Plain or Fancy Site Design: Which is Better?

Every time you build a website, and every time you redesign a site, you make hundreds of small decisions against the backdrop of your overarching vision. You want to rank well, attract visitors, and gain conversions. To do this, should you use a fairly plain website design, or create something fancy?

This topic comes up in the SEO Chat forums from time to time; you can read the most recent thread dealing with this question. If you’ve designed your site correctly and managed all of the SEO-related issues properly (title tags, backlinks, content, and more), it should, in theory, be just as easy to rank a basic site as a fancier one. So why would you choose one kind of website design over the other?

One concern might be what you’re selling. Brick-and-mortar stores offer a certain kind of ambiance, in part to give shoppers an impression of what to expect from the goods they sell. You wouldn’t expect a Wal-Mart to display their pots and pans in the same way as a Williams-Sonoma, right?

The same thing may hold true for websites. Darrin Ward, founder of SEO Chat, thinks that this factor plays a role in sales. “My position is that if you’re selling normal non-luxurious goods, such as electronics, hardware, etc. then a more basic design will help conversion rates,” he explained. “If you are selling more luxurious goods or professional services (such as marketing consulting services), then a more flashy/modern design would do better.”

He doesn’t hold this position without some experience to back it up. He notes that “if you look at the numbers and some real stats (conversion rate, bounce rate, time-on-site, etc.),” more basic looking websites perform well, even out-performing flashier, newer-looking websites. Amazon and eBay of course come to mind as excellent examples.

There’s a phenomenon some site owners have noticed: after uploading what they believe is a very improved site design, the bounce rate will sometimes go up and sales may even go down noticeably. One relatively new SEO Chat forum member noted that the important thing to remember is to deliver the website’s message “in the most efficient, accessible, and beautiful way possible.” It could be that the design that looks better, or at least prettier, at first glance is in fact more confusing to your visitor. 

Site owners should also check to see how quickly their website loads with the new design as compared to the old one. No one wants to wait for anything online, so if you can speed up your page loads, you might decrease the number of bounces you get and increase conversions. For example, another fairly new SEO Chat forum member compared two of his websites: an old one that featured a lot of jQuery slide shows and fancy navigation, and a new one that simply included images and text, plain navigation and the like. The older site takes longer to load, but the newer site “gets much more traffic than my old one because all these fancy websites load longer so people tend to get a bit bored waiting…”

Long-time SEO Chat forum member Lb1878 said it best, though: keep it simple. “I think it comes down to personal preference and functionality…If I can find what I’m looking for easily, I’m happy. You should always keep your visitors at the forefront.”

So what should you do if you’re contemplating a site redesign? Lb1878 mentioned that it’s important to do A/B split testing and even use heat maps. “You should always compare the data from the old site to the new idea and see which one pays off. Google does offer some tools for this,” he explained, and added that there is third party software that will allow you to do heat map testing. So there’s no excuse for not collecting data before going live with a newly-redesigned website. Hopefully, doing so will allow you to avoid some costly mistakes. Good luck!

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