Home page design and linking strategy for publishers [SEO Case Study]

A publisher’s home page is one of their most important pages for news SEO.

What happens when the number of internal links to articles on a publisher’s home page is drastically reduced?

That’s exactly what we learned at a national news publisher in Ireland that I work on, Independent.ie.

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

You’ll learn the different ways the homepage supports a publisher’s SEO goals, find internal linking tips and advice from top SEO pros in the news, and find out what what not to do to avoid similar problems when implementing a paywall.

Let’s dive into it.

Home Page Redesign Case Study

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

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

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

This initiative was backed up by data that showed that “rolled over” or non-loyal readers would still be able to access the rest of the free content from search and social media, as well as other external sources of referencing of articles.

However, this data did not reveal the importance of the homepage for SEO.

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

From a structural and technical SEO point of view, this meant that the total number of articles linked from the homepage fell from 174 to 48 – a reduction of 72%.

Image created by author, February 2022

But that’s not all.

Article detail pages have been redesigned to remove the “clutter” – i.e. article reference widgets such as “most shared” articles, as shown below.

commercial section of the online publicationScreenshot from Independent.ie, January 2020
The data team’s analysis showed that less than 5% of readers scrolled to these widgets.
This gave the design team enough reason to remove the related articles at the bottom of the article.
bottom of article in news postScreenshot from Independent.ie, January 2020

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

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

But for SEO, these changes have had terrible consequences.

What impact has this had on SEO?

Comparing February 2020 performance to the previous month, there was a 38.79% drop in keyword rankings in position 1.

position 1 drop in ranking after homepage internal link changeScreenshot taken from Bigmetrics.io, February 2022

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

table of ranking changes in position 1Image created by author, February 2022

Why is a publisher’s homepage so critical to news SEO?

1. Crawl

Sitemaps for news are useful.

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

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

2. Indexing

Most news articles, especially when it comes to major news events, go against common advice to combat keyword cannibalization.

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

When two articles are optimized for the same topical keyword, I have repeatedly seen that search engines rank the featured article on the front page as opposed to the one with the most recent publication date. (although this is anecdotal from my experience optimizing news articles on Google).

To back up my claim, in Google’s documentation of how it ranks news, prominence is key:

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

How a publisher “highlights that coverage on their sites, as well as how a story or article tends” are important factors.

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

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

3. Classification

The homepage of most news sites has the outermost PageRank.

This, in turn, transmits “prominence” 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 Internal Article Links for a News Editor

1. Breaking news sidebar

According to SEO News consultant Barry Adams, 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 link 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 vice president of Condé Nast, recommends the following strategy to increase article internal linking for publishers based on article popularity:

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

The one that offers the highest CTR for your audience will be unique to each site and he recommends testing each type.

3. Lists of articles from the homepage section

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

A solution to increase the internal link of an article for a publisher

All major news sections have been added to the homepage, displaying the last six articles published in these sections in chronological order.

The latest news sidebar has been added to the home page, both on desktop and mobile.

independent news sectionScreenshot from Independent.ie, February 2022

As a result, these two solutions increased the total number of articles listed on the homepage by 8% more than before the redesign.

total item listed on homepage patchScreenshot created by the 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 posted on the site in chronological order.

item reference widget on item detail pagesScreenshot from Independent.ie, March 2021

What impact has increased internal linking had on SEO?

Google search impressions are back to previous levels.

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

Referral traffic from articles to other related articles increased by 10%.

drop and return of trafficScreenshot created by the author, February 2022

The first place ranking has improved, but not back to a pre-site level overhaul.

rank drop change and never recoveredScreenshot taken by the author on Bigmetrics.io, February 2022

Final Thoughts

Key takeaways for publishers from this case study include:

  • The homepage of a news site is one of the most important referral sources of article traffic.
  • Although users reach a news article from a search, the home page plays an important role in the ranking ability of this article.
  • The more internal PageRank an article receives, the more important the article may be perceived by Google’s crawling, indexing, and ranking systems.
  • Changing the website architecture to a cleaner design can negatively impact a publisher’s performance on search.
  • For News SEO, it is essential to ensure that an article receives a link from the front page when it is published. Having an automated sidebar on the homepage with the latest articles posted in chronological order is a great way to accomplish this goal.

And finally, the next time you’re in a meeting to discuss the potential impact of a home page design change on SEO and need evidence to back up your argument that the design changes have an impact on SEO, please share this case study with them!

More resources:

Featured image: metamorworks/Shutterstock

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