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Oct 11, 2007
Case Study

Before & After: How to Redesign News Site for Old and New Readers

SUMMARY: Not happy with your Web site performance but leery of a complete overhaul? One newspaper had a long list of demands for putting new life into its Web site, but also a concern that a redesign might actually decrease page views.

See their before-and-after efforts, including how they simplified navigation and added video and new advertising options to become more competitive. Plus, they can now monitor traffic in real time and rearrange homepage content on the fly to adapt to reader preferences.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is celebrating its 10th year online, and, until recently, the newspaper’s Web site was showing its age. Despite piecemeal updates, the site hadn’t been overhauled in years and was lagging in readers’ and advertisers’ expectations. What’s more, the outdated site was hampering internal goals.

“Editorial was really looking for something that could help them redeploy news staff and do different things within the newsroom, and the advertising team wanted new tools to help prove what’s working to advertisers. We needed to be much more competitive in the marketplace,” says Mary Ann Brown, General Manager.

Still, Brown knew a redesign carried risks: A new site layout could turn off readers, especially older newspaper readers who were used to the existing design. And she was worried that streamlining the navigation could actually decrease the number of page views per visit and other key metrics that they used to support advertising rates. The team needed a strategy to offset those potential short-term losses and offer a platform for growth.

Brown and her team spent the summer developing and launching a new site with features and new functionality to help them quickly recognize which changes were working, adapt to new traffic patterns and smooth over the transition for traditional users.

Here’s how they developed the new site:

-> Step #1. Analyze site to identify improvements

To develop a new Web strategy, they first determined which features and elements of the existing site were most popular and which areas needed improvement. They gathered data for that analysis using three primary tactics:

- Focus groups with readers. These meetings provided insight into the sections of the Web site that were most important to readers, such as obituaries, and navigation tweaks that could improve the user experience.
- Focus groups with advertisers. Reaching out to the advertising community helped them assess what new functionality and ad platforms were most sought after, such as adding video and streamlining the site’s search functions to help readers land on relevant pages.
- Web analytics. Earlier this year, they installed new Web analytics software to track user behavior. Metrics such as clickstream analysis showed that there were “way too many layers” of navigation on the site, says Brown. For example, having both a top navigation bar and a left-hand navigation bar with 140 different links was actually making the site more confusing for users.

-> Step #2. Design new Web template for editorial features

Based on the research, they developed a new site template that highlighted key sections and improved navigation. The major objectives were to:

- Clean up navigation and shorten the page. Gone was the long left-hand navigation bar that forced users to scroll far down the page. They kept the top navigation bar and added boxes that featured popular links and tabs to highlight different sections of the newspaper each day, such as Arts & Living, Health, Sports and Business.

For example, knowing that sports content was most popular at the beginning of the week, they established a policy to highlight the sports tab in the section box every Monday morning. Other sections would be highlighted on subsequent days.

- Use the left column for most popular features. Eliminating excess navigation features created above-the-fold space for popular content, including weather, traffic, movie listings and obituaries.

- Create time stamps for new stories. A new box centered at the top of the page highlighted the latest news, and a time stamp indicated when new stories were added to the page, to appeal to repeat visitors.

-> Step #3. Revamp ad placement on the homepage

While redesigning the editorial template, they also made significant changes to its advertising inventory. Among the changes:

- A reduction in ad spaces. Web analytics revealed that clickthroughs for certain existing ad spots, such as those at the bottom of the page and along the left column, were performing poorly. These were eliminated.

- Consolidation of ads into specific locations. A banner ad was kept at the top of the page, and new ads were congregated to the right, where they didn’t interfere with the new editorial features.

- Addition of multimedia ads, such as pre-roll video ads. New video content, such as a weekly high school sports video roundup, created space for pre-roll advertising.

-> Step #4. Real-time monitoring to adapt homepage to user preferences

Underlying the new site was functionality that allowed the editorial team to shuffle articles and other pieces of content instantly based on user behavior.

- A feature in the Web analytics tool provided the editorial team automatic updates on the clickthrough rankings of each piece of content on a given page.

- If certain articles received more traffic than anticipated, they could be moved into featured positions to make them easier to find.

- Articles that didn’t receive as much traffic as anticipated could be swapped out of featured sections of the homepage to make room for new stories.

- Real-time analysis of user clicks from one story to another, or from a story to the search box to look for certain key words, allowed the team to create a set of related links alongside each article. Those links could be updated or changed based on reading or search patterns.

“We saw that people were going to similar stories or looking for older news stories about a topic. Now, you can see the related links on the side of the story where we knew people might go.”


Going into the redesign, Brown expected certain key metrics to take a hit. For example, by improving navigation and bringing popular content to the forefront that users previously had to dig into the site to find, she anticipated page views would decline 10%-15%. Instead, page views actually increased 9.04% in the past three months.

She also expected unique visitors to decline due to confusion over the redesign. Once again, though, the numbers held steady, with the site reporting more than 3 million unique visitors in September.

Time spent per-user also increased 8.33%, thanks to the addition of new features and functionality that kept people engaged with content. “I’m ecstatic, and we as a business are pleased with where it’s going. We know that we have a lot more work to do, but by having tools that help guide us we’re not just spitting into the wind. We’re finding where the most fertile ground is for growth.”

The lesson: Careful planning, attention to user habits and the ability to highlight the most valuable content can prevent loss of a big segment of your audience when you undertake a major site overhaul. “People can sometimes be pretty set in their ways. The key is doing things that don’t irritate people.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from The Post-Gazette:

Omniture - provided The Post-Gazette’s Web analytics tool:

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

See Also:

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