Web slideshows: the business case - for or against?

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Location

France
47° 34' 54.6528" N, 2° 39' 31.2876" E

I‘ve recently been pondering on the merits - or otherwise - of using slideshows (aka carousels). These are pretty much ubiquitous these days but I have my doubts as to their real value. Just because something might look great and can be used is not sufficient enough justification for using it. So here are some thoughts on where and when a slideshow can and shouldn’t be used.

Web slideshow image

Slideshow varieties

At its simplest a slideshow is a sequence of images that is displayed in the same place on a page. Beyond that, there’s detail, detail and more detail:

  • transition effects: slide, fade, spin etc. - or none
  • variable speed
  • manual or automatic progression to the next slide
  • randomised sequence - or not
  • thumbnail navigation - or not
  • title captions - with h2 or h3 markup - or none
  • paragraph captions - or not
  • each slide links to a designated page - or not
  • responsive (for desktop, tablet or smartphone) or fixed size
  • swipe/gesture support

Where does the show go?

A site’s home page can often be where slideshows are found, but they can also be used lower down the hierarchy, for example, to show off a product range.

What is a slideshow’s purpose?

I hope it’s to inform, but maybe it’s to dazzle. Building a slideshow is hard work, so there had better be some measurable benefit from the exercise. Increased use of the contact form or the booking form would be a measurable objective. Keeping people on-site would be helpful, but is this perhaps compromised with an increased page load time? How these competing impulses balance out can best be seen with some examples.

Case study 1: Karrageen

I’ve just completed a complete redesign of Karrageen’s website for long-time clients Nikki and Phil Higgin. They were emphatic that the site’s home page had to have a slideshow and I resisted this enormously. Their argument was persuasive enough to win me over and rested on four key ideas:

  1. Their camping and caravan site in Devon is in such an astonishingly beautiful stretch of the south coast that it merited a small number of high-quality photos being shown from the off. Their competition doesn’t really offer anything to quite match this, so making a big show of it on the home page was a strong business case
  2. They were getting good feedback from their younger clients that paragraphs of text were simply being skipped. Busy people don’t have time to deal with lengthy text, so we decided to present some key points on top of the slides.
  3. Catering for multiple devices was a key objective of the new design so any slideshow would have to be responsive and support swipe gestures.
  4. Unlike here in rural France where broadband speeds can be dismal, most of the UK is served with fast internet, so page load times aren’t so great an issue.

With these points in mind, we put a slideshow in place of just seven photos (of the campsite, the landscape and of Nikki’s mouth-watering croissants) and used an overlay to add some punchy text that attempted to set the scene - and the business case. We also set the slideshow to manual to help reduce distraction and give visitors control of it themselves.

Initial feedback is very positive but we will be keeping an eye on the data. The site has always ranked well on Google and I was keen that nothing we did compromised this. The redesign this time round was to reduce the bounce rate and channel more visitors towards the two booking forms. Google stats for the first month after this redesign look very promising and we’ll be keeping tabs on what sort of impact the slideshow (and the general redesign) has had.

Case study 2: A Dream French Wedding

I’ve also just been working with Jo Burgess on her website A Dream French Wedding. The site has had a slideshow prominently on its front page since I first designed it in 2011 and it’s something that Jo considers to be an extremely important component of her web presence.

It’s a slideshow of high-quality photos that were commissioned for different weddings and they depict some of the key ingredients of Jo’s event-planning expertise, such as venue selection, entertainment and catering (and many more, such is the complexity of wedding management).

For the moment, these images are not accompanied by captions or explanatory text. Arguably, they speak for themselves and function as very impressive testimony to a successful business. Because of this lack of text, the slideshow advances automatically. The photos also act as idea-teasers for potential clients who are perhaps seeking inspiration for their own up-coming weddings. It therefore presents a showcase of existing work whilst also providing inspiration. The photos are classy and very persuasive.

The business case

Slideshows can be very successful in showing off a product range, with each slide (or its associated text) linking directly to each product’s full page. The same would go for a portfolio of previous work.

Where it is difficult to justify is if the products or portfolio items have little visual value. I am also redesigning a very high-ranking site for a client with an insurance business. It’s a site that I built for them back in 2010 and which is now showing its age, but still has top Google rankings. The current redesign is to make it responsive to all device formats. Their insurance ‘products’ are difficult to present visually through any form of slideshow, and I’m of the view that an attempt to do that would be gratuitous and probably counter-productive.

Animation can be distracting and there’s only a limited period of time to convey any sort of message before visitors bail out - and each departure represents lost business. A slideshow is valuable only if there’s a strong business case for it being there. That’s an argument that needs to be made individually each time round.

Resources

My current favourite slideshow plugin is iOSSlider, which is what I used for the Karrageen redesign mentioned above. For Drupal-specific slideshows, it’s worth checking out this comparison of Drupal slideshow modules.

Sadly, good resources about when and how to use slideshows are few and far between. If you know of any that merit mention, please let me know.

Since posting this, a Moz newsletter alerted me to some convincing posts about this subject:

All three of these are worth checking out very carefully!