Does Design Matter? Five Ugly Websites that Kill the Competition

Design is not always everything. The following five websites are proof that design is not all that it is made out to be. If you focus your time, money, and energy into creating a killer service, you will come out miles ahead of those pouring their time, money, and energy into the design of their mediocre service.

Most webmasters place a high amount of value on the design of their website. Many webmasters have even spent significant amounts of money to insure that their website design was exactly the way they wanted it. It is commonly argued that well-designed websites are one of the keys to insuring recurring traffic. If people enjoy the look of a website, they will continue to return. Yet, this is not always the case. Design is not always everything. The following five websites are proof that design is not all that it is made out to be. If you focus your time, money, and energy into creating a killer service, you will come out miles ahead of those pouring their time, money, and energy into the design of their mediocre service.

Chris Guitars

Chris Guitar’s is by far the ugliest website on this list. The official website/e-store for Chris Guitars in Albany, NY is e-commerce in its most elementary form. Chris Guitar’s is coded from top to bottom in HTML, complete with a “cheezy” graphic (albeit one that honors US troops and is therefore commendable). The website’s clashing color scheme of yellow text on a solid purple background is enough to make any shopper’s eyes bug out within the first minute of reading. Each product listing exists as a paragraph of product description and review along with a link to a picture of the item being sold.

Chris' Guitars

Don’t the the ancient design and super-simplicity fool you though. This guy does business. Chris Guitars has established itself as a sort of mecca for musicians and music equipment collectors. The simplicity of the website couple with the honest descriptions, pictures, and “best price on the web” make Chris Guitars exempt from any rule of good website design.

MMOFB Blog

The first three lines of this website tell all – “Don’t let the stunning graphics and good looks of this blog fool ya“. An obscure blogger writing under the anonymous pseudonym “Grizzly” has set out to prove that badly designed websites run by anonymous people can rake in cash. To see some of Grizzly’s handywork simple query “make money online” into Google and you will see Grizzly’s blogspot hosted website appear within the 1st three spots of the SERPs (depending on the data center you access). Rather than relying on flashy custom WordPress designs, personal branding, and name recognition Grizzly has simply focused on good SEO.

MMFB Blog

Grizzly essentially contends that good design is needless, and that webmasters should focus on producing a quality service focused on growing organically. Do you think he is dead wrong? Check the numbers: 4000+ subscribers (more than 3000 more than comparable websites with flashy designs), and daily earnings ranging from $150 to $300 (compared to maybe that much in a month from comparable “well designed” websites). While many may cringe at the design of Grizzly’s blog, Grizzly himself would probably tell you that all well designed sights should be as ugly. The design of the MMOFB blog is the result of careful ad testing and analytics. The design hinges upon where the ads are most productive. With his cult following and earnings of $1,000+ per month from a free hosted blog – I am tempted to go and dishevel things a bit more on my own websites.

Plenty of Fish

The story of Markus Frind and his online dating website PlentyOfFish.com have garnered quite a bit of media attention from high profile publications such as Inc. magazine and many others. Frind is the first to admit that a boring and poor design is what makes the free dating site such a huge success. Frind’s strategy in creating PlentyOfFish was to build it and code it as minimally as possible so that it would consume the least amount of (server) resources as possible. The most glaring piece of poor design is the lack of proportional resolution on the thumbnail version of the photos. Based on interview with Frind, the disproportional thumbnails encourage more clicks, pageviews, and time spent on the site which ultimately results in more advertising exposure. The purposeful design flaws on PlentyOfFish.com have resulted in an estimated $10M in revenue for 2008.

Plenty of Fish

Wikipedia

Consider Wikipedia the epitome of the age old internet adage “Content is King”. By focusing their community on creating excellent fact supported content Wikipedia has essentially negated the need for well designed pages. While Wikipedia does offer certain modules and graphs to express data in a more organized fashion, the tables do little to balance the overall asymmetrical contents often left poorly spaced and formatted by pictures and other related resources.

Wikipedia

Despite the relatively poor design and lack of eye appeal Wikipedia has established itself as the go-to resource for any online query, often showing up first in search engine results. The overwhelming existence of quality content and information often makes up for the lack of aestheticism, and lends itself well to the idea that academia should never be appealing to the eyes.

Google

Wait…why is the big “G” on the list? Excellent question. Google’s design may not be intrinsically ugly, but it certainly is primitive. Google, the number one most visited website in the world, also understands that success does not rest in good web design. For Google, success rests within a superior search product and other solutions. When compared to other design-centric search engines such as Bing and the content ridden search services of Yahoo! and AOL, Google begins to look a bit boring. Google’s logo set (save for the commemorative ones) remains rather unspectacular as well. However, what Google may lack in flashy logos and content management, they certainly make up for with their superior services and offerings.

Google.com

Questions and Conclusions

Five websites, five unspectacular designs. Does good design matter? Or is bad/boring/minimalist often used by designers intentionally to place a higher emphasis on the product and service. Should an excellent product or service be supported with flashy or cutting edge design? As a result of seeing these five websites, should a higher amount of energy be focused on website functionality and quality service development than on design?

