Two kinds of websites

Posted July 5, 2024

If you’re thinking about getting a new website for your business, or you’re designing a new website for a client, you should know that there are only two kinds of websites:

  1. Websites optimized for conversion.
  2. Websites optimized for branding.

You’re making one of the two. The third kind of website does not exist.

If your website is trying to sell a product or a service, it should be optimized for conversion. Most website projects fit into this niche. But web designers usually design websites that are optimized for branding, not for conversion.

A year or two after every website project, the process starts anew, because nobody is looking out for conversion.

And guess what? Designing for conversion can be boring. It’s not glamorous work. Designers don’t win awards for conversion-optimized websites. To my clients’ dismay, if I’m working on a conversion-optimized site for them, they’re never as pretty.

Amazon’s website is pretty darn ugly, but it converts all the time. It’s utilitarian ugliness makes it easy to use.

On the other hand, I bet the website for M&M’s doesn’t convert much. (I bet they don’t even measure their conversion rate.) It’s busy and distracting and shiny and mostly exists to make M&M’s look cool and inclusive. And the M&M’s website doesn’t need to convert; their conversion opportunities largely happen in the candy store aisle at your local grocery store or gas station. 

Similarly, Github’s website is buried in word salad. Its conversion rate probably isn’t tied to the website at all. Github is the standard in their industry, so it converts because of the social graph and enterprise lock-in. The website mostly needs to look enterprise‑y and stun you with its buzzword-of-the-week word bingo. (Not coincidentally, Github is a Microsoft product, and their website has the same function and focus on buzzword-salad branding).

You might notice something: some brand-focused websites are ugly too.

Similarly, some conversion-focused websites are beautiful. Apple’s website is very conversion-focused. It’s easy to buy on their website, and it’s easy to learn the key facts about most of their product lineup. The home page prominently features their newest products (what they hope you’re most interested in) with minimal distraction.

Log out of Facebook, if you’re already logged in, and check out their home page. If that doesn’t convert, I’m not sure what will. It’s clean, simple, and there’s no way to get confused about where to go.

Could both of these websites be pretty if they weren’t focused on making you a customer? You bet they could be. 

But it’s better for them and for you, the customer that these websites help you achieve your goal. For Facebook, they want you to log in as soon as possible (or create a new account). Apple wants you to buy what you’re looking for — presumably their newest product. Anything that takes away from those outcomes is less useful for you as a customer.

Here’s the other great thing about admitting your website should be focused on conversion: it’s testable.

If you redesign the website, and change nothing else except the design, leaving the text the same and changing only visual elements, does your site help you achieve the actual goals you set out? If your site is conversion-focused, you’ll know. There’s no way not to know.

On the other hand, if you redesign your website, attempt to rebrand the whole thing, and throw everything out, you’re starting from zero every time. It’s a waste of money for clients and a waste of time for designers — unless you’re a brand-focused website. In which case, make the most absurdly ridiculous high-impact visual cluster you can, I guess, because what do you have to lose? A brand can’t be measured.

So what kind of website are you making?

PS: At the time of publishing, I need to work on this website’s conversion rate too. I am aware.

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