Rumors have circulated for years in SEO communities that ugly websites can make more money than beautifully designed websites make. Versions of the rumor claim that the real key is AdSense. Ugly sites, some say, make more money with AdSense than aesthetically pleasing sites make. Because of these rumors, many site owners and SEO experts find themselves asking if they can boost income by “uglying up” their sites a bit. The truth, as you might suspect, is much more complicated than a simple definition of beauty. Here is the truth about ugly websites and their ability to earn money.
The Eye of the Beholder
The first problem with claiming that ugly sites make more money is that beauty is subjective. Visual aesthetics may be important to one person while functional aesthetics (functionality) may be of primary importance to other users. There is no agreed-upon definition of ugliness so there is no consistent means of measuring the impact of aesthetics on web income. This alone makes it difficult to use ugliness as a factor when evaluating earnings.
The classic high-earning ugly website that most articles will mention is PlentyOfFish (pof.com). PlentyOfFish is a dating website and, if you’ve ever visited it, you’d probably agree that it isn’t the prettiest website in the world. It also isn’t the ugliest website on the planet. What it is, however, is a high earner. PlentyOfFish earns about $10,000 per month in AdSense revenue. Some claim that these high figures are a result of the site’s ugliness. They claim that people want to leave the site so much that they will click the first link they see just to be redirected. Of course, there are problems with this explanation that defy logic, as the next section explains.
Why Might Ugly Sites Earn Well?
The explanation from above is that ugly sites do well because people want to “get away” and will click the first link they are presented with. This might explain why some ugly sites initially do well, but can’t explain why other ugly sites continue to do well month after month. After all, when an ugly site exhausts most of the new customers who stumble on to it and then want to “get away,” its earnings should start to fall. Why would an ugly site continue to do well over the long term? It can’t be because people who were eager to get away from it the first time around keep returning just to “click the first ad that they see.”
Another explanation put forth for the success of ugly sites is that people implicitly trust them. The theory goes that an ugly site, one without polish and pizzazz, feels more intimate. Visitors don’t feel like they are being “sold to” by ugly sites or that slick marketing execs are trying to manipulate them. They are thus more willing to buy from an ugly website. This explanation may seem satisfying to the armchair psychologist, but it flies in the face of decades of research into the minds of shoppers. If the claim were true, then Apple ought to be one of the poorest-performing companies in the world rather than being on track to be the first company to reach a $1 trillion market valuation. The “people buy because it feels like a mom-and-pop shop” argument simply doesn’t hold water. It may convert a few individuals, but not enough to have an impact on income month after month.
Success In Spite of Appearance
The arguments above suggest that the websites are performing well because they are ugly and not despite their ugliness. Unfortunately, the arguments above don’t make sense. If they did, ugliness would long ago have become the norm on the Internet and we would have witnessed a race to the bottom in terms of aesthetics in the 1990s and early 2000s. The problem with the explanations is that they fail to separate appearance from functionality and insist that design rules apply only to aesthetics.
The truth is that “ugly” sites may simply not be “pretty.” In other words, there is a huge difference between a site that isn’t winning awards and one that is downright ugly. Google’s site, for instance, is considered plain, but aesthetics are hardly of concern to those who just want to get a web search done quickly and efficiently. In the case of Google, “ugliness” is a virtue if it means being uncluttered and free of distractions. Simply put, a truly ugly site is likely to turn users away, but a site that emphasizes function over appearance may be precisely what users are looking for.
Success Follows Function
Websites that are frequently called ugly include PlentyOfFish, Craigslist, Google, Drudge Report, and 4chan. It’s true that none of these sites are going to win design awards, but it is also true that their aesthetics have almost no bearing on their value. What makes these sites top performers is that they are convenient, simple to use, and get straight to the point.
Functionality is a website’s biggest asset. The easier it is for visitors to find what they want, the happier they will be. Unlike brick-and-mortar stores where ambiance and cross-shopping are keys to fatter profits, it is convenience, speed, and simplicity that are valued on the web. People want their news fast, they want access to dates without having to fill out endless forms, and they want to buy their eBay or Craigslist item without a lot hassle. The top-performing sites do well in spite of their appearance, not because of it.
The ugly sites mentioned in this article aren’t likely to see any boost in revenue, click-through-counts, or visitors by improving their aesthetics. People use these sites because of what they offer and not because of how they look. Changing the appearance of Google.com, for instance, won’t affect the search engine’s functionality and so people really will not care. On the web, two things matter more than all others: content and functionality. Sites with good content that are easy to navigate are going to do well. End of story.
Remember Your Customer
Your customer comes to your site for the content you provide or the products you sell, but not because your site is pretty look at. Improved aesthetics won’t hurt your site, but they can’t make up for a lack of content or dismal functionality. Remember who your customers are and why they come to visit you and then give them those things. Looking good while providing great content, products, and function is just a bonus.