Microsoft says a small new feature within Internet Explorer 9 is having a big impact on sites that have tweaked their code to make use of it.
"Site pinning," which is new to this latest major version of Internet Explorer, lets users add a shortcut to a site from any page of their own to sit on their Windows 7 task bar. On the surface this would just seem like any other shortcut, except that Microsoft has provided ways for sites to boost the interactivity, like putting site-specific notifications, navigation, and information in contextual menus that sit behind the icon.
Microsoft now says that sites that have gone this extra step are seeing anywhere from a 15 percent to 50 percent increase in site visits, behavior that can be tracked back to a pinned site's increased visibility compared to bookmarks, which are usually kept hidden within a menu inside of the browser.
"It shouldn't surprise that much," Brian Hall, general manager of Windows Live business group, told CNET in an interview last week. "If you think about it there's a reason people have competed aggressively for default home paging for years and years and years. That default home page was the thing that you saw every time you started your browser," Hall said.
"What we enable is the ability to get out of having only one home page. And not go wonky to the level that you have to have multiple paths, which an average customer isn't going to do for their home page set," he continued.
So far more than 900 sites have taken advantage of the feature, meaning that they've added some code to their site to offer up the special features to IE9 users. That includes high-resolution icon and support for Jump Lists, which break out site-specific actions into a menu that can be accessed without hunting around for those same options on the site itself. The feature has long been available to native applications built for Windows 7, with Microsoft positioning IE9 as the first pathway for Web developers to include the functionality into their sites and Web applications.
"We have more and more sites that just continue to keep pushing it," Hall said. "For instance when you have Pandora pinned now you'll notice that when you're paused and the windows is not in the foreground, you'll see a notification that lets you know that you're in pause."
Others have also moved to take advantage of the feature by promoting it when users first visit using IE9. "Huffington Post is interesting. If you go to Huffington Post from IE9, it will actually prompt you to do the pinning because they know that if it's pinned you're going to go there more often," Hall said. Similar initiatives have been done by mobile Web application developers with the home screen shortcut feature that's built into Apple's Safari browser on its iOS devices.
Microsoft also sees site pinning as a way to change the way portal-style home pages typically drove traffic to internal properties. "Let's take a site like Yahoo, which today has obviously good home page share in the United States," Hall said. "We could encourage people to pin Yahoo, pin Yahoo Mail, pin Yahoo Finance, and all the sudden [Yahoo] doesn't need to try and program everything through that single piece of real estate that is the home page."
Hall said that system encourages users to group together similar sites, or clusters of links. "If you go to 20 different sites, if you just start pinning them you get logical groupings," he said. "So let's say I'm doing all my research on MSN, I can have 10 links that are logically grouped here, and they're not getting in the way of my de novo browsing section."
But does that principle scale as users begin to pin more and more sites? Based on user behavior during the beta, that hasn't proven to be an issue. "I think the majority of people aren't going to have more than 10 pins," Hall said. For those that do, Hall pointed toward simply expanding the size of the Windows task bar to double or even triple height (or width) to accommodate more pins.
"I think what you'll find is, the more sites that do pinning, the more people want to pin. You might see more people going into double height, but that's a problem we look forward to having," Hall said.
Microsoft put out the first, and likely only, release candidate for IE9 last week, though the company has not said when it plans to roll out a final version. The software continues to be offered only to users of the current, and previous iteration of Microsoft's Windows operating systems: 32-bit Windows 7; 64-bit Windows 7; 32-bit Windows Vista; and 64-bit Windows Vista.