Relaunching a news site that receives 107 million monthly unique visitors is an incredibly daunting task, particularly when that process involves changing not only the front and back ends of the site, but the entire philosophy around what a news site should be as well. The enormity of that change isn’t lost on the Guardian’s director of digital strategy Wolfgang Blau, who acknowledges that such a radical redesign puts an onus on an audience to remain loyal through the change as much as it puts on the publisher:
«In this industry you expect a launch dip because this is not a redesign, this is a completely rebuilt information architecture, different section structure. It’s not a repackaging of something, it’s a new Guardian.»
But the Guardian’s approach to the redesign – entirely in the open, taking over 100,000 pieces of feedback from beta users, a staggered roll-out in the United States and Australia – has so far mitigated the initial impact of the relaunch, with traffic stats in the US where it was first launched barely altering.
But while improving the user experience while keeping the audience on-side is paramount, the new design is also aimed at making it easier to monetise the Guardian online.
The redesign is built on a modular structure, which Blau says allows it to better serve its audience as a breaking news site even as it reduces the distance between ads and ecommerce offerings:
«The longer we thought about the theme the more we realised that we weren’t really sure what a homepage should be these days… Of course we knew [we are a breaking news site] but when we took a look at our old site we realised our old home page was not doing a very good job at making it really easy for you to really scan the news agenda before you then move onto most non-news journalism the Guardian can offer you. This is one editorial reason we came up with this very modular structure.
«We call them ‘containers’ or ‘modules’, but what we liked about the terminology of containers is their compatibility no matter where you put them.»
The modular structure is all in service of better reflecting the user journey on a breaking news site like the Guardian. Noting that a third of visits to the Guardian’s old site contained at least one visit to the homepage, whether that was where the user landed or not, Blau says the new colour-coding of comment pieces, news articles, reviews etc. is a more intuitive way for the user to discover the content they actually want.
And since the modular nature of those containers allows for the insertion of ads in-line without breaking user flow, it should have a positive effect on the revenue those ads bring in.
David Pemsel, the Guardian’s deputy chief executive, explains how the redesign offers benefits to advertising partners even as it distinguishes the Guardian’s premium nature from its rivals:
«On the macro level the industry rewards dwell time, engagement, brand loyalty etc. I suppose in the sea of programmatic the Guardian has an obligation to ensure it provides the most enriching and the most engaging environment, which this clearly is.
«This is a proof point particularly to the clients that we talk to about our role in the world, about being a premium publisher. Coupled with that, when you talk to an agency or client about that they then are straight into ‘show me the real estate we can have’. Because we can be quite precious. We can sort of say ‘we’re editorial led, therefore you’ll get the boxes you’re given’, whereas actually now this is far more integrated and far more intuitively right than it’s even been before.»
That real estate includes in-line MPUs with the option for visually appealing parallax scrolling and interactive banner ads that work just as well in terms of display viewability across all platforms. Moreover, that focus on streamlining the site to improve the user journey allows for better ecommerce opportunities. Pemsel says:
«In addition to display revenue we have an ecommerce business whether it be books or it be travel. It’s fair to say it also felt like pretty basic badging on the site, so even though you might have some fantastic editorial around travel the placement of our ability to monetise that did feel slightly awkward and sometimes the positioning would be wrong. Whereas here it’s much more seamless, so you can read an article and then very easily go and transact on a holiday.»
As for the still-developing question about the dismantling of the Chinese wall between editorial output and advertising, Pemsel notes that the Guardian does not use the term ‘native’, instead preferring to consider the content on Guardian Labs as ‘sponsored by’ content that is clearly labelled. That labelling is crucial to maintaining the premium Guardian audience’s trust and, says Blau, handily reflects what that audience already wants:
«One experiment that was eye-opening for us was the regular ad spaces in the article body, the MPU, there was a discussion early on should we label them or not? And we said, like everything, let’s just test it, A/B test it from morning to evening. And the clickthrough rate when we had the label ‘advertisement’ above the MPU was significantly higher. Our readers really like that and click more often, so we’re not worried at all about direct vicinity of commercial-editorial elements, quite the opposite.»
Pemsel is bullish on the commercial benefits of the relaunch, expressing his belief that it benefits all of the Guardian’s varied revenue streams:
«Some of the ideas we have been developing in Guardian Labs, the Unilever deal, the EE, they are very rich and beautiful content experiences that were somewhat lost in the site before, and now we’ve been able to bring them out and they’re far more discoverable.
«It demonstrates the diversity of our revenue whether it be from global, ecommerce, Guardian Labs, the display formats, and obviously events and membership.»
The back-end of the new site has been similarly streamlined, to allow for quick and easy adjustment of the containers on the home page and within articles. The decision is driven by the Guardian’s recognition that as a breaking news site it provides a service that its old home page simply wasnt delivering. As a result, news items and ads can be slotted in and out, in different territories and whenever necessary.
It also has benefits for individual journalists at the Guardian, who can now access that CMS from anywhere, and who can include video content much more easily that ever before. Blau says:
«Video is just a hygiene thing, where just so many functions weren’t there, and we’ve overhauled the video player tremendously. The whole idea is noone in the building should need more than 30 minutes [of training] to be able to publish.»
Everything about the relaunch from the open nature of its development to the revamped back end has flowed from the Guardian’s desire to reinvent itself as a breaking news destination with an intuitive user journey. As part and parcel of that, the container system developed for the relaunch has in turn fine-tuned its commercial viability to better reflect the needs of its audience and establish it as a premium destination for advertisers. While nothing can be taken fro granted in digital publishing, Pemsel believes the long-term benefits of the relaunch will become evident in time:
«We have to say, in the UK we talk about being the largest cross-platform quality news brand. You have to match that with our commercial opportunity as well as your editorial stance.
«Sometimes one can find yourself talking about that to an advertiser or media agency and they feel like you’re slightly naive to think you can go up against the advent of huge programmatric trading desks. But at the same time we have an obligation to say we have an incredibly valuable audience.»