As you've noticed, we've been making some design changes to Instructables. We're trying to accomplish a number of things including making it easier to find content you're interested in, creating more compelling products for advertisers, and supporting and growing what we've already built. Here, I'll share the details around some specific design changes.
One of my big goals for 2010 is to increase our direct visitors. A direct visitor might type our URL into their browser, click on a link in a newsletter, come to the site from one of their bookmarks, or search for a phrase that includes "Instructables". Other types of visitors include searchers, who come to the site from phrases such as "sweet potato fries" but aren't specifically trying to reach Instructables.com, and visitors from blogs or news portals. My thesis is that more and more brand advertisers will want to reach our true community, and not people who are just passing by. A pretty good proxy for our true community is direct visitors, and we've already seen the savviest advertisers try to reach only that community by advertising exclusively on our homepage (the recent Apple campaigns, for example). To grow our business and ensure that Instructables thrives, it's important that we have great opportunities for advertisers, and a stronger community means more great Instructables and more intelligent people seeing and commenting on your Instructables.
To this end, we've been working to increase the likelihood that someone will go deeper into our content, and remember to come back in the future. Said another way, we want that sweet potato fries Google search to introduce someone to Instructables, and then have them think, "wow this site is amazing, I'll bookmark it, sign up for the newsletter, come back, etc..." Some of the most dramatic changes are on the homepage and channel homepages. On the homepage, we've removed the intro text from the links to Instructables. By making the homepage less cluttered with words, I was hoping to increase the number of people clicking on an Instructable. Also, I felt that the beginning of the intro text didn't contribute much to my understanding of the Instructable, and often it was no more than a repetition of the title (and at worse a note about how it was someone's first...). Removing text to increase engagement might seem counter-intuitive, but with too much going on, visitors sometimes just leave rather than decide what to click on. So far, clicks from the homepage are flat or slightly up, so this change hasn't had a negative effect on deepening visits, and may over time move us in a positive direction. On the channel homepages, we've drastically changed the layout to be more blog-like. My theory here was to give people a format they were more familiar with from elsewhere on the web, and results have been dramatic. The exit-rates (the percentage of visitors that leave Instructables from a particular page) on our channel homepages have been cut in half. For example, the exit-rate on the home channel homepage has dropped from 12% to 4.5%. This is really good! To me, this indicates that on the channel homepages we're giving visitors more compelling content, and they are more likely to dig into that content.
In support of our efforts to deepen visits, we've been doing similar smaller changes all over the site. Most of these are based on our traffic and click analysis, and if my theories are wrong, we change back or try something else. One particular change that has generated concern is the removal of the Answers link from the header. This has nothing to do with our support of Answers in general -- it's based on data. That link was almost completely unused. Coming again from the perspective of making a slightly cleaner look, we removed it. As the link wasn't generating any clicks, traffic to Answers has been unaffected. In fact, as we're highlighting specific answers on the channel homepages, traffic to the Answers section is actually up 7% since we removed the link: from Feb. 1 - 18 answers did an average of 11.1 K pageviews per day; from Feb. 19 - 28 it's done 11.9 K pageviews per day. Perhaps that's noise in the data, but removing the link certainly hasn't been the end of answers, and the trend since the change is positive.
So, we do rearrange the furniture from time to time, but it's never without reason. We're always trying to make Instructables better. We've messed up in the past, and we'll surely mess up in the future; but I think this is good, because if we're not reaching and striving a little bit beyond our comfort zone, we're not learning and improving.