Why Ugly Website Design Often Converts (Better)
“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.
Beauty is on the inside. Does that include websites too?
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
Let’s take a look at the LIFT model of conversion:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 politicallyconservative.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.