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Why Ugly Website Design Often Converts (Better)

by Dale Cudmore

“Ugly websites convert better than pretty websites.”

Anyone who has been around marketing or conversion optimization for long has heard that.

It’s a very simplistic view of website design, but it’s not completely incorrect.

The typical “ugly” website looks like it was designed 10 years ago by a high school computer whiz.

Despite being hideous to any designer, there are some incredibly popular and/or high-converting ugly websites out there.

So before you go spend 50% of your budget on a new updated website design, let me show you why ugly designs are often best from a user’s perspective.

The One Thing That All High-Converting Websites Have

Without it, you won’t be retaining visitors or converting anyone.

We’re talking about value.

All websites need to have a strong value proposition if they wish to attract and retain users. Crazy Egg’s offers a top-of-the-line heatmap software for a reasonable price — that’s its value proposition.

Google offers you highly relevant search results for any keyword or phrase you search.

The better your offer to users are, the more likely you are to have a high conversion rate — ugly website design or not.

The 3 Elements of Conversion That Ugly Websites Have Going for Them

Beyond your value proposition, design can and does affect conversion rate.

Let’s take a look at the LIFT model of conversion:

lift model

The clearer and more relevant your value proposition, the better your conversion rate will be.

Conversely, the more distractions and anxiety (that the visitor feels), the lower your conversion rate will be.

Urgency is a final factor that can propel your conversions higher and faster.

When we look at website design, it only affects 3 of these:

  1. Clarity
  2. Anxiety
  3. Distraction

Urgency can be reflected by design, but is mostly driven by your offer and copywriting.

Relevance is dictated by the visitors you are attracting, and how you’re presenting your offer (your “pitch”).

How Design Affects Clarity and Distractions

In addition to having a great value proposition, you also need to communicate it effectively. This is done in part by your copywriting, but also in your formatting and layout (design).

Clarity and distractions often go hand in hand.

A high-converting website leads visitors from the most important element to the second most important element, to the third, and so on…

A low-converting website, on the other hand, leaves visitors to fend for themselves and try to pick out the most important parts of the value proposition among distractions.

More distractions = less clarity.

Sliders, gifs, and vibrant background images are all common distractions on “pretty” websites that lead to less clarity.

carousel

Finally, clarity also depends on the website displaying as intended.

As a general rule, the more complex functionality you include, the more often it will “break” and display incorrectly for some users. A good portion of the time it’s because of visitors using older (and incompatible) browsers than your developer is using.

Obviously if the page doesn’t display correctly, there’s a good chance that your reader will never see the value you can offer.

Ugly sites that convert well are extremely minimalistic, containing zero distractions. They are usually laid out in a very logical manner, with the primary purpose of the page front-and-center.

Take a look at this simple, fairly ugly sales page template that marketing expert Ryan Deiss has endorsed in the past:

ugly sales page

No background images. No fancy design. Just text on a white background.

But it works.

How Design Raises or Lowers Anxiety

There are many design elements that can affect anxiety:

The overall feel is the factor that’s most important when it comes to “ugly” or “pretty” websites.

It’s a vague description, I agree, but it’s crucial when it comes to conversions.

Would you go down a dark alley in Chicago late at night? No, because it wouldn’t feel safe.

And while your website might not be a dark alley, if it produces any anxiety in any segment of your visitors, your conversion will suffer.

Believe it or not, ugly websites often make technologically unsophisticated readers feel safer, compared to slick, modern design, where elements seem to magically appear and move around at will.

The elderly are scared of technology, right? Sure, some of them are, but it’s not just them. There are pockets of users in all age groups that don’t feel safe online. And these aren’t small pockets either. About 35% of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 34 don’t feel safe online.

internet safety

For some products, an ugly site will make users feel safer, while for others, it may actually raise anxiety. A lot of it comes down to what you’re asking for and how you’re asking for.

4 “Ugly” Sites That Win

Unfortunately, most sites don’t publish conversion rates publicly.

In addition, different sites have different goals that are hard or impossible to compare.

However, I think it’s safe to assume that any site that has been around for a long time and generates impressive revenue converts fairly well. Especially if they have decided to not change their design in a long time.

  1. Craigslist

Craigslist is one of the top 100 Alexa sites in the world — it’s freaking huge.

And yet, it’s also one of the ugliest sites I’ve seen. It hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the last decade.

craigslist breakdown

Craigslist is a directory for selling and buying services and goods. It does a great job at dividing all of these into main categories and sub-categories, all of which are highlighted in the center of the page.

Additionally, if you can’t find what you’re looking for in your specific city, it’s easy to pick a close-by city in the sidebar.

There are no distracting images, text, backgrounds, or colors. It’s simple, but it is great from a functionality standpoint.

  1. DMOZ

DMOZ is known as the world’s most trusted website directory. It’s one of the few web directories that realistically can still improve your search rankings.

