Has the Home Page Video Fire Been Extinguished?

December 7, 2017 Sean Fitzgerald

Editorial Note: Listen to a discussion about this article on the Get Connected podcast, Episode 49: Star Wars T-Shirts & 2018 School Website Design Trends.

When it comes to creating the best school website design, we’re all chasing the elusive “WOW” factor—the impossible to describe but immediately recognizable (we just know it when we see it, right?) element that creates love at first sight with admissions prospects.

Over the past two years, no design technique has done more WOWing on school sites than the full-browser, auto-playing video; however, the times are changing, and schools looking to light a fire with home page video may now find that this technique extinguishes the admissions pipeline.

How?

Google

When it comes to dousing the home page video flames, Google is the fire department. Over the past several years, Google has made significant algorithm updates to favor websites that perform well on mobile devices. One of the biggest factors in mobile performance is the overall size of a page and its load time, both of which are adversely impacted by full-browser videos.

To test this out, we reviewed the analytics of four schools with full-browser, auto-playing video that launched websites in early 2017 and also completed our SEO optimization services. We looked at the year-over-year search referral traffic of new users (likely admissions prospects) in October. The results are eye-opening:

We typically recommend that a school home page shouldn’t exceed 2-4 MB. As you can see above, the larger the home page, the greater the reduction in organic search traffic from new users. Not only did the overly large home pages negate the investment schools A and B made in SEO, these schools took a considerable hit in search traffic.

It’s worth noting that Google’s Adwords algorithm likely also looks at page performance, so oversized home pages may also hinder the reach of PPC (pay per click) search campaigns.

What’s more, Google isn’t the only company turning on the sprinklers.

Browser Updates

We’ve all been here: You conduct a quick Web search and click on a result that promises to have the information you need, but before you can begin reading the article, a large, loud, auto-playing advert interferes. It’s frustrating, and now Apple is doing something about it.

To combat these intrusions, Apple has updated the Safari browser (version 11) to block auto-playing video content with sound; however, Safari users who want auto-playing videos with sound can opt-in via a setting. While this change may be upsetting to advertisers, it’s likely a popular move with users. Google is going to make a similar update to Chrome after the New Year, and we won’t be surprised if Mozilla and Microsoft soon follow suit.

Cognitive Load

“Cognitive load” is a term used in user experience and web design that refers to the amount of mental effort required to complete a specific task. A good user experience reduces cognitive load and allows users to achieve their goals without any major headaches.

How does this relate to an auto-playing video on your homepage?

With all of the content typically conveyed on the home page, the addition of video introduces extra movement, images, and sound that impedes the user from locating the desired information. It’s for this reason that we enjoy clean and intuitive user interfaces like Gmail, but shopping on Amazon during the holidays can actually add stress as we sift through the “deals” to find the one item we want.

Altered Homepage Purpose

As we often stress with the schools utilizing our website design services, the homepage serves as the site’s primary entrance. The best home pages efficiently funnel users to their intended destination, whether it’s to learn about a specific program, schedule a tour, or complete an application. Video can act as a distraction to these goals, whether the user is conscious of it or not, potentially increasing the page’s bounce rate or, worse, giving it the “advert” feel.

But people love video!

It’s true, video is a high-consumption medium, especially on mobile devices. Further complicating the issue is the belief that Google analyzes content quality on a page, and photos and videos (as long as they aren’t too big) boost this impression.

So what’s a school to do?

During the design process for schools A and B, we had the tough-love video conversation, and these schools decided to proceed with home page video despite knowing the downsides. Why? They believed that a drop in search traffic would be counterbalanced by an increase in the percentage of admission prospects who apply after visiting the site. Whether or not this roll of the dice worked, it’s too early to tell, but this is the exact question that redesigning schools need to consider before adding video to the home page.

Home Page Video Best Practices

If your school decides to proceed with home page video, there are ways to minimize the negative side effects. For starters, place a short, 15-20 second teaser video on the home page that links to the full version on another page to save on the overall home page size. Also, consider locating the video “below the fold” to avoid the initial cognitive load distractions, and don’t set it to autoplay (or set it to play on mute if possible) so the video displays properly in all browsers.

A better solution would be to use a Cinemagraph, a medium that blurs the line between photos and video. It’s a still image with movement (think Harry Potter photos), and it has the “cool” factor to WOW admission prospects without overwhelming cognitive load or burdening the page size. Cinemagraphs could be the next big thing to catch fire on school websites.

About the Author

Sean Fitzgerald

As a Senior Interactive Designer, Sean Fitzgerald is focused on delivering rich and engaging front end website experiences for Blackbaud K-12’s library of schools. Sean lives in NH with his wife Kristen, and his son Jameson.

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