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Do Ugly Blogs Convert Better?

I’ve been meaning to link to and comment on Robert Scoble’s post on The role of anti-marketing design (or how ‘ugly’ designs often do better – especially with AdSense). He refers to ‘plentyofffish.com‘ as an example of one site that is reportedly making some big dollars from AdSense despite it’s fairly humble design.

My reaction to Robert’s post is twofold:

1. I don’t want to agree – I appreciate good design in all aspects of life. I like blogs and websites that have obviously had some time put into the way that they look. I also find myself reacting against ‘ugly’ on some levels (yep I’m a bit of a snob – but it’s the way I’m wired). That doesn’t mean I ignore or avoid poorly designed sites – I just am not drawn to them as much and they have to have something really worthwhile in terms of content to get me past their look.

I do believe that well designed blogs have some distinct advantages in terms of branding, marketing, creating first impressions, being stickable and with advertising optimization.

2. There’s some truth in the idea that ‘ugly converts well’ with some forms of advertising – I’ve seen many examples of sites that will never win design awards that are very profitable. I’ve also owned a couple of blogs that have proved it to me also.

However – I wouldn’t quite put it in the words that Robert does. I’m not so sure that we should aspire to ‘ugly’ blogs – but rather would call many of the blogs that I’m talking about that work well ‘simple’ or ‘humble’. For example the site that Robert uses as his example, PlentyofFish, is not what I’d call ugly. It’s not brilliant but it is uncluttered, simple, reasonably clean and useable for readers. It’s ads are also in prime position and do stand out from the rest of the page (although do blend in in terms of background/border). It’s also a site that seems pretty simple to use and is fast to load.

So what do I recommend with blog design?

Hmmm – even as I write this I’m going back and forth a little on it in my mind. Here’s a few random take home points (and they will conflict each other):

  • Bloggers without design skills should take heart – there are some great blogs out there that are quite average to look at which do very well in terms of traffic and earnings
  • Well Designed blogs can work for you in terms of creating a brand, giving good first impressions and adding credibility to your blog
  • Some bloggers get so sidetracked on getting their design working that they never actually develop good content (design should support your content – the main player on a blog)
  • Simple, uncluttered and clean designs tend to work best with AdSense (in my experience) if you place the ads well

One last theory:

Source of traffic might come into play on this – it seems that PentyofFish does pretty well because it is ranked highly in Google for some pretty popular search terms. Robert mentions that it’s owner studies SEO theories and that this is perhaps the main reason for it’s success. I wonder whether it’s less crucial for site’s which rely more heavily upon SE traffic to have amazing design or not. Perhaps (untested) sites that rely upon referral traffic from other sites or repeat users need to be more aware of creating an appealing environment.

Of course even as I write this last paragraph examples of many ‘humbly’ designed sites that have loads of loyal readers are coming to mind – so perhaps my theory is dodgy! Perhaps design is irrelevant! :-)

I can hear the comments now – I don’t really believe this – but I’ve seen such a variety of results when it comes to design that I’m just not sure what I think any more.

Interested to hear what others think about the impact that a blog’s design has upon readership levels, ad performance etc

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. PXLated says:

    Interesting comments on Scoble’s site.
    Personally, I think there are too many variables involved to narrow it down. But, if two sites were equal in all other ways, I’d bet the better designed would win. And by design I don’t just mean the look/feel but the organization as well.

  2. Liam Daly says:

    I don’t know if I’d advocate ugly design to repulse visitors out an advertising door, but I think we all know that when your site is crawled the Search Engine doesn’t care about your design (in the visual sense). And with the growth of feeds, it renders design even less important.

    That said I believe in design too, and the design of Problogger is one of its great assets. People like Rachel are making the web a much better place.

  3. Charles says:

    I’ve heard the same theories about Amazon, eBay, Yahoo microsites, Google — they’re successful in part because people look at a seemingly haphazzard page layout on the web as a casual, no pressure, easy to use site. But seemingly haphazzard layouts and an incongruous color scheme doesn’t mean bad design. From an IA standpoint Google, Amazon, and Yahoo are all top notch.

    Adult sites have a horrible look — flashing gifs, awful color schemes, non-existant IA — but still get customers. Obviously the connection there is rather tenuous. Same here too. The nature of Plenty of Fish has more to do with its success, I suspect, than the design format.

    (Not that I, er, have any, uhm, first hand knowledge of adult sites, mind you).

  4. I think that you have to define your goals first and then prioritize them. Then, test.

    Also, “ugly” sites do seem to convert well in terms of adsense in my experience. But if adsense is only one income stream, then again, you must prioritize your site’s income streams. Oh yeah, and then test again.