While not as popular as Craigslist, DMOZ still attracts about an estimated 200,000 U.S. visitors per month.

dmoz design

I think it’s fair to say that DMOZ is even simpler than Craiglist in terms of design. It’s a much smaller window, but again categorizes its links very clearly.

Each of these categories contains website links, each linking to even more subcategories that allow users to dig down as much as they’d like.

Again, there are 0 distractions. The main value (the links) are always front and center on the page, where they get the most emphasis.

  1. wiseGEEK

wiseGEEK was one of the first and biggest question-and-answer sites. Despite an ugly design, it is still one of the most trafficked Q&A sites out there.

wisegeek design

Most of wiseGEEK’s traffic is from search engines, directly to specific questions. However, the navigation for each category (shown in the pitcure), allows you to quickly scan a large amount of questions for anything interesting. This would be useful for general research or learning purposes.

Additionally, if you want to learn about something specific, you can use the custom Google search bar that stands out at the top. Nothing fancy, but it works.

However, this might be an example of where ugly design isn’t the best possible option. Quora has far surpassed wiseGEEK’s traffic. This could be due to better functionality and marketing, or a modern design. But that’s a question for another day.

  1. Drudge Report

The Drudge Report is a top 1,000 site in terms of traffic, but a bottom 1,000 site in terms of design.

It was created about 20 years ago to provide links to current news stories (mainly gossip). The links are mainly chosen by creator Matt Drudge, although he now has a small team to help him. Overall, the site is typically described as politically conservative.

drudge report design

It’s literally a list of links: exactly what it promises. There are a few images, but they aren’t too distracting.

Additionally, due to the simple formatting, Drudge can highlight certain links with a different color (red) if he thinks they are especially notable.

Bonus Example: A Comparison of the Crazy Egg Blog

Anyone who regularly reads the Crazy Egg blog would have noticed a big change around the start of June.

After many years of maintaining the same old design, the blog finally got a facelift! Here’s what the homepage used to look like for reference:

old crazy egg

I don’t know if I’d call it ugly, but I wouldn’t call it pretty. The new update not only modernized the design, it also improved the user experience in a few ways (most notably no more frozen scrolling panel at the top).

Here’s what the new version looks like:

new crazyegg

Honestly, I don’t know if this new version performs better, but I would guess that it has better conversion rates and user engagement. Maybe if you pester Kathryn in the comments below she’ll spill the beans.

Pretty Sites Can Convert as Well

The main point of this article was to show you that ugly can work, and can work well. The most successful ugly sites are highly useable: they make it easy and obvious what they offer and how you can use their sites.

But a good-looking site can also do all of those things. In fact, many do.

Example 1 – Mailchimp: Mailchimp is an email marketing service provider. They have one of the best free plans out there, and have a great user interface.

Their homepage is extremely simple but looks pretty good. It’s clean, it highlights important elements, and the value proposition is front and center:

Mailchimp homepage

Example 2 – Pinterest: Many image-based social media sites have embraced a modern design. Users want to see attractive pictures, and it makes sense that they’d like to see them on an attractive website as well.

Images on Pinterest are laid out in an efficient design, with a short description, but much better looking than a simple row of thumbnails.

pinterest

Is It Really a Question of Pretty vs. Ugly?

The main takeaway is that it really isn’t a question of pretty vs. ugly. There are many pretty websites that convert and function great, as well as ugly websites that convert and function great.

If you’re considering an expensive redesign, first consider if you need it at all. If your website is highly functional, a fancy redesign has the potential to tank your profits and site growth.

While you may not be able to brag about your fancy website, I’ll take the ugly site that makes money over the less profitable beautiful website any day.

Now I have a question for you: Be honest, is your website ugly? Do you think it could convert better? Leave a link below if you’d like and we’ll judge together.

Read other Crazy Egg posts by Dale Cudmore

15 Comments

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Dale Cudmore

Dale Cudmore is a professional marketing writer. He focuses on actionable, exciting ideas and strategies that can be used to grow your business.

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  1. John Abay says:
    September 22, 2015 at 4:54 am

    Very nice web design i can see. Just one thing keep in mind that if your responsive web design PSD is not working than it becomes big issue and you can not get business lead.

  2. bART says:
    September 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I think you make an important point. In the Netherlands, where I come from, a lot of newspapers have gone crazy in their design. But the most popular newssite has a really simple design and hence a much better usability.

    Often I see people with a design background doing some arty stuff which often doesn’t help usability. It’s a like a soccer player doing fancy tricks in the match.

  3. July 10, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Great article, Dale. I think this is a really important point, and I often see ‘eye-candy’ websites that have no attention to content hierarchy, making for relatively useless business pages.

    Craigslist has undergone several huge redesigns, however. Instead of making a prettier website, the changes were focused on improving user experience and layout. It pretty much looks the way it did when it first came out, but actually there have been significant UI improvements.

    • Dale Cudmore says:
      July 10, 2015 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks Julian!

      Craigslist really impresses me, despite being an eyesore 🙂

      It’s UI is great, and they make it seem easier than it is. A ton of other sites have gone downhill by trying to force design and UI changes on its users, but Craiglist has been steady through the years.

