Why Ugly Websites (Sometimes) Win

Ugly Pig
Photo: iStock / Michael Warren

This is kind of awkward.

There are lots of ugly websites out there and some of them have my name on them. Maybe they looked pretty good in 1999. But over time they’ve either drifted into chaos or they’ve been encased in a glass tomb like the slowly decaying corpse of Lenin in Red Square.

It’s not that my refined aesthetic sensibilities are offended by this. What bugs me — what really gets my goat — is when that old, ugly website still works. It generates leads. It gets phone calls. It performs in search results. It makes money!

It’s an outrage, I tell you!

So what happens if that ugly website is yours? Is it dangerous to mess with a winning game? Or maybe you’ve launched a hot new website and you’re wondering why your competitor’s ugly old website is eating your lunch.

How come ugly websites sometimes win?

Content is King. A static HTML website that’s mostly just pages and pages of text isn’t going to win any design awards. But it may outperform a more attractive site for several reasons.

One simple reason is that search engine algorithms love text. All those yummy words are slurped up by the search engine spiders and used to analyze and rank the site. Pretty pictures? Not so much. A website that’s mostly text will also load faster than a website with lots of graphics. All things being equal (but all things are never equal) search engines prefer sites that load faster.

Another reason a website with lots of text may outperform a website that is more graphically rich is that good writing conveys authority. Good writing provides value. Good writing sells. Take two law office websites, for instance: one has beautiful graphics but very little information; the other is plain but filled with articles, white papers, opinions and legal analysis. The first office shows they know how to hire a good designer. The second office shows they know their business. Which attorney would you hire?

Maturity Matters. That old, ugly site may outperform the pretty, new competition not because it’s ugly, but because it’s well-established. Search engines give a slight boost to older domains. A long-established website may also be more likely to have good quality inbound links, associated directory listings and the like.  In time, that advantage can be overcome, but it does take time.

So is it worth redesigning your old, ugly site if it still works? Can you gain a competitive advantage over that ugly competitor?

The answer to both is absolutely. At the end of the day, it’s not ugly that wins, it’s smart strategy that succeeds. Beauty is skin deep. By digging a little deeper, you can have a website that’s successful as well as beautiful.