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The Surprising Truth About Ugly Websites

By Mark Daoust

Ugliness has nevër looked better. I have spent the last few days examining a surprising trend in web design that has made ugly websites look absolutely irresistible. No, it’s not the bolded, 18 point Times New Roman font shouting at me as I access the page that has me excited, nor is it the harsh colors that have actually managed to make my eyes hurt and distort my vision. In fact, it’s not even that logo which is so pixelated from being processed, resized, saved, and edited so many times that it appears to be blurred to protect the identity of the company who owns the website that has me singing the praises of ugly websites. What is it?

Ugly sells.

That’s right – ugly websites are surprisingly effective in making monëy. As a person who puts business before technology, a profitable website is a website that is an unbelievably attractive website to me.

The Case of Plenty of Fish

I was struck by an example of just how effective ugly websites can be this past week as I was browsing through some web related news. I stumbled across the story of Plenty of Fish. This is a very plain looking website that offers a frëe online dating service much like Match.com (but without the subscription fee). There was nothing specifically impressive about the website that stood out to me, in fact the site was actually rather ugly.

What caused me (and I am sure several other people) to take a second look at the website was its reported earnings. It is reported that this website brings in over $10,000 from Adsense – in one day. Yes, you did read that correctly. For those of you counting, that is $300,000 per month and nearly one million dollars in just three months.

The example of Plenty of Fish led me to consider how an ugly website could be so successful. As I looked around, I suddenly realized that this was not the only successful ugly website. Ebay is unbelievably ugly; Craigslist has nevër won an award for innovative design, and IMDB has nevër even bothered to format their text out of the default Times New Roman. What is it about ugly websites that makes them so successful?

The Ability to Convey Trust

A while back I wrote an article on Controlling Your Visitors Eyes. The main point to this article was that you have less than a second to convey your marketing message to your visitor, and that every aspect, from your font selection, to the colors, navigation, and layout of your website plays a part in conveying your marketing message.

When I wrote this article, I had beautiful, CSS designed websites in mind. The idea that an ugly website could present a positive message nevër crossed my mind. Yet the fact is, ugly websites do have the ability to present the perfect marketing message. What is that message?

You can trust us. We are a family run business and do not employ a marketing team. Our website is simple, but functional. Most importantly, our goal is to serve our customers, not necessarily learn HTML.

As Internet professionals, we often forget that a large part of our society is actually afraid of the Internet. Although online shopping is growing, most people still have concerns about online security and the impersonal nature of the web. Most people do not know how to surf efficiently and use only the default tools that are given to them when they take their computer out of the box.

And this is one reason that ugly websites can sell. The lack of professionalism and a polished look leads one to believe that they are dealing with an individual. Websites cannot be trusted, but individuals can be trusted.

Function Over Förm

Although the above theory holds true in many examples, I believe there is more to the success of ugly websites than just conveying trust. Many of the websites that I referenced above have one underlying trait that can be attributed to their success: they are extremely easy to use.

Google is probably the best example of how functionality over förm can lead to success. When Google initially launched, every other major search engine was in the process of transforming themselves into a portal that would offer users all the information they could possibly want, and probably more than they really would want. Google, on the other hand, made their website ridiculously simple. There is one purpose to Google – to search the web. Nothing else was there to distract you from this one goal. It certainly did not hurt that Google was able to serve up relevant results, but the simplicity of the system was key to winning over users.

Sites like Drudge Report and Craigslist can also trace much of their success back to their functionality. Drudge Report is a very simple website that is essentially a collection of links to news stories. Most of the time, the Drudge Report does not even link over to content on their own website. Users who wanted an interesting collection of links to various news stories could find them all on one simple page. Craigslist also boasts simplicity. The website is simple to browse, simple to post, and simple to use. Because of its simplicity, it grew.

The general lesson here is simplicity. A beautiful website may draw a user in initially, but a simple website will keep your users coming back. If one of your users gets lost trying to navigate your website, chëck out of your web store, or find simple contact information, then you unnecessarily are increasing the chances that this user will simply leave.

Ugliness By Application – Not By Rule

Although ugly websites are often easier to use and can convey a unique sense of trust, ugliness is not a rule that should apply to all websites. In fact, the vast majority of websites can be improved by adding formatting and focusing on good site design principles.

There are two general rules that you must keep in mind when building your website: 1) What type of message will resonate with my visitors, and 2) Is the site easy to use?

Knowing the answer to the first question is knowing what type of visitors you are trying to reach. Are your visitors web-savvy and thus looking for a well-designed website? Are your visitors uncomfortable with the impersonal nature of the web and just looking for a simple website that is easy for them to use? Are your visitors scared of using online payment processing, or do they prefer the convenience of paying online where they do not have to talk to a person?

The second question is a rule that should apply to every website: functionality is more important than the design of your website. This does not mean, however, that a beautiful website cannot be easy to use. What this does mean is that you should nevër sacrifice the usability of your website for a fancy design effect or a more visually appealing website.

In Conclusion – It’s Not Necessarily Ugliness That Sells

As website owners, it is very easy to get caught up in the design of our websites. We want to present our businesses to visitors in the best way possible, and as we get familiar with web technologies and design techniques, it is easy to focus solely on the design of a website from the standpoint of what looks good rather than the message our website conveys.

What we need to keep in mind, is that websites are meant to be used – used for reading, used for networking, used for shopping, etc. Websites, like any other marketing tool, convey a message and are an invitation for visitors to trust us. Our design needs to reflect this.

Take a moment today to look over your website. Is it really easy to use? Have you been more worried about the look of your website than its functionality? Would it be more effective if it were simpler in its design?

About The Author
Mark Daoust is the owner of Site Reference.

 

Camilla Todd
Camilla Todd is Head of Digital Marketing at WNW Digital and manages Search Engine Optimisation, PPC, Social Media campaigns and Brand Awareness for WNW Digital SEO clients. You can follow her on Twitter @camilla_wnw, email her at camilla@wnwdigital.co.uk or phone on 01392 349580