantages or main distinguishing factors of the company should be mentioned as well. Any relevant restrictive factors should also be specified (ie wholesale only, or service areas covered)". Contact information is also useful on a home page.

In other words - both people and search engines should, from the home page text alone, be able to determine if this site is relevant to their search.

Does the order of the information or formatting matter?

Search engines rank text on a first come first served basis. This means that the first text found on a page is considered to be more important than text at the bottom of the page. Formatting is also considered by search engines. Headings using the correct HTML tags are weighted more heavily than plain text. You should use headings and sub headings to organize and display your information according to its importance. Your headings should use plain, specific, key-word rich text. For people reading your home page, the same applies. Writing your homepage "in order of importance" and using headings to organize the text makes it easier for most people to read and understand the information presented.

Flash, Animation, and Images

What search engine optimization means is: "making it as clear as possible what the site is all about - in terms a search engine robot can understand".

If you only remember one thing about search engines, remember this: Search engines can only read text. Search engines cannot read images, or text embedded in images, they cannot read text inside of flash movies, or understand voice over commentary. Search engines cannot read text embedded in JavaScript or text that is dynamically created when a visitor asks for it (text produced as a result of a data base call for instance). Search engines can only read text in HTML or in meta tags specifically written for search engines.

This is important because it is very common these days for web sites not to be written in HTML. Technologies like flash and Java script, among others, are now very common. It is hard for a layperson to know the difference, since web sites using search engine friendly technology can seem indistinguishable from those that do not. One useful test is "can you copy and paste the text from the web site to your text editor"? If the text is written in HTML you will be able to do this. If you can't, then it is likely that search engines will not be able to read this text.

Limiting the kind of technologies that are not search engine friendly to non essential decorative purposes makes the most sense for a business web site. This way you can have the advantages of these technologies (cool graphics and effects) without any of the down sides (like poor search engine performance).

Is Load time still important?

Yes! Load time is still important. There is still a significant portion of people on dial up Internet connections. If your home page takes too long to load because of too many images or flash, your potential visitors may just give up and go elsewhere!

Getting to the rest of the site.

Every major page on your site should be linked-to from your home page.
This serves three purposes;
1) So that it is clear from a glance to real people what they can hope to find on the rest of the site.
2) So that as few clicks as possible are required to get to the desired information.
3) So that search engines can follow the links to the rest of the pages in your web site and index them.

Avoid the use of splash pages that have no text or page links to the rest of your site. These pages make it more difficult for search engines to index and rank the site, and they require people to make extra clicks and waste time to find out if your site is relevant to their search; moreover, they often negatively affect load time.

Making an Impact

Of course you want your site to look good and you want your home page to "make an impact". But think carefully about what kind of "impact" the home page is actually making. Do you want your visitors to think, "Wow what an awesome web site? I wonder who the designers are?" Or do you want them to think, "Wow that is exactly the product or service I have been looking for! I am going to buy it right now!"

Where you may go wrong is thinking that potential clients are impressed with flash movies, animations, music, and other such bells and whistles, when in reality most people are more impressed, in a useful way, by a web site that loads fast, has well organized and complete information, and offers the product or service they want under favourable terms. -Really!

The one page web site. Better now than later.

In some cases a Home page may be all you need. Especially when you do not have the time or the budget to have a larger web site. It is better to have a one-page web site done now, than to wait six months or longer to have a larger web site created.

These days a web site is often used for simple look-up purposes. Does this company exist?
Do they have/do what I need?
Where is it?
How do I contact them?

A well-crafted home page can provide all of this information and at a very reasonable cost.

Additionally if you are planning to have a web site at some point in the future (and why wouldn't you?) then having a one page web site will give you a head start with the search engines (who can take up to four months to index a new site).

by Candace Carter, Back2Front-The Web Site People