Do Ugly Websites Sell More?

Earlier today I came across The Surprising Truth About Ugly Websites, an article pointing out the benefits of having an ugly website. Can it be true that ugly websites sell more than their attractive counterparts? I don’t think so.

I certainly think an unattractive website can be successful. Design aesthetics are only one component of any site, successful or not, but does ugly really perform better?

The article gives some example sites starting with Plenty of Fish, a dating site making its owner rich through AdSense. Other websites mentioned in the article include eBay, Craig’s List, IMDB, and even Google. I’ll grant you none of those sites will be winning any design awards soon, but are they truly ugly sites? Not beautiful certainly, but you can easily find a lot worse. Check out Web Pages That Suck for a few examples.

You might be asking why someone who designs websites for a living claims the above sites aren’t ugly. I’m not saying I would offer any of those designs to a client, but ugly might be too strong a word to describe them. Let’s just say none of them offends me and in truth I’ve always liked the simple look of the Google site. For the sake of this post though let’s accept that they are not only ugly, but completely hideous sites. I’ll still argue they are successful in spite of their ugliness and not in any way because of it.

Success In Spite Of An Ugly Design

Ignoring the Plenty of Fish site for a moment, the others mentioned have some very good functionality behind them. I’ve argued many times that a website’s ultimate success is based on it’s content and functionality. We search at Google, because it provides good results. eBay gives us a chance to buy and sell some things we might not find elsewhere. Craig’s List is the king of online classifieds. Adding some aesthetic fine tuning to them isn’t going to change the sites behind the look and certainly isn’t going to hurt any of them at all.

Would you use any of these sites less if it had an award winning design? I’m guessing you would use them just as much as you currently do, which is why their lack of beauty is hardly what makes them what they are.

The sites are successful, because they each provide something very useful and all are relatively easy to use. And in all fairness to the article I linked to at the start, it too argues that the functionality of these sites and not their lack of beauty is what makes them successful. The sites have become so a part of the general consciousness that they probably don’t need it now, but had they started life with more attractive designs it would only have helped them. If you don’t believe me have a read of Aaron Wall’s post on why Paying Extra For Good Design is Well Worth It.

Ugliness And Trust

What the article does say is that it’s possible an ugly site can convey a sense of trust, since it clearly wasn’t designed by some professional web designer or savvy marketer. The article claims an ugly site can convey a sense of trust since it more likely belongs to a family run business. I have to disagree with this idea. It may be true that an ugly site would lead you to believe it’s a small mom and pop operation behind it, but that alone isn’t enough to convey trust. It’s far too easy today to put up a reasonably attractive site , given all the designers building a portfolio and willing to work cheap and all the free and low cost templates you can find.

A truly ugly website says that you can’t be bothered to put even a little money or work into your site. A family run business can at the very least spend $100 on a template or hire a design student. If you can’t put money or time into the look of your site why should anyone believe you’ve put either into securing their credit card information when it travels across the web. Why should we believe you’ll be willing to spend a half hour on a customer support call if you can’t be bothered to spend a few minutes developing your site.

You do not need to have a beautiful website to convey trust, but you do need to meet a level of professionalism that clearly separates your site from being amateur. eBay, Craig’s List, and Google may not be attractive sites, but they all adhere to some rather simple design principles, which is enough to achieve a minimum level of professionalism in their design.

You can convey trust by making your business more transparent. You can convey trust by riding the coat tails of other trusted companies. But being ugly is not something that will lead to trust. It will only lead to being ugly and perhaps being characterized as lazy and apathetic about your business and website.

Where Ugly Can Lead To Success

There is one place where having an ugly site can lead to more revenue and it brings me back to the Plenty of Fish site. Using the site is free and all revenue comes from AdSense. To profit with AdSense you need people to leave your site. Having an ugly site can be helpful in getting someone to leave, ideally through one of the links that will bring revenue. If you need someone to leave your site before you can make money then yes an ugly site can be beneficial.

From what I understand about the Plenty of Fish site the main reason for the money it earns is the amount of traffic it gets. Get a few million people to see your ads and even if only a small percentage click on them it’s still a lot of clicks. And again I’ll argue that this particular dating site while hardly beautiful is far from ugly. Still uglify a site enough so people will want to leave and they may just leave through that ad that pays you.

Sadly an ugly site is not the only factor that can improve click through on your ads.

Be Professional, Not Ugly

I agree with the conclusions of the original article I mentioned, that in general a successful site has less to do with the look of its design and more to do with its functionality, content, and the usability of its design. Outside of some industries where creativity is part of the business, it’s not important to have the most beautiful site in your corner of the web, but it is important to maintain a certain level of professionalism. And that level is far above ugly. Unless you’re trying to get people to leave your site you don’t want it to be an eyesore.

Ugly sites that are successful are generally successful in spite of how they look. Don’t agonize over the look of your site, but do ensure it’s at least attractive to the point where it can keep people on it long enough so they get to your products and services. If given the choice between a beautiful site and an ugly site your best bet is still to opt for the beautiful one.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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