Web surfing is dead! Latest in the series of X is dead memes. Or to put it in another way. The monolithic, universally serving, home page is dead. Long live blog posts and microcontent.
People will find web pages not by clicking in a way designers imagine in classic web design but by choosing the pages they find on your site through search, syndication and aggregation. Don't try to control eyeballs and try to envision click paths. Instead focus on what people will find through their RSS aggregator, and search engines. Focus on the home page for the decreasing number of people who still surf web pages and who don't use aggregators yes, but increasingly focus on the micro-content and blog posts!
Search engines are the most common type of machine aggregators. They send out spiders to crawl the Web and index pages, and allow users to submit queries to them. Big search engines such as Yahoo! and Google attempt to aggregate the entire Web, while more specialized services such as Blogdex aggregate only a certain subset of the Web—those containing blogs.
Blogs themselves, however, are examples of human-aggregated content because a human makes an explicit choice about what content to include. 2 Other examples of human-aggregated content include news sites that aggregate stories from the Associated Press or blog feeds in RSS/Atom readers like Shrook, NetNewsWire, or FeedDemon. And there are other examples of human-aggregated content, like browser bookmarks, the “links” section of your Web site, and even political sites that link to stories undermining opponents.
Aggregation hinges on gathering content from other domains. This dramatically affects the search for content. Users no longer need to start their search in the domain where the content lies. In fact, they almost never do.
What about starting from the home page?
With all these aggregators providing new places to start our searches for content, what will become of the home page? The hallowed ground of the home page is the most contested space in the history of the Web, and millions of valuable hours have been spent discussing its design and refining its content.
Whether or not it is important to users, the home page holds such a place in the minds of designers that it usually gets the top spot in the hierarchy of information. The reason for doing this is not entirely clear. It may be because home pages are the first pages to be indexed by search engines. Or perhaps everybody knows that the home page is (or should be) an index of what can be found on the site, so it becomes as good a place as any to start designing.
Whatever the reason, it is the state of the art that home pages get highest priority. For example, the recent redesign effort of the Boxes and Arrows site places the home page on its own in the highest level of the hierarchy, as shown by this early draft of its IA.
In this “home page as the starting point” paradigm, the possible routes to a hypothetical Web page holding a user’s target content will look something like the following:
Content aggregators change navigation
Despite our long hours and good intentions, content aggregators throw this site-centric idea out the window. They allow users to bypass a large portion of the design, whose sole purpose is to get them to target content. In this way the information architecture the designer envisioned may go unused, with users never clicking on the carefully crafted navigation links, never using the location-specific breadcrumbs, and in some cases never even seeing the much-fretted-over home page.
In these cases, users navigate completely outside the site containing the target content. The only page they see is the one that the aggregator links to. So the IA that ends up getting users to the target content page isn’t the one on the site they end up on, it’s the aggregator’s site’s IA. 3