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Why do so many websites look alike? Close your eyes, you can probably picture it right now. The logo is in the top left corner. The navigation menu is spread across the top pane of the page evenly. You can hover over these items and underneath you’ll find a dropdown menu with more options. There’s probably a large image immediately after. If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll find a footer waiting for you with a bunch of links and contact information.

We know this formula well because the majority of our website experiences now look like this.

Let’s answer a couple questions about this phenomenon:

1. What has led to so many websites looking the same?

2. What are the benefits of websites looking the same?

3. What are the disadvantages of websites looking the same?

 

What Has Led To So Many Websites Looking The Same?

My favorite analogy for this is a book. Go pick one up. Now, where would the table of contents be? Where do you think you could find the book title and author name inside? What direction are you going to read the book, left to right? Look at a page of the book. Where would you find the page number and book title? Is the book just one long story or is it split into chapters? Why is the book rectangular and not a triangle?

Books didn’t always exist in this format. We had wall carving, inscriptions, and scrolls. Why did we decide that our books should look the way they do? It’s because, over time, the people wanting to share information tested different formats and ideas. As they learned from their users what worked and what didn’t, they improved the designed. They also stole ideas from each other until they arrived at this particular form.

Websites look the same because of the same reason. Over time, companies, developers, and designers found that a particular form of navigation worked better than others. This traditional and effective design often gets called the F-Layout because of its shape and how the user scans the page. Businesses have an incentive to use the format that drives the most business.

Let’s talk about some of the major steps in this iterative journey.

 

 

The WWWWW

I remember a time before websites. Those were dark times my friend. But then, the internet came in all its glory. In the beginning, it was a worldwide web wild West (also known as the WWWWW). Back in those dark times, you would visit a website with no idea about what you were about to see. Your cursor would change from a pointer to a snowflake if it was around the holidays. Music would start blasting out of your speakers unexpectedly since someone thought that would be a cool feature. Words would pan across the screen in what we call a marquee. Text would blink. Users would leave.

The beautiful thing about the internet being a place of complete freedom was that it allowed people to throw all their ideas up against the wall to see if they’d stick. You have to admire these sometimes terrible attempts solely because people tried them.

With time, certain layouts proved to be more advantageous than others. Web developers and designers learned this from how users interacted with their websites. They’d make a big change and then see that their bounce rate (people leaving the website without doing anything or visiting more pages) would increase dramatically. They’d remove the music and go back to the drawing board.

Then, of course, there was stealing and copying. Taking the best ideas from others and making them your own is essential for evolution. I’m not talking about plagiarism, but taking inspiration or imitating what you see that works well for others.

Just a quick example, Google has become the largest search engine. Part of that has been its incredible design. The homepage is minimalist, removing nearly all distractions and pushing the user to make their search. The search results are easy to scan and the layout makes research for the user simple. If you’ve watched Yahoo’s evolution over the years, as Google took more of that search engine traffic, Yahoo tried to simplify its home page. Bing launched their search platform with a very similar layout for search except with an image in the background. Most search engines use a near clone of the search results pages created by Google.

You could call this is a lack of imagination or innovation. However, perfecting a well-performing, efficient design is just as much as a challenge.

In my opinion, I don’t want a car that has a new, never before seen design. I want an efficient car. I want to know that when I get into it, it will do its job. I want to know that it will get me where I need to go. That when I need to use the windshield wipers, that it has windshield wipers.

 

Content Management Systems

Another important milestone has been the development and adoption of content management systems (CMS). Prior to CMS, we had to hard-code websites using HTML, CSS, or Javascript to get a website to look the way we wanted. While this allowed an incredible amount of customization and flexibility, it had some significant disadvantages.

Hard-coded websites meant that all changes, new posts, or content additions from a business owner or lay-person had to be interpreted and added to a website by someone who knew HTML, CSS, or Javascript. There wasn’t an easy way to make quick edits, updates, or changes without it running through someone with expertise. This put the power entirely in the hands of an elite class of programmers and kept most average people away from building without limitations.

Content management systems were born primarily out of the blog community. You had millions of people all eager to share what they were learning, making, and their interests on a blog that they could update easily. WordPress, Drupal, Blogspot, and many others built their foundations on serving this audience.

Content management systems made it simple for users to log in to their website and post. With time, they added features to make adding photos, videos, widgets, and plugins to their blogs so that they could build more complex designs.

By some accounts, WordPress powers over 30% of the web. While this means that the power has been returned back to the average person, it also means that most websites are going to follow a similar format that WordPress uses to display its content. Just understanding that makes it immediately apparent that close to a third of the websites you see look the same because they are built on the same basic structure.

