4 “Ugly” Sites that Make Millions (and What We Can Learn from Them)

Does beautiful design matter?

If you look at the success of some of the most popular sites on the web, it seems to be a mixed verdict. Yes, many have had beautiful designs for years, but for some well-known sites, aesthetics promptly took a backseat to form and function… and stayed there.

And surprisingly, most of their visitors don’t seem to care.

There’s something comforting about a homely design. The average site portrays a kind of “mom and pop” flair that instantly lowers people’s built-in B.S. detectors and says, “Hey, we’re just like you!”

In fact, these ugly sites have gained such a fanatically loyal audience over the years that their owners wouldn’t dream of updating their design today. They pride themselves on a site that may not be much to look at, but it’s incredibly easy to use and understand.

Here are four such sites, as well as lessons we can learn from them:

eBay

By today’s standards, eBay did everything wrong. Back in 1997, they plastered the site with banners, browser buttons, and a cluttered logo that breaks the rules of good logo design.

Today, they’ve toned down their elementary school-inspired color scheme, nixed the banners and provided a clearer path to action on the homepage, and their logo remains one of the most recognizable in the world.

But it’s still pretty ugly.

What We Can Learn from eBay:

EBay’s pages are designed to take you to the products you want to buy, as quickly as possible. It’s not just because that’s what’s profitable. It’s what people come to eBay to do: buy stuff. EBay knows this, and so the entire website is designed to help them.

If you’re running an e-commerce site, it’s a good approach to model, because everyone pretty much understands it. Even 80 year old grandmothers are supplementing their retirement income by selling stuff on eBay — and you know if grandma can use the website, it must be doing something right!

PlentyOfFish

Widely considered the most popular dating site in the US and Canada, if not the world, PlentyOfFish boasts 20,000 new sign ups every day and has an estimated 11 million users. In 2008, the website earned over $10 million with only a handful of employees. (Source: Wikipedia)

Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

PlentyOfFish doesn’t appear to have nearly the flashy technology or depth as, say, Match.com, but it doesn’t need to. It makes money from selling ads, as well as upgraded memberships to put local listings at the top of search results.

What We Can Learn from PlentyOfFish:

Take away all of the dating hoopla, and PlentyOfFish is essentially a huge online community, and like most online communities, the value comes from its size. The reason the free revenue model works so well for it is because it encourages the maximum number of people to sign up.

If you’re starting an online community, you might want to use a similar strategy. Instead of investing time and money into creating a flashy, impressive website that works better than your competitors, just focus on what people really want: having lots of other people around. And making it free is often a great way to do that.

Google

Can we really call Google “ugly?”

Well, maybe or maybe not, but it’s certainly spartan. Over the years, countless competitors have tried to spring up with more stylish, feature-rich layouts, but Google has so far beaten them all, remaining the undisputed king of the search engine hill.

In fact, Google seems to take pride in its minimalist designs. And why not? It’s one of the most popular websites in the world, and in 2009, they brought in almost $24 billion in revenue. Something seems to be working.

What We Can Learn from Google:

Remove the clutter.

Back when Google first started, it’s simple design was one of its biggest selling points. Everyone was used to the packed, portal-style homepages like Yahoo, and they were actually relieved to see such a simple page.

And it’s a lesson that applies to a lot more than just search. For example:

  • If visitors come to your website in search of a price quote, you could make your home page a calculator of sorts, asking them the necessary questions and then spitting out an estimate
  • If your audience consists mainly of beginners looking for information on a certain topic, you could publish a PDF beginner’s guide to your topic and then give it away on your home page
  • If your people are coming to your website to schedule an appointment, you could make your home page a calendar, where they can click a day and schedule a time

The key is to find out what task your audience wants to accomplish and then make it the focus of your website.

You can always increase the complexity once they become a customer or subscriber. For instance, Google may have an ultra-simple homepage, but if you sign up for an account, you can customize it with any number of widgets, making it as complicated as you want.

The important point, of course, is that it can’t become more complicated until after you sign up. This avoids confusing new users on the front end, while giving more experience customers everything they want at the back.

Craigslist

Craigslist has remained relatively unchanged since 1995, only expanding to include more cities and countries .

What makes Craigslist so popular is how straightforward the categories are. In fact, you probably know someone who landed a job, found an apartment, or discovered something valuable that someone else would have simply thrown away. You click to your city, find what you want, and finish the transaction.

No banners, no fancy logo, nothing. It’s this kind of get-in, get-out experience that keeps people flocking back to the classifieds site time and time again.

What We Can Learn from Craigslist:

If you have a lot of information on your website, ask yourself, “How can I organize all this so that it makes sense to the visitor?”

To this day, Craigslist remains popular because the categories are so intuitive, and it only takes you a few seconds to find what you want. You don’t have to subscribe, fill out a questionnaire, or dig around to find what you’re looking for.

