4 Lessons From The Web’s Most Ruthlessly Addictive Site

With its four-foot-long home pages and hundreds of sidebar images, the Mail Online breaks every rule of web design. It’s also winning the web (and design awards).

During the average workday, I allow myself to take a couple "Internet breaks," little bursts of Tumblr and Gawker and other forms of web candy that tug at my attention span like a needy kid. There’s one web threshold I never step over on a weekday, though: the Mail Online. The online outlet of the British tabloid is a one-way ticket to an hours-long surfing spree of celebrity gossip and moral outrage. It’s not web candy—this is web crack.

And it’s not just me. The Mail Online now outperforms The New York Times, The Guardian, and pretty much every other online news property in terms of unique visitors. It generated almost $40 million last year, an increase of 500% since 2008. I’ve always wondered at the remarkable magnetic pull of the website, which isn’t particularly beautiful and isn’t known for its in-depth reportage. "Mail Online breaks just about every web design rule in the book," Jakob Nielsen (yes, that Nielsen) has said of the site. Yet, as Nielsen adds, "the traffic figures speak for themselves." What keeps so many of us coming back for more heaping servings of non-stories, even when we know that’s what we’re getting?

That question was partially answered this week, when the Mail Online was singled out for a Design Effectiveness Award by the British Design Business Association. Brand42, the British agency that designed the Mail Online, received the Gold Grand Prix for the 2008 revamp that spurred the Mail to where it is today. After getting in touch with the designers, I was excited to get a hold of the case study that lays out some of the most successful aspects of the design. Four of them follow.

More Is More, Ad Placement Be Damned!

Brand42 started off by throwing out traditional ideas about above and below the fold, a model many news sites have maintained online. Sometimes the Mail’s front page is so long, it scrolls for the pixel-equivalent of several meters. The model here is more—always have more content available for those landing on the front page. In another unusual move (at least in 2008), Brand42 got rid of all advertising on the front page and doubled up on ads on the rest of the site. "We recognized and utilized the fact that the webpage does not conform to web media rules," they write.

Like A Maze With No Deadends

An average sidebar on a Mail Online story has nearly 70 stories, each with its own image. As readers move past the threshold into individual stories, the sidebar acts as an anchor pulling them into the next story. "We created a radically different information architecture, allowing more flexible entry points and journeys through the site," says the Brand42 team in their case study. The size and ratio of the sidebar was tested using eye-tracking, giving the design team a heat map of how the average eye moves over the page. Based on those maps, Brand42 created SEO-optimized templates (now numbering over 200) that allow editors to easily link in their stories, preventing dead-ends. Right now, more than half of the Mail’s page views come not from the homepage, but from click-throughs elsewhere on the site.

Okay, So This Rule Is Pretty Standard

The Mail puts hundreds of stories online every day, and that meant Brand42 had to come up with a way to parse the content into discernable chunks. Surf around the Mail Online for a few minutes, and you’ll find yourself dropped into one of around a dozen topic silos—from FeMail (ugh) to Science & Tech. This strategy helps users avoid getting "lost" amongst the vast number of stories that go live on the site every day. "It not only gave the medium a revitalized look but allowed the user to know where they are on the site," Brand42 explains.

Win The Ladies, And You’ve Won The Web

We’ve long known that female web users drive more traffic than their counterparts. The Mail Online has made it a point to exploit that fact. If you take a peek at their front page, most of the images are geared toward women, or at least the gender-normative version of what women are interested in—that is to say, celebrities, beauty, and family. According to the case study, the "FeMail" channel outperforms every competing beauty and fashion site in the U.K.—even those of magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmo.

So there aren’t any truly new tricks beneath the Mail Online’s hood—these are all tried-and-true online publishing strategies, just scaled up a few orders of magnitude. The Mail takes what we already know about attracting clicks and drives those principles to the breaking point. Check out the rest of the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Awardees here, or read the full report on the Mail Online here.

[Image: CarbonNYC]