Homepage Design & Linking Strategy For Publishers [SEO Case Study]

A publisher’s homepage is one of its most important pages for News SEO.

So what happens when the number of internal links to articles from a publisher’s homepage is dramatically reduced?

We learned just that at a national news publisher in Ireland that I work on, Independent.ie.

In this column, I’ll share our experience redesigning the homepage and how the resulting change in internal linking architecture affected search rankings.

You’ll learn the various ways the homepage supports a publisher’s SEO goals, find internal linking tips and advice from top News SEO professionals, and discover what not to do to avoid similar issues when implementing a paywall.

Let’s dive in.

Homepage Redesign SEO Case Study

Implementing a paywall was a major strategic initiative for Independent.ie.

Their business and editorial leaders wanted to promote as much premium, paywalled content on the homepage as possible.

The idea was to showcase Independent’s best journalism to its most loyal direct readers.

This initiative was supported by data that showed that “fly-by” or non-loyal readers would still be able to access the rest of the free content from search and social, as well as other external article referral sources.

However, that data didn’t reveal how important the homepage was for SEO.

In January of 2020, the site’s homepage was redesigned to only show the best “premium” paywalled content of the day.

From a structural and technical SEO perspective, this meant that the total number of articles being linked to from the homepage went from 174 to 48 – a 72{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} reduction.

total articles in homepage comparisonImage created by author, February 2022

But that’s not all.

Article detail pages were redesigned to remove the “clutter” – that being article referrer widgets such as “Most Shared” articles, as shown below.

business section of publication onlineScreenshot from Independent.ie, January 2020
Analysis from the data team showed that less than 5{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} of readers scrolled down to these widgets.
This gave the design team enough rationale to remove related articles at the bottom of the article.
bottom of the article in news publicationScreenshot from Independent.ie, January 2020

The new design was arguably cleaner, more modern, and had less of that “clutter.”

new version of a news publication landing pageScreenshot from Independent.ie, February 2020

But for SEO, these changes had terrible consequences.

What Impact Did This Have On SEO?

In comparing Feb 2020 performance to the month prior, there was a 38.79{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} drop in keywords ranking in position 1.

position 1 ranking decline after homepage internal linking changeScreenshot taken from Bigmetrics.io, February 2022

As shown below, a negative correlation in {4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} of position 1 rankings was revealed from the article sections that were removed from the homepage.

table of position 1 ranking changesImage created by author, February 2022

Why Is The Homepage Of A Publisher’s Site So Critical For News SEO?

1. Crawling

News sitemaps help.

However, according to Google’s documentation, homepages and sections of a news site are very important pages that Google uses to discover the latest news.

By ensuring that news articles are found on a publisher’s homepage when they are published, you can help Google’s discovery for crawling.

2. Indexing

Most news articles, particularly when it comes to large news events, go against the common advice for tackling keyword cannibalization.

For news events, using the target keyword in the headline is beneficial for SEO.

When two stories are optimized for the same news keyword, I have found on various occasions that search engines will rank the article featured on the homepage as opposed to that with the freshest published date (albeit, this is anecdotal from my experience optimizing news stories on Google).

To support my claim, in Google’s documentation on how it ranks news, prominence is a key component:

“The most basic signal that information is relevant is when an article contains the same keywords as your search.”

How a publisher “features that coverage prominently on their sites, as well as how much a story or article is trending” are important factors.

This is why when optimizing for news events, the most recent development on a story needs to be found on the homepage.

This can help search engines determine which one they should rank in the top stories for the target keyword.

3. Ranking

The homepage of most news sites has the most external PageRank.

This, in turn, passes on “importance” or ranking signals to other pages on the site.

By removing pages from the homepage, signals to Google and other search engines that these pages/articles are less important.

How To Increase Article Internal Links For A News Publisher

1. Latest News Sidebar

According to Barry Adams, News SEO consultant, the most common approach is to have a sidebar with the latest articles.

Take this example from Dutch publisher NU:

article latest news widget internal linking case studyScreenshot from nu.nl, February 2022

This publisher also has a dedicated page (“https://www.nu.nl/net-binnen”) with the latest articles linked from their top-level navigation.

2. Related Articles

John Shehata, Global VP of Condé Nast, recommends the following strategy for increasing article internal links for publishers based on article popularity:

  • Popularity-based (most read within x hours).
  • Relevancy-based popularity based on topic (related articles).
  • Personalized-based articles (based on user reading history on-site).
  • Editorial popularity (top stories selected by news editors).

Which one delivers the highest CTR for your audience will be unique to each site and he recommends testing each type.

3. Homepage Section Lists Of Articles

Having section blocks of the most important news sections of a site, with the latest news per section, is a great way to ensure the most recent news on the site are passed PageRank from the homepage.

A Solution For Increasing Article Internal Linking For A Publisher

All important news sections were re-added to the homepage, displaying the six latest articles published in those sections chronologically.

The latest news sidebar was added to the homepage, both on desktop and mobile.

news section of the independentScreenshot from Independent.ie, February 2022

As a result, these two solutions increased the total articles listed on the homepage by 8{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} more than prior to the redesign.

total article listed on homepage fixScreenshot created by author, February 2022

Each news article then recommended related articles to the reader and search engine based on topic and popularity.

Readers also saw the most recent articles published on the site chronologically.

article referrer widget on article detail pagesScreenshot from Independent.ie, March 2021

What Impact Did Increasing Internal Linking Have On SEO?

Search impressions on Google returned to previous levels.

Ranking drop imageScreenshot taken by author from Bigmetrics.io, February 2022

Article referrer traffic to other related articles increased 10{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca}.

traffic decline and returnScreenshot created by author, February 2022

First place rankings improved, but not back to a level pre-site redesign.

ranking drop change and never recoveredScreenshot taken by author from Bigmetrics.io, February 2022

Final Thoughts

The key insights that publishers should take away from this case study are these:

  • The homepage of a news site is one of the most important article traffic referral sources.
  • Although users will come to a news article from search, the homepage plays a significant role in that article’s ranking ability.
  • The more internal PageRank an article receives, the more important the article may be perceived by Google’s crawler, indexing, and ranking systems.
  • Altering website architecture for a cleaner design can have a negative impact on a publisher’s performance on search.
  • For News SEO, ensuring that an article receives a link from the homepage when published is critical. Having an automated sidebar on the homepage with the latest articles published in chronological order is a great way to accomplish this goal.

And finally, the next time you are in a meeting discussing the potential impact of a homepage design change on SEO and need proof to back up your argument that design changes impact SEO – please share this case study with them!

More resources: 

Featured Image: metamorworks/Shutterstock

Marcy Willis

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