Increase conversion rate by making your site ugly. . .

Posted by 36 Comments

Over the years many have contemplated the counter-intuitive ability of “ugly” sites to win huge market share – think eBay.com, Amazon.com, DrudgeReport.com, PlentyofFish.com, CraigsList.org, MySpace.com, or usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s Useit.com. 

In our adventures in website optimization we’ve developed our own grand unified theory of why ugly web design works: 

1) Value – Your visitors want a DEAL. Never, never, never forget that . . . 

We’re a nation of Walmart shopping, McDonald’s value meal eating, 2-Buck Chuck drinking coupon-clippers. 

If your website looks BMW-fancy your visitor is going to assume BMW-pricing. 

Make your visitors think that they’ve found the last great deal – look a little pathetic and rough around the edges and your visitor is going to assume that they’re not going to be taken advantage of. 

2) Trust – Nobody likes advertising, or advertisers (except their wives) . . . 

Advertising ranks amongst the LEAST respected professions and most people strongly dislike being advertised to because they feel manipulated. 

Eliminating stock-photos, fancy graphics, and high-brow design elements can help your cause and make you feel more ma & pa trustworthy than a corporate-titan in training. 

“We trust things more when they look like they were done for the love of it rather than the sheer commercial value of it.” – Robert Scoble 

3) Accessibility – Build for technology two cycles back . . . 

HTML5, the latest CSS tricks, and your kickass integrated flash design have NO PLACE in a website designed to sell when older technologies can do a comparable job.

Increase conversion rate by making your site ugly. . .One of our clients receives in excess of 15,000 visitors a day to their website – about 70% of that is coming from various versions of Internet Explorer.

Yet nearly 27% are using outdated versions despite wide availability.

So unless you enjoy building 10 versions of your site stick with simple and build for compatibility with browsers, OS, screen resolutions, color palettes, etc.

4. Flexibility – Don’t paint yourself into a corner . . .

What do PlentyofFish, CraigsList, and DrudgeReport have in common? 

They scaled to huge numbers of visitors with tiny staffs – keeping your site flexible enough so the CEO can change the homepage content may not be aesthetically appealing, but it sure does beat a static beautiful website. 

A website that’s easy to change, update, and experiment on is better than one that relies heavily on advanced CSS, Flash, images etc that you can’t change quickly. 

5) Function – Get your users where they want to be as your priority . . . 

When you’re running a commercial website just by virtue of having arrived, a user is a qualified visitor ready for you to close. 

So get the !@%$!@% out of their way and let them transact! 

Keep it simple: 

a) Make sure your homepage is crystal clear to let a user determine if your website will fulfill their need. 

b) Let users get where they need to go in as few clicks as possible. 

Any design element that detracts from your focus – will lose the user – one of my favorite examples of this is from a Marketing Experiments study on email: 

Increase conversion rate by making your site ugly. . . 

Of the three emails above B outperforms the other two design-element laden tests by 62%! 

It’s no surprise that the winning test lacks over-blown design elements & complexity, keeping it simple collects the sale.

EDIT - My example above reflecting “ugly” vs. “pretty” tests had room for improvement, as pointed out by my friends over at Hacker News. A crisper example of true “ugly” working can be seen on Mr. Green‘s site.

That’s all folks . . . 

We’ve battled designers and CMO’s day in and day out for nearly a decade but overwhelmingly following the 5-rules laid out above drive results that simply win. 

Contact us today for conversion rate optimization if you’d like to learn more about how we can convince your CMO that ugly’s the way to go by beating him at his own game with our website optimization service.

36 Responses to Increase conversion rate by making your site ugly. . .

  1. Derek Wonton says:

    I think this is actually decent advice if you’re content with remaining on the low end of a particular market. But you don’t have to intentionally make your site ugly, just don’t make it look too fancy. I think I get this.

  2. hockeybias.com was built with this approach in mind.

    I borrowed heavily from both the DrudgeReport and Dave Winer’s Scripting News!

  3. Sam LG says:

    s/ascetically/aesthetically/

  4. Alex says:

    “ascetically”
    I believe you mean “aesthetically”

    or do misspelled words increase conversion too?

  5. snapspans says:

    Very interesting note about value–one wants more effort and expense to go into the product than to be siphoned into the marketing.

    Craigslist and PlentyOfFish scale with small staffs because they directly target their purpose. They aren’t ugly, just not oriented to design elements, colors, or a unique brand.

    Nice article.

  6. Silas says:

    FYI: The feed in your header is broken: http://feeds2.feedburner.com/conversionvoodoorss

    Obviously the one on the right sidebar works fine.

    • Zack says:

      Good catch! We’re rolling out a redesign in a few weeks but no excuse for that – appreciate it!

  7. >”hockeybias.com was built with this approach in mind.”

    Except the part about trust being drained by adding advertising. I see 2 amazon ad blocks straight off including top-dead-centre.

    But yes it looks really ugly.

