The Web is Dead, the Paperless Office, Jet Packs, and Other Prognostications

vintage pic of man with jet pack

Apparently web sites and home pages are dead, along with what we’ve broadly called the web. I’m late to the party on this one. I suppose I’ve been so lovingly cradled in the web’s warm embrace that it’s demise had eluded me. Huh.

FYI, here is a sampling of the eulogies:

OK, so I’m clearly poking fun at the prognosticators, from my seat here in the peanut gallery. And, to be fair, they have valid points. Home pages have become less important than they once were, and use of mobile apps does appear to be a growing trend, funneling users away from pure web browsing. But… the web is dead? In this article I’ll explore aspects of the "web is dead" debate, especially from a small business perspective.

What about the paperless office and jet packs? More on that a little later in the article.

The "Death" of the Home Page

Back in the heady days of the 90s (and later), your home page was considered very important. Recent advances in search engine algorithms, and associated changes in user search behavior, have forever changed that. When people search on the web, they are not looking for branding, necessarily. They are not looking for sales pitches. They are seeking answers, and content pages are the answer-providers, not home pages.

Into this mix we can add social media and apps, which have changed how we consume content, especially on mobile. Last year there was a big story that made the rounds about how traffic to the New York Times home page had plummeted. People are still reading the NYT’s news stories, just not through the home page. Increasing numbers of people are consuming news and other content through social media and mobile apps. (Here is an excellent analysis of the NYT home page story.)

Further, Google recently announced their upcoming mobile-friendliness update – due to hit April 21 – that will expand "use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal." Google also said the update will "have a significant impact in our search results." But, the key takeaway for the purposes of this article is that the update is going to work at the page level. Google is not concerned about your web site or home page per se; they want to serve mobile-optimized content pages in response to specific user queries.

However, in our rush to bury the home page, let’s not forget about branded search, where a brand name is part of the user’s query. For some businesses and organizations, branded search may be a prime way of getting traffic to their web site. This can be especially true for smaller businesses that market heavily though offline channels. And, when people perform a branded search, where are they likely to land? The home page. So, home pages are far from dead, and you should have a good home page, i.e., one that engages users and leads them to further discovery and engagement with your brand. Which, of course, cycles back to the importance of strong content pages.

The "Death" of the Web and the Ascendance of Apps

Back in the 90s – yes, another trip in the wayback machine, but please bear with me – the World Wide Web has heralded as a great equalizer and democratizer. In many respects it was: anyone could buy a domain and launch a web page, or even a web site, presenting information on any topic they desired. And, web sites could link to other web sites, which linked to other web sites, which linked to… And people spent uncounted hours "surfing" the web, following links and discovering weird and wonderful content. Web sites and pages became many, and multiplied. And, like all democratic experiments, the web became chaotic and noisy, and finding specific and/or reliable information was a total crap shoot.

Then the search engines came, and cataloged the web, and allowed you to search for specific keywords. But authoritative content was still a crap shoot. Google then aimed to increase your odds of finding reliable information with its PageRank algorithm, and this improved the signal to noise ratio, and also gave rise to the SEO profession. Spammers took note and abused SEO, and noise began to drown out signal yet again. I could go on, but I won’t. The key point is that throughout the development of the web there has been an ongoing struggle to minimize noise and maximize signal for searchers.

Enter mobile apps. Generally speaking, apps are almost pure signal. They may include ads and/or in-app purchases, but the content signal is both maximal and relevant to the user’s expectations. That’s huge, and that’s the allure of apps for content consumers. Another advantage for mobile is that the app resides natively on your device, reducing load times compared to HTML-based content on the web.

So, the web is dead and every brand should have an app, right? The answer for most large brands is probably yes. For small businesses, on the other hand, apps are a problematic proposition, raising questions such as:

  • What sort of app would my small business offer, that would actually engage people?
  • App development costs can run into 10’s of thousand of dollars; is it worth it?
  • How would an app get new customers?

At this point, web-based solutions seem like the most realistic avenue for small brands. Don’t be fooled by the "web is dead, apps are king" proclamations. Recent studies have yielded two very important statistics:

  1. 81% of consumers begin their purchase decision with web-based search or on a web site, and
  2. Conversion rates are still much higher on desktop/laptop/tablet than on smartphones.

Paperless Offices and Jet Packs

vintage pic of futuristic office

Back in the 70s and 80s – yeah, sorry – the prognosticators envisioned a paperless office. It’s easy to snicker with the benefit of hindsight, and I can see why people thought that. Cost savings, lower environmental impact, etc. Must have seemed like a no-brainer. But, here we are, 20 years later…

I also understand why people have been eulogizing the web. And the death of the web may still happen; technology has been advancing at a crazy pace and in ways that are difficult to predict. For the foreseeable future, however, the web is very much alive and continues to offer clear marketing benefits for brands.