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Sink the Splash Pages

Summary: Skip intro splash pages degrade performance, increase bailout rates, and decrease your search engine rankings. Most importantly splash screens reduce web credibility with up to 71% traffic loss.

Splash pages are branding or branching pages that usually appear before the main home page of a site. Many splash screens are graphically rich to entice users to explore the site. Unfortunately, splash pages decrease credibility, traffic, search engine rankings, and web site performance. This article explores the effects of splash pages and offers some solutions to lessen the pain.

The Effects of Splash Pages

Skip Intro: May Cause User Frustration

User-friendly splash pages include a "skip intro" or "click here to continue" link to skip the introductory presentation. With the "skip intro" link you in effect tell the user that this splash page is less important than your other content, and may frustrate the user with slow download times.

Poorly written splash pages force the user to endure the entire download, and display each time the user enters the site. If you must use a splash page, say for an experiential or artistic site, allow the user to see it only once. You can use cookies to automatically bypass the splash screen upon reentry. Note that in some cases "first-time only UI" can cause problems when users want to return to your splash branching page.

"In reality, splash screens are annoying and users click off them as fast as they can. It is much better to design a single home page that unifies the situational identity message with a display of some useful news and directory information. Content itself can be used to tell users where they are and what the site is about." (Nielsen 2000)

Splash Screens Reduce Credibility

Your home page is the most important page on your site. Replacing your home page with a splash page wastes an opportunity to make a good first impression, reducing your site's credibility (Fogg 2002). People may enter your site through an interior page, but one of their first acts after entering your site will be to go to your home page. Home pages are so important that entire books have been written about them.

"Homepages are the most valuable real estate in the world. Millions of dollars are funneled through a space that's not even a square foot in size. The homepage's impact on a company's bottom line is far greater than simple measures of e-commerce revenues: the homepage is also your company's face to the world. Increasingly, potential customers will look at your company's online presence before doing any business with you - regardless of whether the actual sale is closed online." (Nielsen and Tahir 2002)

Splash screens sometimes make assumptions about plug-ins, broadband, and language type that hit the user with a Hobson's choice; take what we give you or nothing at all.

Sorry, your browser doesn't support Java, JavaScript, Flash, Swahili, and high bandwidth content. Please reconfigure your system and try again.

Splash Screens Reduce Search Engine Rankings

Search engines place more importance on pages higher up your web site hierarchy. Demoting your home page to the second or third page that the user sees upon entering your site reduces its potential search engine visibility. Splash pages are also harder for search engines to index, since splash pages are typically graphically rich with Flash animations.

"I look at splash pages as a 'kiss of death' for search engine optimization," said Shari Thurow, Director of Grantastic Designs, a search engine marketing firm (Thurow 2003). "The home page's main function is to act as a site's table of contents. A home page shouldn't be a site index (the site map's function) or a giant ad. A splash page is essentially a giant advertisement."

Thurow cites three main reasons that splash pages are ineffective:

  1. Splash pages lack keyword phrases, which are the words that your target audience types into search queries. "A splash page contains no visible body text, except possibly 'skip intro' or 'enter site,'" she said. "Let's be honest, how many people in your target audience type in the words 'skip intro' - no one."
  2. Splash pages have only one link and are rarely cross-linked. Most splash pages link to a single page within a site. Usually, that single link is to the true, user-friendly home page. "Which is the page your target audience wants in the first place," she said. "A splash page format communicates to the search engines that only one page on your site is important."
  3. Splash pages often have redirects. "Most search engines will not include splash pages in their search results because of the redirect. Search engines want to deliver people to pages that contain the information they are searching for," Thurow said. "A home page may have that information. A splash page does not."

We asked Danny Sullivan, founder of SearchEngineWatch.com, what he thought of splash pages.

"Basically, the most important page in your site is your home page. Search engines have tended to give it a slightly higher ranking boost. It may be the first page of a new site to get indexed. It's also the page people tend to link to the most. If there's no text, then the search engines have nothing to index - sort of like handing out a blank business card. So the splash page represents a wasted opportunity." - Danny Sullivan

Splash Pages Increase Bailout Rates

Users are primarily "informavores" on the Web. They scavenge for interesting tidbits to digest in their quest for better information. By putting a splash page between your site and your users, you are erecting a barrier to your offerings. In fact, webmasters who have analyzed their log files report bailout rates between 16% to 71% for splash screens (Nielsen 1998, Sullivan 1997, Marlatt 1999).

"It's been our experience that all they do is give people the opportunity to punt the site. People really dislike getting a page that has no useful content on it. In my opinion, they very often do more harm than good." - Cliff Kurtzman, CEO of Tenagra (Marlatt 1999).