 

Google’s Best Practices

The last significant milestone is Google’s rise to the position of complete authority on the web. Because Google controls the primary means of discovering websites, they can make whatever demands they want. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of making your website appealing to Google and other search engines so that they serve your website in the search results.

I like to think about it as the most embarrassing talent show you can imagine. Google is with the other judges, but the other judges are watching what Google’s face looks like. I can go on stage and talk about how great I am, but if I know that Google likes tap-dancing, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m going to tap dance.

Google publishes best practices for web designers and developers. Their positions on things like load times, keyword-stuffing, and user experience is very clear. We all do the tap dance that Google likes. These best practices also include a significant amount of information about how to structure your information, content, and text on your website.

Websites often look the same because the designers and developers know that Google is going to crawl (review the content on your website) in a specific way. As they crawl, they will search for links, make sure things are structured correctly, and identify where the important information is stored. 

Just like a bunch of recruits lined up in front of a superior officer (you can tell I have zero military experience), Google only gives each a couple seconds to check their uniform, make sure they have everything shined and cleaned, and makes quick judgments. All of us designers and developers fall in line. That’s a military thing, right?

 

What Are the Benefits of Websites Looking the Same?

I hear quite often that people are looking for something unique from their website. They aren’t talking about customization, adding photography that represents their brand well, and tailoring the structure to meet their business needs. They are talking about reinventing the entire concept of a website.

The common refrain is “I don’t want it to look like every other website.”

For example, I recently had a guy ask my web designer team to develop a circular shaped website. “You know, like a wheel where all the menus are in a circle.” Points for creativity, but here is why I don’t think this out of the box thinking is for most brands.

 

Content Focused

If I handed you a triangular book right now and told you to read it, what would you be more focused on? Would it be the content itself or the format? You’d be confused about the design.

Now there is something to be said about gimmicks, because they can shake up the user journey by presenting them with something completely unique. But let’s get honest here. When you are focused on researching a particular brand, product, or service, what is your top priority? It’s information.

When users are deep into a journey where they want an answer as quickly as possible, these dramatic takes in design can be very disruptive. It turns your gimmick into a deeply frustrating experience. They will likely leave your website and get their information from a more straightforward source.

Having a simple design on your website allows users to focus on the information you are presenting. It gives them what they are searching for and you become central to that user journey by helping them.

 

Cost-Efficient

It’s not easy reinventing the wheel. That’s why we typically don’t—without asking for a lot of money. Understand that when you ask a web developer to come up with a completely unique, never before seen design, they are either going to pass on the project because they know how much work it will be or they see dollar signs because they’ll make you pay for it.

But it goes even further than that. Websites with this unique of a design aren’t typically built on CMS and prevent you from making changes without running through a developer or designer. Every new update or change will likely be accompanied with a hefty hourly charge for updates.

The bigger issue is performance. Upon launching a website with a completely unique design, you will have sunk some money into the endeavor with hope that the website will perform well. There are no guarantees if it’s a new type of design. With more traditionally designed websites, you can expect to maintain and grow your existing return on your website without major hiccups. While the new design could be a success, you will have to wait and see what your results may be. Often, these designs don’t see a more significant return on investment and therefore, aren’t the best use of your marketing dollars.

 

What Are the Disadvantages of Websites Looking the Same?

I managed a product for a company that used a very similar website theme for nearly every single client. Although every website was customized to each individual business, the backbone was exactly the same. During all that time, we consistently saw great results from these websites.

However, there are some disadvantages we should talk about.

 

Visual Exhaustion

A quick scan of one hundred law office websites or dental practice websites will likely leaving you feel completely exhausted. That’s because they are all going to look very similar. You’ll see some photos of the staff, information about specific services, and there will be a contact page with a map. After a certain amount of time, this can make it so similarities become discouraging.

However, who looks at one hundred law office websites before they call a lawyer? How many people look at a hundred dentist websites before making an appointment? Most people will spend more time looking at your online reviews or your social media before reading hundreds of websites.

Worrying about visual exhaustion is a little ridiculous when you could invest more into improving your online reputation or online presence on social media.

 

Not Standing Out

This concern I completely understand. You want your business to pop. You want it to stand alone in a marketplace full of competitors.

However, you don’t need an untested website design to do this. What you need is a great web designer, possibly a fantastic photographer, and a team who knows how to take your business goals and translate that into actions users can take on your website.

There is so much that can be done to customize a website to stand out without reinventing the wheel. Don’t turn to gimmicks if you can achieve better results with a thoughtful, proven design.

 

Website Design & Management

If you are asking yourself these questions and want to talk to someone, we are all ears. Is there another concern about website design that you can’t find answers to?

Our team at Formada Social is happy to provide you with an assessment of your current website, review your ideas for a new website, or look at refreshing your current website.

Contact us for a free 30-minute phone consultation. We genuinely like making the web a better place for users and business owners.