Why Amazon deliberately breaks every rule of homepage design (and is better off for it)
Updated: Jun 26, 2019
The role of the homepage
There is no doubt that the homepage is an important part of any website. For many, it will be the most visited page of all, and for many visitors it'll be the first page that they visit. As such, designers pay close attention to the homepage and spend a lot of time finessing it and making it the best it can possibly be.
Ultimately, whilst a homepage’s importance is undeniable, its purpose is remarkably simple - needing to just do two things really well:
1. Make the visitor want to continue their journey.
2. Show the visitor how to continue their journey.
Whist simple; achieving these objectives is not easy and there are lots of different disciplines required and considerations that go into each. The former requires the designer to communicate a succinct and compelling articulation of that website’s benefit to the visitor - how it can enhance their lives, meet their needs and help them achieve their goals - and how it is different and superior to other websites of its type. The latter requires compelling calls to action, a clear visual design and a logical and orderly navigational structure.
This brings us to Amazon, whose homepage is honestly a bit of a mess of disparate products and services, with little to no messaging about why someone should trust the site with their purchase or how to go about making one. As such, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it delivers against either of these two key objectives. To illustrate, here’s a snapshot from the .co.uk site taken in late May 2019.
Of course, Amazon knows a thing or two about building a good website - enjoying nearly 200 million unique monthly visitors. They are staffed by a team of very talented web designers and will have dedicated significant resources to A/B testing the homepage and optimising it. So, either I don't know what I'm talking about or Amazon has deliberately decided to go a different direction with what their homepage is trying to achieve.
Before we go any further, allow me clarify a few points. Firstly, the two objectives I’ve laid out are very firmly written with the visitor experience in mind - something that is incredibly important for a website to promote. There will always be times where a website prioritises other goals over the visitor experience - opting for activity that more directly drives turnover rather than visitor satisfaction.
Secondly, the above objectives are written with most websites in mind. Amazon is not like most websites. They are a market leader, a household name and absolutely ubiquitous with online retail. A website’s homepage should evolve and mature over time, and Amazon’s has done this (as a hop into the Wayback Machine will confirm).
Where Amazon is similar to most websites is that it is always trying to grow its turnover and profits. The challenges it faces in doing that, however, are likely to be quite different. To see why, I'm going to make two educated guesses:
Most Amazon visitors aren’t first-time visitors - they’ll have experienced the brand before, made a purchase before, have already bought into the Amazon proposition and the benefits it can offer, and will know how to navigate the site.
Most visitors arrive at Amazon with a focussed idea of what they want to buy. Few are coming to Amazon to browse what is has to offer (it stocks billions of products - so this might take a while).
Any business has three ways that it can grow its turnover:
Grow penetration - the number of people in a market that buy from the business - by getting new customers to visit and buy.
Grow purchase frequency - the number of occasions in which existing visitors buy from the business.
Grow average basket size - the amount that each visitor is spending with the business when they do visit.
Amazon is likely to have an already impossibly high penetration and, whilst I’m sure new visitors are added all the time, it’ll be difficult for them to make fast and significant gains in this area. That just leaves frequency and basket size that it can affect.
With this in mind, the homepage starts to make more sense. Let’s look at the key elements above the fold (the part of the website you can see when you first land on it).
The main navigation bar. The most striking element here is how wide and prominent the search bar is. This ensures that visitors who have a specific idea of what they want to buy can immediately see how to begin searching for it, making the transition to the product pages quick and easy.
The big headline message is an advert promoting the Amazon Fire. The Fire is a key component of Amazon's product and service ecosystem (alongside other products such as Echo, Kindle, Amazon Prime, Amazon Fresh and Prime Video). This ecosystem is important to Amazon for a number of reasons. Every time a customer buys a product or uses a service within this ecosystem, they increase their reliance on Amazon - increasing their chances of visiting and making another purchase in the future. If someone owns a Kindle, for example, then every time they want a new book they need to go to Amazon - driving their visitation frequency. The Amazon Echo, another product in this ecosystem, is effective at driving usage of Amazon Music (its default music player) and voice purchase on the main Amazon store.
My hypothesis is that visitors visit Amazon with a targeted idea of what they want to buy, and conversely will not visit the site that often unless they have a specific purchase need. This caps a visitor’s purchase frequency to the number of specific (relevant) purchase occasions that the visitor has. A Deal of the Day mechanic is Amazon trying to give the visitor a reason to come back on a more regular basis, by tempting them in with an exclusive or compelling deal that changes every day.
Movies and TV - another part of the Amazon ecosystem. Amazon doesn’t want visitors to visit only when they want to buy a specific product. By offering and promoting these two services, Amazon is trying to access visitors’ leisure spend, encouraging visitation when they just want to relax and watch something.
Bargain finds. If I was to guess why someone would not end up making a purchase on Amazon, I’d suggest it isn’t because Amazon doesn’t sell the right product (as previously noted, it has a huge range). More likely is that from time-to-time people can find products cheaper on other websites. By promoting Bargain Finds, Amazon again encourages people to check back regularly to see what deals can be hard, but also tries to build perceptions of Amazon as being an online price leader - discouraging price comparison behaviours.
Sign in. At first it might seem quite odd to see this here, as well as in the top right of the page. However, Amazon thrives by holding a vast array of data on each visitor, allowing them to better target its products and build up a clear idea of how to market to each customer on an individual basis. As such, giving this button greater prominence than it would enjoy on other online sites is a valuable use of the homepage real estate.
Offering Gift cards delivers a lot of benefits to Amazon. Firstly, it immediately transfers a visitor’s spend over to Amazon without the need for anything in return - which will deeply please its finance department. Beyond that, it cements Amazon as a gifting destination - giving the brand access to another purchase occasion. Finally, when the gift card is gifted it encourages positive purchasing behaviours in another customer - which could trigger more frequent visitation or additional purchasing beyond the gift card amount. As gift cards are most likely to be given to younger visitors, there is also a chance that they will be given to someone who has never visited Amazon's website - helping Amazon maintain its high penetration levels.
Improving the visitor experience
All of these homepage elements are clearly important for Amazon and have strategic importance beyond ‘just sell another product’. But none of these are directly intended to improve the visitor’s on-the-day experience.
So how could Amazon improve its homepage from a visitor’s point of view? Ultimately, I don’t think it needs to. If my hypothesis is correct about how Amazon's visitors use the site, then they really don't need to see what traditionally goes on a website’s homepage. Ultimately, Amazon’s visitors aren’t heavily reliant on its homepage as they will be familiar with how to use the site and where to go next when landing on it. If asked, some might even prefer the homepage to resemble that of Google and be completely stripped back to search functionality and little else. This is clearly bad for Amazon itself, but if this is all the visitor needs then it has license to use its homepage as a revenue driver rather than as a page purely intended to start the visitor experience off on the right foot.
To understand how most ‘normal’ websites’ homepages need to deliver something a lot more compelling - see how we can help.