Thumbnails of home pages
Thumbnails of home pages

Although you can’t (shouldn’t?) judge a book by its title, we do. They are part of what Gerard Genette referred to as “paratext”, the “threshold … that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back”; in effect, they are the front door.

For e-commerce sites, the home page performs a similar function, inviting the site visitor to enter deeper into the site by clicking on links or typing in searches, or to move on to another, more welcoming site. According to research conducted by Liu, White and Dumais (2010), the first ten seconds are crucial in a visitor’s decision to stay or to move on. The longer a visitor stays on a web page, the more likely they are to stay on the site and begin to delve deeper. According to Pirelli and Card, the visitor can be thought of as foraging for information, following the scent or “proximal cues” to maximise their “information diet”. The obvious cues include bibliographies, product descriptions, and link labels. Equally powerful, however, are the more emotive elements of colour, composition and image.

For e-commerce sites, the home page performs a similar function, inviting the site visitor to enter deeper into the site by clicking on links or typing in searches, or to move on to another, more welcoming site. According to research conducted by Liu, White and Dumais (2010), the first ten seconds are crucial in a visitor’s decision to stay or to move on. The longer a visitor stays on a web page, the more likely they are to stay on the site and begin to delve deeper. According to Pirelli and Card, the visitor can be thought of as foraging for information, following the scent or “proximal cues” to maximise their “information diet”. The obvious cues include bibliographies, product descriptions, and link labels. Equally powerful, however, are the more emotive elements of colour, composition and image.

In order to explore the way these ideas might function with on-line bookstores, I collected the front pages of 53 ABAA member web sites. The list was taken from the ABAA web site’s Search for Booksellers page. A search was done for all members of the ABAA New England Chapter. The pages were collected on the 3rd and 4th of July 2013. The browser was set to a constant width of 1018 for all pages apart from Brattle Book Shop’s, which required a slightly wider view-port. The images were then cropped to a constant length and added to the PDF document which you can see above.

The pages make interesting viewing when collected together this way. Before they were cropped down to fit, the most noticeable variation was in length page, with several sites continuing on for many screens before the opening one. Of course, this is also one of the aspects of the page that is invisible at first glance; until the visitor starts to explore the page they have no idea how long it may be. On the other hand, the lenght is obvious on some of these pages, particularly Antiquaries Manasek, Quaker Hill Books and The Newport Bookstore, each of which features postcard-size opening pages.

Another notable element that differentiates the pages is the choice of images or text on the page. Although all the sites use some images, on several these are limited to ABAA or other logos, as though they mean to emphasize the book as text over the book as object.

Those that do make use of images are divided between images of the books or of the store. De Wolfe and Wood Rare Books is an interesting example of this, with a photograph of the building in Maine dominating the page. There is a very clear information scent or cue on this page. The large building looms over the page with large windows inviting you to peer inside. De Wolfe and Wood Rare Books, it seems to be saying, exists beyond the limits of cyberspace; there are real people behind those wooden walls, and behind the windows are piles of books.

In contrast with De Wolfe are the sites designed by Bibliopolis, such as Bert Babcock Bookseller, which place the products front and centre and follow closely the conventions of e-commerce that have developed in recent years. These sites are all business: these are the books we have, these are the prices. Looking more closely at the links provides more detail about their qualities as book dealers as well as salesmen. Babcock, for instance, usefully offers links for pages on guidance regarding bibliography and collecting.

If I have a personal favorite among these styles, it would be those that balance the graphics to both advertise the store and encourage you to search their database. It is a difficult balance to carry off and requires some sophisticated graphic design skills as well as understanding of user interface design. Boston Rare Maps, with its choice of three large, intrinsically interesting graphics and clear bar of options across the top makes me want to enter; its use of conventions like the menu bar tells me it will be easy to do so. I can see where Stuart Bennet Rare Books would have the same effect, but the labels on the links appear to send me away to other places. It’s a subtle confusion, but it distracts me; I’m not certain what lies behind the doors.


Liu, C., White, R.W. and Dumais, S., 2010. Understanding web browsing behaviors through Weibull analysis of dwell time. In: Proceedings of the 33rd international ACM SIGIR conference on Research and development in information retrieval, SIGIR  ’10. [online] New York, NY, USA: ACM, pp.379–386. Available at: <http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1835449.1835513> [Accessed 5 Jul. 2013].

Pirolli, P. and Card, S., 1999. Information foraging. Psychological Review, 106(4), pp.643–675.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.