What`s up with Ugly Websites?

You have an online competitor that is doing better than you despite the fact that your website is gorgeous and his is, frankly, ugly. What is he doing that you’re not? How is he doing better than you despite being uglier? It sounds counterintuitive, but he might be doing better because he’s uglier.

Most webmasters strive to have one of the best-looking sites on the Internet. Or if not the best-looking site, they want a site that will make people stop and smile, that’s easy on the eyes and looks professionally designed. A company’s website is the digital projection of the business; if you do all your business online from your website, in the minds of most of your customers it is your business, in the same way that a physical store is a particular business to the customers of a brick-and-mortar firm.

But an online business can have a very different model for making money than a traditional retailer. Take a look at all of the companies that offer free services online. Their money is coming not from selling an actual product or service, but from people visiting their websites and either viewing or clicking on their ads. It stands to reason, then, that an online retailer’s website would be designed differently from the website of someone who is giving something away and making money from the ads, right? Or, to put it more explicitly: do the same design decisions work for both online retailers and “free” websites?

Now some of you are going to say “good design is good design.” And I won’t disagree with that. If you’re trying to project a polished, professional image, you’re going to do the same kinds of things (modified perhaps by the field your business is in). But – and this is an interesting “but” – are you sure that you want to project that image all the time? Specifically, are you sure that a professional image might not in fact be hurting your potential income from click-through advertising?

That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why would someone deliberately design their website to look ugly, or crude, or downright rudimentary? And how could that possibly be an advantage for anyone? Well, I thought it was crazy, too – until I read an article by Mark Daoust, and checked out some forum threads written by SEOs discussing the article. It seems that, at least in some cases, an ugly duckling of a website can be a real swan when it comes to income from pay-per-click ads.

Daoust talks about the case of Plenty of Fish. This is an online dating website, but unlike many other such websites, it does not charge a subscription fee. In other words, it gives away the service and makes its money when people click on the ads. When Daoust checked out the website itself, he found it to be rather ugly.

I took a look at the website myself. Beauty and ugly may be in the eye of the beholder; I can say for certain it didn’t look “slick” to me. The top banner featured the name of the site, a picture of three laughing women (one wonders what the joke is), and the navigation links. Below that are four ads for other dating services. Below that are drop-down menus to help you search the site’s profiles, and finally, right on the home page, a selection of pictures of account holders with a few lines from their descriptions. This is anything but fancy (though for all I know it might be typical for online dating sites).

So what’s so special about it? In Daoust’s words, “What caused me…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. Fro those of you counting, that is $300,000 per month and nearly one million dollars in just three months.”

The mind boggles. Assuming the numbers are real, what is it about Plenty of Fish that makes it so lucrative? How can such an “ugly” site make money? Though if you think about it, as Daoust points out, Plenty of Fish is hardly alone; there are plenty of other sites that seem to break the design rules of looking slick and professional. We’re talking about popular, well-known sites too. Daoust’s examples included eBay, Craigslist, and IMDB, but I’m sure you can think of others. Are these sites successful in spite of their ugliness, or because of it?

Well, there are a number of possibilities to consider here; many of these were discussed in the online forums I visited (and I’ll get to those in just a bit). But Daoust seems to believe that this website, and other ugly websites like it, is successful in large part because of the ugliness, not in spite of it. How is that possible? To understand this, we need to understand what kind of message an “ugly” website conveys.

Daoust makes the point that an “ugly” website conveys the exact opposite of the message conveyed by a slick, professional, polished site. This is not a slick site. It’s run by an individual. In the case of Plenty of Fish, if the “About Us” section can be believed, that’s literally true. The site is kept simple so that it’s functional, and, like the individual behind the site, it’s there specifically to serve customers, not dazzle you.

In short, it conjures up images of a mom-and-pop business—and, at least with certain transactions, people are more likely to trust other people, not large corporations. So “ugliness” sends the message “you can trust us,” which is just what plenty of techno-shy web surfers want to hear. I know you might find it hard to believe, but there are a lot of those out there—something that those of us heavily engaged with technology for a living tend to forget.

Let me focus on something I simply alluded to above, that I think plays as much a role as the message of trust. I’ve been putting “ugly” in quotes because a lot of these sites actually do follow certain very important rules of design. To understand that, take the example of Google, surely considered at one time to be the ugliest site online. Aside from the corporate logo, when Google began offering its search service, all it displayed on its home page was a search box in which users entered text. This was at a time when most search engines were trying to become portals; go to Yahoo! even now and you can see what I mean. You can get lost on a portal page like that.

But Google became popular, and other search engines started imitating its interface. What made an “ugly” site popular? It was clean and simple to use. No crazy distractions, nothing more than you need to get what you want. That’s the kind of “ugly” everyone can love!

It was only natural that a number of forums dedicated to SEO took up this topic and dissected what was going on. One poster speculated that Plenty of Fish was making so much money because its website is ugly enough to make you want to click off it. Remember, it’s a free service, so it’s making its money from people clicking on the ads. Another person talked about changing one lucrative page of his website that was “ugly.” When he made it look better, his ad revenue plummeted, and didn’t recover until he uploaded the “ugly” page again.

Others pointed to the market niche. Online dating is a very competitive market; if you’re giving away something that other people are charging for, you’re bound to get noticed. In fact, Plenty of Fish has very good search engine placement; at the time of this writing, it was number two in Google for the key phrase “free online dating.”

Another person pointed to the tone of the owner’s writing. It gives you the feeling that a real person, and one you would enjoy knowing, is behind the site. If you poke around on Google, you’ll find that they also use a relaxed, conversational, even funny tone of voice—much more like a bunch of people having fun than a big corporation. That does its part to convey the “you can trust us, we’re not some slick company” message.

Yet another person pointed to the content issue. You knew it was going to come down to that, right? According to this poster, the sites weren’t “ugly,” they were “plain,” and in fact they needed to be plain because their sites are all about content. The best way to convey lots of content comfortably without things getting out of hand is to keep it simple.

But perhaps Daoust himself summed it up best in his article: remember your customer. “What we need to keep in mind, is that websites are meant to be used—used for reading, used [to] network, used for shopping, etc.” What might be ugly to your eyes might be sheerest beauty in the eyes of your customers—and will no doubt start looking pretty nice to you once you see the checks from Adsense.

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