It just works. Sure, it’s ugly, but Craigslist operates by the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model. Its design hasn’t changed in more than 10 years, and as long as it continues to grow, it probably won’t change for another 10.

That’s the benefit of organizing your site the right way from the beginning.

Think about Function First, Aesthetics Second

So should you immediately start scrutinizing every image on your site and turning all your links into a 90’s shade of blue?

Well… no. Don’t do that.

You should, however, focus on function first. Figure out what your users are there to do, and then help them do it.

For Google, it’s, “search.” For eBay’s, it’s, “buy (or sell) stuff.” For PlentyOfFish, it’s, “get a date.”

So, think about it:

Why did your visitors come to your website?

And how can you create a design that helps them?

Answer those questions, and whether or not your website is “ugly” will become secondary. You’ll already be on your way to a good design.

About the Author: Sherice Jacob helps businesses improve web design, performance and conversions at iElectrify.com.

  1. Great post. Did you catch the “Improve Conversions By Making Your Site Ugly” article in last month’s Hacker Monthly? Very much along the same lines.

  2. Hey Sherice,

    goood essence you got from there.

    Being minimalistic and functional is the primary way to go – your design has to SUPPORT the usability of your blog / website.

    That’s the reason why Google blew Yahoo out of the water – Yahoo cluttered its page with hundreds of options, while Google only focused on its core – searches.

    I will apply this principle even more to my blog.
    Thanx for rocking the digital world with your examples ;)

  3. Or put another way “get big first and you never have to fix your crappy website”. Craigslist is perfect example of that, Google not so much.

  4. You forgot to include http://www.amazon.com … gah! that thing is hideous…

    What can we learn from ‘em?

    Selection (catalog) & price trumps all!

  5. Great post. Agree completely. Being pretty is nice. But have to focus first on the functional goals.

  6. Does craigslist actually make any money? Seems like a free service to me but maybe I’m missing something.

    • Craigslist makes money by charging for certain ads in certain markets. Housing in NYC for instance.

  7. form and function have to work together, ass wipe

    • Wow, Eddie. Revert to childish name calling and hide under a name with no link to who you are. Real mature. Sherice brings up great points. Go keep designing really pretty, flash sites that don’t get any traffic or make any money!

  8. They’re great but ugly. Now you can feex them. :)

  9. This was such a cleverly written and well-informed post–Thank you!

    P.S. Although it doesn’t make millions, I’m comforted that my spartan site has something in common with the big guys!

  10. How come you guys didn’t mention DrudgeReport? It’s run by one guy, is ugly as hell, and makes billions of dollars a year in ad revenue.

  11. A few things all of these sites have in common are ancient domain age, killer seo, and insanely high traffic volume. Extremely difficult things to duplicate.

  12. Sherice
    Good observations but let us b careful in attributing the success of these businesses to an observable characteristic of their website. These businesses had (some still has) a strategy, filled an urgent customer need, had resources to execute on their business strategy.
    The only takeaway should be the need for strategy and execution and not ugliness of website as the necessary condition for success.

    Regards
    -rags

  13. no sites that we didnt know of already…

  14. Ummmmm……. how is Craigslist making millions?

    • for the one who asked how CL makes money – just look at the NYC apartment listings and you will see.

    • From the ‘Employment’ section (only). That’s the only section they ‘charge’ money for posting ads – and the only stream of revenue for their website.

      The owner insists on ‘not charging’ any money for any other section, and also ‘not’ putting any ads anywhere. Or else they could make much more.

  15. Interesting post. Hope you add more websites to this list.

  16. Why are you wasting my time talking about shit you know nothing about? I dare you to challenge me, this is honestly the most ignorant fucking article I have ever read online.

  17. I still can’t navigate Craiglist, I’ve tried many times, but I probably can’t help myself so I just gave it up.

  18. Good article but you could tell us more :)

  19. I’d argue against Google’s homepage being ugly, but I’m with you…it’s not always about looks.

  20. I think it depends upon what the functionality of your web site is. None of these companies are actually selling their own product or service. Ebay and Craigslist both sell other people’s stuff, Google is a search engine, and PlentyOfFish is an online community. Sure, they are all ugly and successful, but your post doesn’t address businesses with products or services to sell. Businesses need to balance design with content to close the sale. If someone comes to your site and is not impressed with the look of it, it reflects poorly on your company. Likewise, if your site is poorly designed such that they have trouble navigating it, you will probably lose the sale. People are emotional buyers and are visually stimulated. If they like what they see, they will be more enticed to stick around and actually read the content. Sure, in the end, it is the content that closes the deal, but first you have to get your visitors to stay long enough to read it.

  21. Good point, Liz! I might just do a future article on service-oriented companies that
    make millions with their “bad” websites.

    Again, the main takeaway isn’t “make your site ugly as heck, convert like crazy and become a millionaire” – it’s that overwhelmingly, simplicity rules – and in the case of eBay and Craigslist who got their start early, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

  22. The takeaway I got from this article is that function needs to be more important than aesthetics.

    The only things I question is the inferred definition of good design.