One thing is for certain. Excellent products and quality design are not mutually exclusive. Excellent products can have excellent design, yet perhaps design should be one of those things that is gradually improved as time permits rather than thrust to the forefront of a project. If your website offers a quality product or a knockout service you should have no issues gaining users. The homework has already been done for you. Users care about functionality more than they do about design.

About the Author:

Ethan is a well-trained internaut who runs techsplosive.com, a website about Internet Startups and
Social Media.  If you like what Ethan has to say here, feel free to subscribe to the Techsplosive.com
RSS feed.

If you’d like to do a guest post on Webitect, feel free to contact us.

Written By Kayla

Kayla Knight is a 20 year old college student, part-time web developer, freelancer, and blogger. Webitect is where she spends too much of her freetime, sharing interesting finds and valuable resources. Be sure to check out her portfolio.

14 Comments

  1. Nick Wichman

    June 22nd, 2009 at 09:14 am

    Hey Kayla – good article!

    I’d love to see some split testing with Chris’ Guitars site. Maybe doing a SIMPLE, CLEAN, well organized redesign and seeing if his conversions raise or lower! BUT, the stuff with Plenty of Fish is totally cool. I never thought about it, but I DO click on disproportional thumbnails all the time to figure out what the real image is! Crazy.

    @nickwichman

  2. Kayla

    June 22nd, 2009 at 09:49 am

    @Nick Wichman
    Just to point out, Ethan is to thank for this article (his info’s at the bottom of the post) I just didn’t put him as an official blogger because he guest posting right now, but the credit for this great article goes to him!

    That would be interesting to see a redesign and see how it affects conversions, especially for all of them–not only Chris’ Guitars. It’d be interesting to see if their bad site design is really helping them out!

  3. sumoman

    June 22nd, 2009 at 10:33 am

    There’s simple straight forward, easy to navigate designs and designs that make everything hard for the visitor. I’ve bought stuff off this fellow; http://www.prowriststraps.com/ because he does good stuff… but his website sure does make you work to find and then order his products all whilst making the eyes water.

  4. Jeff SanGeorge

    June 22nd, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    There are tons of organizations out there that developed a website 7-10 years ago and now the look and feel of their site just doesn’t hold up to today’s web and graphic standards. To me an “ugly” website is not just one with a bad design but also one with bad SEO, bad usability, long load time, no clear calls to action, etc… These are sites that are just plan ineffective and can hurt, rather than help the organization’s reputation.

    My company is currently running an Ugliest Website Contest. Cast your vote and let us know what makes your vote the Ugliest! http://bit.ly/bOuJ2

  5. Kawsar Ali

    June 22nd, 2009 at 09:52 pm

    I actually don’t mind Wikipedia’s design it is simple and clean. good post

    P.S: Ignore the last comment.

  6. Troy Peterson

    June 24th, 2009 at 12:32 am

    One that should be added to the list is Amazon.com
    Aside from their header, the rest of the site is absolutely ugly.

    However, Amazon spends an ENORMOUS amount of money on UI design. I believe they have a UI team dedicated to every section of their site. Every placement, color, and UI design made is tested and re-tested to find the best combination to improve conversions. Obviously, it’s paying off.

    Great Article. It lines up with something I’ve been thinking about lately… reversed design. Does the design of SOME websites require a dumbing down to be effective? For example… If a Dollar Store site looks too good, can it scare away customers as appearing “too high quality”?

  7. AdrianApan

    June 24th, 2009 at 03:16 pm

    :) Maybe you want to read this http://bit.ly/MfR6A … Ohh and btw, great article!

  8. Haily

    June 24th, 2009 at 06:37 pm

    Unlike the other sites in this article, Google has spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars in time and research to perfect their design. Anybody can make a complicated design, but Google’s approach to web design is simplicity. It’s an approach nonetheless. Don’t bash Google’s design as “primitive” or “boring.” I say it’s well-designed simplicity.

  9. Dainis Graveris

    June 28th, 2009 at 02:28 am

    But I would ask how popular these websites could be if they will get also beautiful design!

    Design definitely matter and only when they will change it, they’ll understand!

  10. Louis

    July 3rd, 2009 at 02:47 am

    What, no mention of craigslist in this piece?? :o )

    Nice article, though, and great site, Kayla. I only discovered webitect a few days ago.

    BTW – the JavaScript for this form is a little wonked out. After you fill out a field, if you click back into the field, it deletes the info you’ve typed. Usually that should only happen if the default info is still in the field.

  11. theComplex

    September 22nd, 2009 at 04:20 pm

    I stumbled upon this (through Google) because I’m getting tired of clients telling me that something got more conversions or made more money BECAUSE it’s ugly… they don’t think of the other factors like… “is the ‘Call-to-Action’ clear in newer designs?”

    I agree with both your conclusion and with Jeff, “Ugly” sites are more than just “bad looking”… “ugly” includes sites that are hard to use or work poorly. I like for things to work, though being a designer means I also like things to look nice.

    I generally close-out of poorly functioning or badly designed sites. And regardless of how nice a site looks, if it doesn’t work I’m annoyed.

    However, a site that looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1999 makes me, as a consumer, think that it probably will not provide what I’m looking for or very easily.