Why are they so successful when their website looks like crap?

February 1, 2012

You’ve thought it. I’ve thought it. Websites that capture the spirit of 1994. Hideous graphics. Hellish stock photos of women yelling at laptops. And yet…the customers don’t seem to care! They’re pouring in! What’s wrong with the world?

Indeed, I met someone the other day who was asking, well really, what’s the point of paying for nice design? What’s the ROI of design, when I can see plenty of basic, unlovely websites that seem to be doing just fine?

It’s true. Some horrible-looking websites do very well. Why?

Let us analyse.

1. They don’t actually depend on their online presence

Despite everything that Mashable might tell you, there are plenty of enterprises which carry on their merry way without their websites really making much difference to their bottom line. My vet’s website has had an Under Construction sign up for 6 months now, but the waiting room’s still packed.

Loads of businesses still rely heavily on personal contact, with the website merely playing the part of corporate brochure.

2. They offer something which people want very, very badly

This is really the heart of it, and it accounts for the success of Facebook, Megaupload and all of the major GetRichOnTheInternet sites.

Hopping dayglo graphics and the faint hint of Soviet viruses ready to empty your Paypal account if you click the wrong link? Hmm. I might balance that against a pre-DVD copy of The Iron Lady.*

3. They are in a position of power over their users

This applies to tax offices, concert ticket purchasing, Verified By Visa and all job recruitment sites anywhere.

Jump, my pretties! Jump higher!

4. It doesn’t look crap to the target market

This applies to Myspace (back in the day) and any popular site featuring animated penguins. It may not be your preferred aesthetic, but maybe it works fantastically well with the end users.

(Equally, the kind of pared-down minimalism that is popular with some graphic designers can look really thin and unwelcoming to non-designers who are not stroking their beards about the elegant use of slab-serif).

5. The voice and writing are outstanding

Plenty of successful blog-based sites fall into this category: personal voices, writing beautifully (like Belgian Waffle – wonderful content, unremarkable design), and business voices which aren’t afraid to be different.

(But oh my, different is damned difficult. ‘Renegade’ is very popular right now and it’s very hard to do it in a way that’s truly attractive and convincing.)

6. There’s a very strong connection with readers

This usually goes with outstanding writing. It applies particularly to some successful business coaching blogs, where the readers are hungry for connection, and the coach has absolutely nailed their customers’ interests and deep concerns.

7. It’s crap, but it’s a special kind of crap

Very popular horrible-looking sites tend to be aesthetically off-putting but actually very functional.

Bulletin board styles, for example, as seen on open-source help forums and fan sites, look pretty vile but work beautifully. The font is readable. You can search, you can comment, you can get emailed updates. They don’t break the basic rules of readability. Well, mostly. With some Doctor Who sites, all bets are off.

It’s the equivalent of having delicious coffee in a tacky sandwich bar.

But of course the real question is:

Can you or I be terribly successful with our ugly websites?


Got a unique writing voice, fantastic relationships, and a VERY highly desired product or service? Go to it. Spend most of your time and money on building your connections. (Just stay away from green and blue text).

Not very dependent on the internet? Then your online presence is one part of your overall brand identity, and it should reflect that. As we lose our phone books, a decent, functional, attractive online presence is going to matter more and more. Get a decent one.

Nice voice, okay relationships, and a modestly desired product or service? Design can make the difference between considered and not-considered. It’s not a magic bullet, but it will support and deepen your offer. And it can occasionally take you from good to amazing.


*I wouldn’t really.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sibylle Weber February 1, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Very nice article, Alison! I have had to have this discussion a number of times, but have never been able to lay it out this clearly. Thanks for putting some order to my thoughts!


Ali Mac February 2, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Hi Sibylle! Thanks for commenting and glad it spoke to you. It’s been preying on my mind for a while. :0)


Victoria February 2, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Brilliant article Alison; reminds me of that lady who was on Dragons Den- she sells cars and her website is horrendous but she’s making millions! People loved her personality and unconventionalism so much that they were drawn to her cars (or whatever she was selling). She’s still mentioned on several forums and blogs as being a key example of brilliant marketing. 


Ali Mac February 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Various people have referred me to that lady – Ling Cars, I’m guessing? And we’ve even exchanged comments on Twitter! I think it falls into the ‘special kind of crap’ category. Hard to get right!


Alison Clayton-Smith February 10, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I usually find stock photos, etc a real turn-off BUT if it is clearly a small business, e.g. a window cleaner, local dog walker, etc then I’m more generous as many don’t have a web presence at all and I think something, in that kind of market, is better than nothing.


Terry Patterson February 21, 2012 at 9:16 pm

 Very nice article, Alison. Function over form resonates here for some of that – looks are subjective to say the least in many cases.


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