    Legitimate good design – the kind that we all should be striving for – is focused on usability and functionality as well as aesthetics.

    Quite simply, if it doesn’t promote functionality first…

    …then its not good design.

    These sites are examples of moderate design.

    User experience and functionality were executed successfully, but the design falls just a little short in the aesthetics department. In each example two of the three major components that make up good design are met – so its hard to argue that any were “poorly” designed in the first place.

    What do y’all think?

  23. So now let’s see some sites that look pretty, but don’t do well at all.

  24. Did you just describe eBay as fast and user-oriented?

  25. I would have to disagree… I dont know when the screen shots were taken or specifically from what pages… But Ebay is not that bad visually, Google is a minimalistic design… the fishes site – I personally dont care to look it up… Craigslist -> i agree, it is ugly… but come on the others…

    • To be fair, the eBay screenshot was one of the originals from 1997. Thankfully, it has improved a great deal since then… but consider how eBay has grown since that time and retained much of its original functionality (Anyone remember Amazon Auctions and all the other copycats? …. Thought not!) :)

  26. i think cause all the site already get the market since the site develop till now and mostly all the ugly site giving the fully content and faster. People still keep looking on popular site

  27. People are busy. They go to a website to do a job. They just want to complete the job without failing, become stressed or having to leave. If a site is well designed, it can really help that user, clear labels, a design that can almost be felt on the screen, signposting and lots of space are known to make a site more user friendly. I think a nice looking design can also help increase trust, which is why some of those well known sites can get away with looking a little worse for wear in this Modern age! Finally, the bells and whistles, I think, are a nice after thought, but they’re never alone going to make a person buy. That’s my 2p worth!!!

  28. Agreed that functionality should come first. But, I wonder at what point a lot of these websites work simply because people have gotten used to using them because they’ve been around a long time.

    I’d love to really see a first time user coming to one of these sites and trying to make sense of things.

    Google would be the exception. There just isn’t much to do in the first place.

  29. I don’t know about anyone else, but i can’t find anything on craigslist. It looks like it was thrown together on day one of the internet and was totally forgotten. It is by far, the ugliest multi-million dollar site on the Internet.

  30. What about Facebook? The ugliest and confusing site in the moment.

  31. What about Amazon? they make billions, everyone knows that site and is ugly

  32. These sites all look different because their users want/need very different things.

    Website design should only be about one thing:

    Make it as easy as possible for the user to do what they want to do.

    That said, if your site has one main function, or if your users are largely seeing it for the first time, a clean design with clear/obvious calls to action is vital.

    Sure, most users on Ebay want to buy something, same with Amazon and in many cases Cragislist. However, for those sites you can argue that the clutter is necessary because a million visitors will want to buy a million different things. For these sites, the holy grail is smart categorization and an easy purchase flow :-)

  33. very interesting article!Surely functionality matters the most but aesthetics have its own part.I mean that we surely have to focus on functionality but if functionality is combined with a well-designed website we will have great results!

  34. Interesting article – there are a lot of variables to consider.

    From what I’ve learned I think that Purpose, Function, Design and Traffic are the variables that combine to make a site great – perhaps I should write an article on the 4 Pillars of Successful Site!

    Thanks for another great article,

  35. If it’s something like a site that sells high quality fashion wear do you think an ugly website might have a negative impact on sales because the design is completely contradictory to everything the company stands for? I guess it depends on the type of site. Just my 2c.

  36. Success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can’t lose.

    That was said by Bill Gates, so if anyone makes a site more pleasing to the eye and with the same features, ugly will drop down. Look at Google now copying Bing.

  37. You you should make changes to the page title 4 “Ugly” Sites that Make Millions (and What We Can Learn from Them) to more suited for your blog post you make. I loved the blog post nevertheless.

  38. Google and Craigslist aren’t ugly. They’re minimalist and functional. Their design and user experience do exactly what they’re supposed to do. The other sites, I agree. One site I couldn’t stomach for its horrible design was MySpace. Individual pages were cluttered, illegible and full of crap that would crash my browser. I avoided MySpace like the plague, and turns out everyone else later followed.

  39. great post. I’ve always loved the simplicity of google

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  50. I think people need to grasp more on concept and functionality.

    Look at some at some old computer games, they are still loved by many not because they are vintage because they function well and have high playability i think movies is the same too, look at some movies without all the sfx.

    Great Thread.

  51. ^ Comment above nailed it. The easy functionality is what’s key, whether it be classic game hits or websites.

  52. fantastic post, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector don’t notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  53. back when i first started using the net, i always preferred the simple minimalist design of google over the other search engines, never liked ebay though lol…

  54. Craigslist is still ugly.

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  59. my opinion is Ebay is world bigest site

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