From time to time in the recent past, one of the most trafficked Web sites in Philadelphia has gotten a major redesign.
Unfortunately, there was never one source that covered the whys and the hows. Now there is: Technically Philly.
So, here’s the first in an irregular series of our Shop Talk department, called The Redesign.
Both of Philadelphia’s big alternative-weeklies have changed their online looks in recent months. It just so happens that the one that came out last may have started first.
At the end December, CityPaper, founded in 1981 by Bruce Schimmel, went from this to this. And then, early last month, Philadelphia Weekly made its own jump from a cluttered display.
“We knew we needed to step up our platform online, not just re-skin the site,” says Keith McGinnis, the IT Web head over at Review Publishing, PW’s Samson Street-based parent company. “Now we have a platform that can help us rise to the occasion.”
Though PW’s move came just months after a big redesign from CityPaper, their primary rival, it wasn’t much more than coincidence, McGinnis says. Review Publishing and PW staff began sketching the overhaul at the end of 2007.
“From a design perspective, it was about making [the site] look more pleasing. From a traffic perspective it was about decreasing bounce rate and increasing time on site,” McGinnis said. The changes include lots of new user interaction and two new robust listings services.
It’s meant to be a major step for the weekly, which was founded in 1971 as the Welcomat, and focused on moving their product off the homepage, which previously got almost all PW’s traffic.
Their CMS remains Clickability and, though McGinnis declined to give details, the site also uses a variety of third party services integrated for different functions. The new design was outsourced to O3 World, a Northern Liberties firm owned by Mike Gadsby, Keith Scandone and Mike Terkanian — “shout out to Gads, Keith and Terk,” McGinnis, 31, says.
Of course, PW has its detractors, most notably former staff writer Joey Sweeney, who has used his popular city blog Philebrity to rail on the design — before it was even launched. He took particular issue with alternative weeklies cobbling together large databases or other functions that have established competition, like listings.
The new PW site has done just that, including detailed real estate listings and an events calendar, but McGinnis, who is celebrating his eighth year with PW’s parent company, says the fight isn’t as lost as Sweeney suggests.
“In my opinion, it’s not really about competing with Craigslist. It’s about having an audience who trusts your brand, and then giving them a classifieds-type marketplace to buy and sell items. The one advantage we do have is locality,” McGinnis says.
The site now features an expanded registered-user area and PW now offers embedding code for its self-hosted video. Users can also now comment and rate all content and review bars, restaurants, events, and other businesses in the listings section. Readers also now have the ability to submit bands and musicians for PW to review, and suggest events, restaurant, bar, realtors or other businesses to their “guides.”
“From an audience perspective, it’s the overall relief that the site is much more pleasing to look at and much, much more functional,” McGinnis says. “A few geeky items: the headline font on the site for all content is swapped out with flash using SiFR. So the headlines aren’t a standard web browser-safe font. You don’t see it everywhere, it looks hot, and it’s a tip of the cap to print in a new media world. We’re getting to take advantage of our vendor’s Akamai delivery network, something I never though I’d get to work with.”
One back-end feature he most like is the new automation of Print2Web and Web2Print.
“So anything that starts in either workflow can be crossed over to the other rather seamlessly,” he says. “I’m really proud of this. Most print publishers are dealing with it. It’s a well known challenge of making the transition from newspaper to new media publisher.”
He also says there were profit-driven changes.
“There was an effort to create a balance of display ad inventory, traditional banner advertising, sponsorship opportunit[ies] and new methods,” he says. “Mostly where IAB standards were placed, how many per page, what type of ad units would be allowed, etcetera.”
PW is making additional revenue with its new “premium listings,” ad boxes posted throughout the site landings and placed heavily in their various guides. Entries from those guides purchased the higher profile space, giving an event, band or business more visibility, he says.
When it comes to an alt-weekly bringing the daily traffic necessary to generate online revenue, McGinnis won’t discuss PW’s plans in detail but says he isn’t too threatened by fears of declining advertising revenue.
“It’s really about finding alternatives to banner ads,” McGinnis says, “It all comes back to the basics. Generate an audience, captivate them with content, organize relevant advertisers around that audience and you’ve got a business model that will work.”
During the next six to eight months ACWeekly.com and SouthPhillyReview.com will see the same platform shift. But it started with PW. After the beginnings of that design, McGinnis says it’s hard to imagine the staff could have known what the alt-weekly world would have looked like when it launched.
“It just so happens, one and a half years later, the economy had tanked and Philly newspapers were going bankrupt the week we relaunched,” he says. “It’s either the best time or the worst time to be in the media industry. The difference is only where you are standing.”
Follow Keith on Twitter here and Philly Weekly here.
What do you think about their redesign? What’s good and what isn’t?
When major Philadelphia Web sites change, Technically Philly will find out why in The Redesign. Every Wednesday, Shop Talk shows you what goes into a tech product, organization or business in the Philadelphia region. See others here.
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