After this article was first published, a reader called in with a 153K splash page, with little useful content "above the fold." Their log file analysis revealed that the top exit page was the first page with a bailout rate of 71%.

Splash Screens Degrade Web Site Performance

By their very nature splash screens are frequently graphically intensive and slow to download. Forcing users to endure that multimedia extravaganza may work the first time, but subsequent displays will only annoy and alienate your users. Since the splash screen has effectively become your home page, it will be one of the most heavily trafficked pages on your site and will reduce performance. Vincent Flanders devotes and entire chapter to the evils of splash pages in his book Son of Web Pages That Suck.

"I try to tell clients that Web design should reflect the real world, and you don't see real-world equivalents of a splash page. Think about Wal-Mart. Are you forced to wait at the front door and watch a thirty-second movie before you're allowed to enter? No. Then why would you make your visitors wait to get inside your Web site?" (Flanders 2002)

If you do use a splash screen, be sure to include a linear progress bar to give users some useful feedback while they are waiting to minimize the pain (King 2003).

Conclusion

Splash pages can backfire with users. Rather than enticing them to explore further you repel them clicking and screaming. Splash pages decrease performance, credibility, traffic, and search engine rankings. Bailout rates up to 71% have been reported with some splash pages. If you must use a splash page, make sure it loads quickly, provides bypass links and keywords, and optionally uses cookies to display it just once.

About the Author

Andy King is the founder of five developer-related sites, and the author of Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization (http://www.speedupyoursite.com) from New Riders Publishing. He publishes the monthly Bandwidth Report, the weekly Optimization Week, and the weekly Speed Tweak of the Week.

References

Flanders, V., "Splish, Splash Pages," in Son of Web Pages That Suck (WebPagesThatSuck.com), San Francisco: Sybex, 2002, p. 118. Flanders devotes and entire chapter of 22 pages to splash pages. This amusing and informative book makes some excellent points for no-nonsense web design.
Fogg, B.J. Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility, Persuasive Technology Lab. Stanford University, 2002. In two surveys of over 2600 people Fogg found that a "clean, professional look" was cited by 46.1% of participants when evaluating sites for web credibility. Information Design/Structure was cited 28.5% of the time, while Information Focus was cited 25.1% of the time. While the factors varied for different types of sites, disguised advertising and popup ads, stale content, broken or uncredible links, difficult navigation, typographic errors, popup ads, and slow or unavailable sites were found to harm credibility the most.
King, A., Flowing with Yan Arthus Bertrand, Optimization Week Magazine, May 12, 2004. A review of the flow-inducing "Earth from Above" site that includes effective feedback for longer wait times, and yes, a splash page.
King, A., "Response Time: Eight Seconds, Plus or Minus Two," in Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization (http://www.speedupyoursite.com), Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2003, pp. 18-19. For delays that last more than a few seconds, provide linear progress bars to give allow experienced users to estimate completion times and plan more effectively. Effective feedback can increase the amount of time users are willing to wait.
Kyrnin, J., "Splash Pages: Pros and Cons," About.com. Jennifer Kyrnin gives an overview of splash pages good and bad.
Marlatt, A., "When, If Ever, Are Splash Screens Good Design Elements," Internet World 4, no. 14 (1999): 31. Cliff Kurtzman, president and CEO of Internet marketing firm Tenagra found that his "logs indicated 30 percent of visitors were not clicking through."
Nielsen, J., Designing Web Usability, Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2000, pp. 176-177. A treasure trove of practical, research-based web site design guidelines designed to improve usability. Includes a brief section on splash screens.
Nielsen, J., Readers Comments on Outsourcing Web Design, Alertbox, Useit.com, June 28, 1998. One reader comments that after log file analysis he found that "16% of visitors weren't making it beyond the splash page."
Nielsen, J. and M. Tahir, Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2002, p. 1. An entire book about homepages, with reviews of popular sites and recommendations.
Roselli, A., Let the User Skip the Splash Page, Evolt.org, Sept. 5, 1999. Adrian Roselli offers two solutions to allow the user to skip the splash page automatically.
Sullivan, T., Reading Reader Reaction: A Proposal for Inferential Analysis of Web Server Log Files. In Proceedings of the 3rd Conference on Human Factors and the Web (1997). Sullivan reports that one company's log file analysis "showed that fully 22 percent of readers subjected to the splash screen simply took their browsing business elsewhere."
Thomson, L., "Splash Pages May Drown Your Site," NetMechanic.com, October 2000. Larisa Thomason says splash pages, a digital version of a book cover, are a bad idea and offers some suggestions.
Thurow, S., Search Engine Visibility, Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2003. Shari Thurow's practical how-to on search engine optimization. Thurow provides search engine marketing services for select clients at Grantastic Designs

By website optimization on 9 Nov 2004 AM

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