For its upcoming redesign, USA Today Sports site FTW listened to the data, and the data said kill the infinite scroll.
The redesign, FTW’s second since its 2013 launch, is a product of both data-driven testing and a larger strategy to optimize its site for mobile, which represents 80 percent of its traffic. FTW’s implementation of infinite scroll, which displays a never-ending lists of article headlines below its articles, has been a major drag on the site’s mobile page loading times, so it had to go.
“Publishers have to do whatever they can to speed up the mobile experience,” said USA Today Sports product director Matthew Harvey. “If your mobile pages aren’t snappy, it’s going to be harder to convert casual readers into dedicated ones.”
Harvey’s comments are timely given that much of Facebook’s recent direct publishing pitch rides on the notion that publishers are failing when it comes to optimizing their pages for mobile. But FTW’s decision to ditch infinite scroll was also a product of the realization that, while infinite scroll is billed as way to get visitors to read more stories, that benefit was more presumed than empirical. Harvey said that pages per visit actually increased by 16 percent when FTW replaced infinite scroll with a finite set of six articles below articles.
“When choices were taken away, people started making decisions. They went deeper into the experience,” said USA Today Sports content director Jaime Mottram. “We didn’t want to lose the infinite scroll, but you have to look at the data and understand what people are actually doing versus what you think they’re doing, and react to that.”
Along with removing its infinite scroll, the FTW has also improved its overall mobile user experience, moved its right rail to the left side of the page and tweaked page elements to improve the viewability of its ads.
The new design comes as the site is building on the formula that has made it successful over the last two years: sports coverage optimized for the twin forces of social and mobile. That means writing posts that are light on text but heavy on photos, video and GIFs. The strategy has paid off: FTW got 14 million unique visitors in April, a 44 percent increase over the last year, according to Omniture. Mottram said that FTW is also slowly evolving from a strictly sports-focused brand to a social-optimized general interest site with sports as one if its verticals.
But FTWs reliance on social traffic has become somewhat fraught. While optimizing for social visits is great for publishers’ traffic, it’s less great for their brands, which tend to take a backseat among bouncy social readers. The result is that less than 1 percent of FTW’s traffic goes to its homepage.
Mottram said FTW is trying to turn that around, both by improving its logo placement and by making a concerted effort to drive more readers to its homepage once they come in through social channels. It’s also improving the branding of its section pages so that they’re more distinct from each other, as it’s already done with its golf section.
“We have a lot of readers, but I’m pretty pretty sure a lot of people who have read our articles didn’t know they were on For The Win,” Mottram said. “Relying on social isn’t a problem, but we also want people to have an affinity for the brand. We want both.”
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