A while back, the Dreamhost homepage had a single, dedicated purpose. Convert visitors to shared hosting customers. Sure, there were some footer links so you could enter the site and get around, but the homepage was a landing page for all practical intents and purposes.
According to the [awesome!] book Web Design For ROI by Closed Loop PPC Marketing's Lance Loveday and Sandra Niehaus - and most people's analytics data - the purpose of a homepage is to efficiently drive visitors deeper into the site. Efficiency is measured by the click through rate from the home page to inner pages - roughly equal to the percentage of visitors who don't bounce.
In other words, the homepage's purpose is not to sell. Yet that's what landing pages do. So how can you reconcile the two?
If I can borrow a term from the good folks at Ion Interactive, you can turn the homepage into a landing path.
To understand the difference between a landing page and a landing path, imagine your website is a bricks-and-mortar shoe retailer. As you walk in the door, you're greeted by a salesman. After saying hello, he can say one of two things:
1 - "Are you ready to buy a pair of our black suede shoes?"
2 - "What style of shoes are you looking for - formal or casual?"
In the first case, most people who just walked in aren't yet sold on the product and don't necessarily want black suede shoes. They're likely to say no, and leave because of the pushy salesman who only gave them the choice of buying or not. A handful might buy right away.
In the second case, most people are likely to pick either formal or casual shoes, and from there the salesman can inquire further into what type of product they'd like, by asking about colour, sizes etc. They're a lot likelier to buy, even if it takes a few minutes more.
Now what's more precious - traffic in your store or a few minutes of your salesman's (server's) time?
Obviously, the answer is the traffic. You're paying the salesman / server to be there anyways, so why try and force the sale immediately?
That's where landing paths come in. Instead of trying to close the deal right off the get go, they offer visitors a few, limited choices. In effect, they act like the salesman conducting the needs inquiry in an offline setting.
Here are a couple of examples from around the web:
Dreamhost's new site offers visitors three choices: a free trial, a low-cost option for the mom-n-pop masses, and a private server for more serious webmasters.
While a more space between options would clarify the differences between offers, Dreamhost does a good job speaking to three different audiences and driving people further into their site. Additionally, they effectively move them down the conversion funnel.
(Getting click throughs doesn't equate to conversions - you could move people further in with, say, a blog, but you wouldn't get as far that way in terms of conversions.)
Sport Events segments most of its visitors using the same rotating flash slideshow, rather than relying on numerous static page elements like Dreamhost. This again helps visitors find exactly what they want and increase click throughs - imagine a horse racing fan hitting their homepage and only seeing basketball as available.
In addition, the lower third of the page uses a secondary refinement / filtering area where visitors can self-segment according to the type of buyer they are - corporate, group or individual. (There's also some odd insider speak about "The Ticket Advantage" which doesn't explain anything.)
Overlap with SEO:
Homepages tend to target generic, competitive terms.
As a result, the traffic they draw is at the head, with a vague intent. So those visitors are best served by a salesman asking whether they want formal or casual shoes, or perhaps asking about colour choices or shoe-brand preference.
You thus segment the traffic and draw it in - kind of like when Google offers search refinements at the end of some search results page.
I wrote a detailed piece on ecommerce filters and refinement options for Search Engine Land. That should help people with tying their SEO, usability and conversion optimization together.
Finally, my piece on developing personas using 4Q (personas are the personifications of your traffic segments; they help you design your site to serve your whole audience better) was nominated for a SEMMY and is used as a reference in Full Sail University's internet marketing master's degree course on usability.
Gab Goldenberg wrote this piece for Red Fly Marketing, a search engine optimisation company based in Dublin, Ireland, also offering search-friendly web design and other internet marketing services.