  4. John Woodman says:
    July 9, 2015 at 6:10 am

    As a creative director of many years, I am saddened to say that in my experience, overly contemporary and cool sites have a habit of being viewed as pieces of delicate, trendy art and the interaction levels with them can be limited to users simply sitting back and admiring them. Some of the worst (and therefore ugly) sites I’ve been forced to design have been the best converters. And not just on the one occasion. Regularly. This blog posting is so so true.

    • Dale Cudmore says:
      July 9, 2015 at 9:58 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience John, really interesting!

  5. JORGE says:
    July 8, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Nice article, and fair point.
    In my opinion the issue here is understanding what a website really is.
    Many “ugly” sites are done by people who do not have visual design as a core value. Instead, they build a website “for something” (aka value). This implies that it is likely that they are based on mainstream conventions (like not reinventing the style of a link), and high contrast (which kind of ugly if taken to an extreme). Both things have an impact on usability, hence in conversion.
    On the other hand, many “beautiful sites” are designed by visual designers (often coming from graphic design) who conceive a site more as a page by page 2-D art collection, than a channel to interact with a user.
    The key is to use aesthetics and style as tools to improve usability and conversion, test and iterate.

  6. demetrio says:
    July 7, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I think the premise of this article is really misleading. You take highly usable successful sites with “ugly design” and conclude that it’s because of the ugly they convert well. The other thing they have in common is they are very simple- simplicity has been shown to make users prefer the site. (google research 2012). So I don’t think the conclusion really follows. Show me an ugly site, 99 times out of a hundred I’ll show you a site with crappy conversion rates. Your evidence shows that simple designs convert well, not that ugly designs do..

    • Dale Cudmore says:
      July 7, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      Hi Demetrio,

      Great points!

      Were you able to read the entire article? The main point I was trying to make was that while ugly sites can convert well, so can good-looking sites. And they can both convert poorly.

      However, if a website owner doesn’t really know what they’re doing, they shouldn’t automatically assume that a more modern site will help their conversion rate. Especially when you consider that it’s much easier to “mess up” a pretty site than an ugly one.

      Thanks for leaving your thoughts!

      • Demetrio says:
        July 7, 2015 at 9:17 pm

        Yeah fair enough I just don’t see any evidence to back up the claim made in the title: “Why Ugly Website Design Often Converts (Better)”. For instance:

        “Sliders, gifs, and vibrant background images are all common distractions on “pretty” websites that lead to less clarity.”

        These are common on ugly designs also.

        “Ugly sites that convert well are extremely minimalistic, containing zero distractions. They are usually laid out in a very logical manner, with the primary purpose of the page front-and-center.”

        Again I’d argue it’s the simplicity here that’s effective; not the ugly..

        As for the anxiety where would you feel more comfortable imputing your credit card, on a site that looks professionally designed or on a site that looks like it was made by some guy on fivr?

        Show me a case study where an ugly re-design has increased conversions, until then I’m afraid there’s no evidence to back up the notion that ugly designs convert better.

        • July 8, 2015 at 10:11 am

          “Ugly” is a word that’s been used by other brands as well. Yes, it’s generally referring to simple, non-decorative design rather than outright ugly. But the point is valid, that you don’t need to invest a lot of energy into making things beautiful. Simple works. Even ugly works. Sorry if our word choice offends. That wasn’t the intention.

          • Demetrio says:
            July 8, 2015 at 3:21 pm

            thanks for the comment. I do think it’s important though to choose your words wisely, especially when making such a provocative claim. Most people refer to simple design as “good UI design”. Infact it underlies most current UI thinking in terms of usability, for being responsive etc.

            Many companies use “good design” as a key differentiator which can drive massive sales; take for example apple. Good design complements good content, it’s not an either or equation, and the two together are what lead to trust and a positive user experience which translates in to sales. I’d hate for people to get the impression that good design isn’t part of the equation for increasing sales, but for those who disagree by all means test it.. The one thing about ugly design is it’s incredibly cheap!

  7. July 7, 2015 at 9:40 am

    So glad to see this post – I’ve been saying this for years! I once heard a respected marketing coach tell her listeners, on a workshop call, “Content doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s how your website looks.” Very scary.

    I’ve been giving my clients a simple website along with copy, and many find that their simple sites are doing as well as the websites their competitors got for thousands of dollars (not to mention time, energy and frustration).

    Once I went to a dentist who had the world’s ugliest website. I offered to help him with a makeover but he pointed out that this yukky website was keeping his practice full.

    On the other hand, I know a lawyer who paid thousands for web design that just isn’t working. It’s hiding the copy. It’s distracting. It’s clearly costing him money – his practice is struggling. Now there’s a makeover in the making!

    Great post.

    • Dale Cudmore says:
      July 7, 2015 at 9:54 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience Cathy!

      There’s obviously circumstances where having a beautiful site is a necessity, but for many, their resources would be better spent refining copy or driving traffic.

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