  8. Respectfully, while this novel approach may work for your firm, ‘making sites ugly’ as a competitive strategy is absurd.
    Design affects credibility; beautiful-looking UI design is more functionally intuitive -more engaging -more trustworthy. Pure utilitarianism with no regard for aesthetic form, in the context of digital interactive design, undermines user-experience. May I suggest reading the Stanford University research on Web credibility ( http://credibility.stanford.edu/guidelines/index.html )
    If these things didn’t matter Apple would have been out of business years ago.

  9. Sacha says:

    Those are some really good points, and ones all web designers should keep in mind at all time.

    But on the other hand, that kind of thinking can lead to crappy hypnotic marketing type websites. I think it all depends on your goals: if you want to make a quick buck those are some valid tips, but if your goal is to be the next Apple then you have to shoot higher, at the risk of losing a few users in the beginning.

  10. none says:

    This makes perfect sense. When I am looking for something online, I usually do a google search, open up a few websites in tabs, and click through them ctrl+F-ing for what I’m looking for. If I don’t find it (because it was in a flash element or whatever) I close the tab and move on. More searchable text! less shitty pictures!

  11. Sachin says:

    really an eye opener for me

  12. Waescherei says:

    There are some german finace sites, that are so ugly by normal standards, yet are really successful in their field. I agree that being too polished and fancy might repel customers

  13. Closed Circuit to seo newport wales: Yea …I guess I should have gone with a water lilly and an ambiguous-lookiong home page that goes no where! :)

  14. Todd Perlee says:

    Brian Massey’s webinar was excellent on improving conversions (I found this site through his Twitter). He also touched on making sites more straight forward. I have successfully specialized in creating luxury brands over the past 18 years. Ugly sites work despite themselves. If these sites were well branded and optimized you would see even more impressive results. Technology is not a substitute for marketing. What the conversation is really about is the difference between Advertising Art Directors who develop brands that sell versus Graphic Designers who develop passive brand looks. For some reason, design school curriculum never covers the art of selling. I have had the advantage of being an art director/copywriter first, and a graphic designer second. I do all 3 tasks well, but what I really bring to the table is big concept development which translates across a broad media platform. It’s really about brand messaging complimented by memorable design. Even if the design is brilliant on its own, you still need a fluid concept to create campaigns and build brand equity. I guess we make it look easy if you’re not in the industry, but if you’ve ever sat down and really tried to write a great headline or create a unique logo you understand how difficult the process can be. Initially when you try, the first realization is that everything has already been thought of a million times over. I really resent the SEO companies who pass themselves off as marketing firms. We have a lot of people out there with technical-know how and no creative chops. It’s easy for the good stuff to get lost.

  15. …Enjoying your modesty Todd.

  16. Diana says:

    When it comes right down to it, smart beats pretty every time. And lets not confuse brand with art. The brand is the experience, the emotion, the expectation.

  17. Todd Perlee says:

    Guy:

    After 18 years, I would hope everyone has earned the right to say “I do my job well.” Design is about thoughtful use of space or being a good host–anticipating needs of audience and surpassing expectation. Your site has a few basic problems: big blank space just below the headline–you force readers to hunt for content; links are taking up the space of entire homepage at the top; no incentives to subscribe; logo is buried. I could go on. Of course you think I’m being rude, but I’m trying to help you and illustrate why it is important to hire someone who is a brand specialist. I like where you’re going with the site–it simply is not professional.

    Todd

  18. Todd Perlee says:

    Again, Zack is missing the point. Ugly sites that perform well would benefit from not being ugly. Better segmentation, typography and graphics would improve conversions on any website. Common sense, right? There’s no sense in blending in with your market–most websites are ugly. The sites referenced above offer industry leading content–Zack’s post is intellectually dishonest and a bit Orwellian.

    Todd

  19. Peter says:

    I’m always telling my pretty-site-oriented designer co-workers this. I’m definitely emailing them this article.

  20. Ryan says:

    How about some research that backs your opinion up? Where are the studies, reports, etc? I could argue with you all day long and back it up but, you don’t give me anything to disprove.

    You know what they say about opinions…

    Marketers should stick with marketing and quit trying to push their “opinions” into the design world. If you wanted to have a say in design you should have gone to school for design.

    Now go sell something…

  21. Alex says:

    Cheap design caters to cheap customers who, from the outset and by definition, don’t place much value on what you do, and they’re not fun to work with. Individuals and companies with a deeper understanding of the value of beautiful and intuitive/usable designs, search for designers who have the same understanding. They care more, and are willing to pay more.

    As they say, you get what you pay for.

  22. Aaron says:

    Execellent. I find it ironic that my clients that ARE mom & pop operations are trying to redesign their website to have all the bells and whistles. All while they have 6 to 8 pages of poorly written copy that is generic advertising at best.

    To each I say, love your simple website and start generating CONTENT. Let’s work together to develop a theme and tone for your blog.

    Well now I’ll refer them to this blog so they can see that sometimes it’s better to be the little guy.

    • Zack says:

      Aaron, your point is spot on, overcoming the objection of building a website that SELLS vs. makes the owner feel cutting edge is a delicate balance.

      Appreciate your note and look forward to hearing more from you in the future – Zack

  23. Utah SEO says:

    You’ll want to add a facebook button to your blog. I just bookmarked this article, although I had to complete it manually. Simply my $.02 :)

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