    BTW, I just tested having my adsense “stand out” (different colored links as the rest of my site) and having it “blend” (same colored links as the rest of my site) and the blended ads won. But on other sites the opposite has been true. I guess we’ve got to test :)

  5. Duncan says:

    One site: digitalphotographyblog.com says it all for me. :-)

  6. Duncan says:

    One blog: Digital Photography blog says it all for me :-)

  7. I think you’re missing the point. It’s not about being ugly, it’s about establishing trust.

    Web users prefer to listen to “real people”, rather than companies. The simpler, unprofessional look, characterizes the underdog little guys, as opposed to the big-budget corporate types.

  8. Darren Rowse says:

    Steve – I’d agree with you on that with blogs that have loyal readers – but sites that are built on the back of search engine traffic don’t really build much trust – the majority of their readers are one off surfing by types that are seeking a certain piece of information and once they’ve got it they’re off – and if they don’t find it they’ll either hit the back button or click on something that promises to give them the information they want….

  9. This seems like a correlation/causation fallacy that keeps coming up:

    1. eBay has bad design.
    2. eBay makes money.
    3. Therefore, bad design can make you money!

    As someone said recently, I think they make money DESPITE their design, not because of it.

    I have a couple of ancient sites with out-of-date designs that make good money—not because the design is poor, but because the sites have quality content, lots of links, and users who trust them. If the design improves, I’ll have all of those plus a better-looking site, and probably more money.

    The other problem is, as Darren said about PlentyOfFish – the “bad design” comment usually comes from someone who has Web 2.0 or design school on the brain, and sometimes it just means “effective but not brilliant”. I’ll take a simply-designed site with lots of good content over a beautiful work of art with no content but a few lame Flash videos anyday…

  10. Shaun Carter says:

    I suppose the underlying theory here makes perfect sense… if it’s ugly, people will want to wander elsewhere and may feel more inclined to click on AdSense within the page. But you hit on an important fact regarding how to actually attract visitors to an “ugly” page. You won’t be getting any repeat visitors or build any loyalty, but I think this is a creative new technique for exploiting AdSense.

  11. Chris Bhurrut says:

    Design is the icing — quality content is the cake that keeps readers satiated. I find sites that are low on design, although not necessarily “ugly”, out convert prettier sites (in terms of clicks on ads).

    I’m not sure I could argue that a fancy design leads to more loyal readers. Take a look a StevePavlina.com, a butt ugly site that has had massive and quick growth, because of content.

    Content, content, content. Everything else is secondary (generally).

  12. A.H says:

    I think it’s kind of a scales, on one side you’ve got the design & misc. and in the other side you’ve got the content…i mean, Scoob’s blog isn’t that amazingally good looking either, yet a lot of people are reading it because Scobleizer has something to offer (or because he’s Microsoft Employee).

    But anyway, if your content scale beats the bad design and the other affecting factors then it will probably generate more traffic..not to talk about good design & good content which is the best (duh..)

    About earnings…i’m not sure, there are so many factors that can be taken into consediration..perhaps one of the reasons Plentyoffish is converting so good is the fact that a lot of people visiting there are so desperate of looking for a match that they’ll simply click a lot of the related ads because they feel it’ll help them.

  13. Seeing as how I make my living designing blogs, I’ve been watching (and participating in) this topic rather closely. My own experience is best summed up by Michael Moncur above:

    “As someone said recently, I think they make money DESPITE their design, not because of it.”

    Remember: good design does not mean pretty. Good design means effective (which in many (but not all) cases also happens to mean pretty).

  14. Let me refer you to the new strapline for Jaguar cars:

    “Beauty gets what beauty wants!”

    Speaks volumes…good looks sell!

  15. Dimitris says:

    I don’t believe that that site makes money because of the poor design, it makes a lot of money because it has over half a million unique visitors per day and more than 5 (probably double that) million page views per day. Any site with that traffic will make a lot of money.
    Anyway, imho it is not ugly, it just isn’t pretty
    Also keep in mind that the site didn’t always look that way.
    Here is how it looked in 2003
    http://web.archive.org/web/20031225035431/www.plentyoffish.com/

  16. tom sherman says:

    Inclined to agree w/ Mr. Moncur (#9) … also, to me, the look of a blog is not that important anymore. Many loyal readers are reading via RSS, and if you offer full text RSS (as you should :), then they won’t care what your blog looks like.

    Bottom line is: I used to frequently redesign the look and feel of my site. Now I spend my time doing other things for my site.

  17. Eric Giguere says:

    Depends what you mean by “ugly”, really. If you equate “ugly” to be “use the same fonts as AdSense” to that the ads really blend in with the content, then yes, I’d say that “ugly” sites make more money….

  18. Jesse says:

    Does anyone really think that Scoble would be less succesful if, say, he’d got the Blog Studio to design his blog? Do people really think that plentyoffish.com wouldn’t have done so well if their site ran on rails and had a proffesional looking design? These sites happen to have crap designs but the content they have is exactly what people want, so they ignore the design. I’d bet if you did a redesign of Scoble’s site he’d get an instant bump in traffic. Same with plentyoffish

  19. Must Love Goblins says:

    I think it may be more that *simple* sites convert well. People notice the ads because there isn’t a lot of crap distracting them. I have some old school web sites that are straight white background black text with Adsense at the top, and they all have double digit CTRs.

  20. Amazing! And did you read at Scobleizer that plentyoffish.com makes $10,000 per day in Adsense revenue? That’s just insane.

  21. Declan says:

    When you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there…

  22. Leon says:

    Websites are kinda like women. You have the gorgeous but shallow ones and the average looking but interesting ones. While the pretty ones might hold your attention for a while, the average looking ones make you stick around. Content is king! Remember that!

  23. Darren Rowse says:

    Let me just step back away from Leon before the tomatoes start to fly :-) You’re a game man mate.

  24. Scott says:

    I use that good old acronym KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid. The average internet user doesn’t care about fancy flash or graphics. They want to be able to use the site quickly and efficiently. The best feedback I have received are from my simply designed and easy to navigate websites.

  25. Rick says:

    Scott, you are definetly right. Not to mention most people I know are more interested in the content and don’t really pay attention to the design. I believe content and navigation are the key’s to a good site.

  26. Rachel says:

    As another blog designer, I’d agree with Peter’s comments.

    Also, there’s all sorts of factors which come into play which make a site *successful* – usefulness (content) is #1.

    Probably we all frequent websites which have “ugly” designs because they’re *useful* to us and there’s no alternative which is as useful.

    Our *experience* visiting sites is a mixture of content, design (by this I mean what it looks like), usability (how it works, how easy it is to use). We need to work on all three to make the experience for visitors even better.

  27. The way your site is designed depends on your circumstances?
    I mean if your just blogging for fun, then an attractive site design works better, yet if your blogging for a profit, simple, yet well layed out design works.
    I really think its not about how your site or blog looks, if its clean, and its got content that YOU want to read…who cares?

  28. sharon says:

    eDate.com seems to be along the same lines as plenty of fish. eDate is a totally free, fast loading desing that appears to be attracting thousands of users each day. One advantage over plent o is definately the nem.

    I have spoken with the owner of edate and he is not corporate and he just wants to offer a totally free dating service that takes on the big boys. It is currently pretty new so he is transferrring thousands of users over from another site.

    I met my boyfriend on http://www.edate.com about a month ago. Does anybody understand how they stay in business without charging any money? I didn’t have to pay a cent and it seems just as good as any other dating site that I paid for.

    Just thought I’d let people know about edate.com because alll of the other dating sites rope you in to paying some fee and edate didn’t.

  29. sharon says:

    I predict that eDate over the next couple of years will overtake all of the big guys.
    eDate.com is totally 100% free with no catch. It’s got a great chart room which I use a lot
    to meet people and it’s a quick running site with an easy to navigate design. eDate.com will be
    one of the most popular dating sites out there. I have spoken with the owner about his current developing and marketing platform and I am confident to say that http://www.eDate.com will be a huge competitor in the online dating and free online dating industry.

  30. I can’t comment on conversion, but we just met with our designer for our soon-to-be-launced site and we are really glad we went with a professional designer. The site just looks so much better than it would have! To me, it is like having a good looking garden that everyone can see when they go down the street. My gardening skills aren’t so hot, but they are still way better than my web and graphic design skills!

  31. I think the design for the blog/site have to be neat and tidy to get loyal readers ,if we put ugly ad’s it may seem that we are forcing the reader’s to click on them , the site has to be friendly , ugly designs can bring a negative effect on the reader

  32. Mike Paahana says:

    just like ugly girls r easier to score with

Trackbacks

  1. [...] There is recent discussion over at Problogger.Net about blog design. The discussion talks about ugly blogs and conversion rates. [...]

  2. Do Ugly Blogs Earn More?

    Robert Scoble started a blog post about anti-marketing design site of his friend Markus Frind. He is Google’s #1 AdSense user in Canada, pulling in more han $10,000 per day from Google. His site is certainly not beautifully designed, but receivi…

  3. [...] Back in early March, Robert Scoble wrote this post about how ugly sites convert. A few other blogs picked up on it as well, and all was well. [...]

  4. [...] I think Scoble may have revelead this earlier in the month and called it “anti-marketing design“. Dozens of other bloggers picked up the story — Darren thinks ugly sites convert better but Rustybrick of seroundtable.com brings it down to the huge volume of organic traffic. [...]

  5. [...] There have been some discussions recently about the positive effect of ugly sites on conversions, such as here and here. [...]