10 Massively Popular Websites with Plain and Simple Designs

May 31 2010 by Corbett Barr | 71 Comments

10 Massively Popular Websites with Plain and Simple Designs

While most people will agree that design is an important factor in building a high-traffic website or blog, there are countless examples on the contrary.

How is it that some sites are able to become massively popular despite their pedestrian or lackluster designs? And, perhaps a better question is: Could those sites be even more popular with an improved design?

The idea of a “good” or “bad” design leaves a lot of room for interpretation. I’ll use the definition of “you know it when you see it” in this collection.

I found 10 excellent examples of popular websites with designs that I thought left a little something to be desired visually. Here they are, 10 massively popular websites with pedestrian designs. Each of these are ranked among the 200 most popular sites in the world, according to Alexa.

Let me know if you agree in the comments.

1. Craigslist

Craigslist

2. The Pirate Bay

The Pirate Bay

3. EzineArticles

EzineArticles

4. The Weather Channel

The Weather Channel

5. MySpace

MySpace

6. Answers.com

Answers.com

7. Reference.com

Reference.com

8. Wikipedia

Wikipedia

9. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

10. PayPal

PayPal

Does Aesthetics Matter on the Web?

If each of these sites became massively popular despite their dull designs, what exactly is the role of design in building a high-traffic site? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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About the Author

Corbett Barr is the founder and editor of Think Traffic, a blog about building website traffic. He works with business owners to build online audiences and create raving fans. Connect with him on Twitter: @CorbettBarr.

71 Comments

Tyler

May 31st, 2010

Out of all these, I think Wikipedia has the best design. If anything were added, I don’t think it would be for the better. Same goes if anything was taken away.

Michael Hubbard

May 31st, 2010

Some of the sites have plain designs, some have simple designs, but none have both. Especially MySpace is neither plan nor simple, and of late isn’t that massively popular in comparison to the good ol’ days… What about Google rather? Both plain and simple and probably the most popular site out there.

Thomas Vestergaard

May 31st, 2010

I think design matters more if your site is not known at all, and you are trying to get attention from new visitors. OR your site does not require people to return to the site often.

The 10 sites mentioned in this article, all have a massive amount of users who uses the sites regularly. If the design is too advanced and intrusive, it’s annoying to come back to the site.

Paul S

May 31st, 2010

MySpace and IMDB don’t qualify as plain and simple to me. MySpace because the design changes on every single page because of customization. IMDB because of all the small snippets of content which are on every page. If you are a regular IMDB visitor, you can find stuff fast. But if you only come on the site once or twice a year it’s hard to find stuff.

The other sites are off course great examples. I like wikipedia because it only has 2 columns (and somtimes extra columns within the right column). The content just flows from top to bottom. Sidenote: I dislike it’s fluid width however. I always resize my browser the be smaller when I want to read something there.

Looking at these website I immediately noticed that the ads distract a lot. All the sites would be way cleaner without the ads!

sam

May 31st, 2010

not so sure about myspace being plain and simple.

Scbdvr

May 31st, 2010

Except for the color schemes, a few of those don’t actually look that bad! I.e. The look of Wikip suits it’s purpose, has an academic feel. I think the context is very important. The site may strike the right chord with it’s target users.

Ben

May 31st, 2010

I guess these websites has been around years ago when great designs doesn’t exists in HTML websites like this. If people wants to get value from these sites, they have no other alternatives, even if there is, they’re ugly anyways.

These are the websites that people have grown to know and love over the years.

If you’re a startup today with a design something like one of these, you’re toast.

Peder

May 31st, 2010

Nice post!
The design is not a problem as long as they offering the best content. MySpace was no1 until Facebook came and offered a more clean and less clutter design.

Saad Ibrahim

May 31st, 2010

you could also title the post “10 Massively Popular Websites with huge number of ads” :D

kalyan

May 31st, 2010

nice but I find it strange that you didn’t include Facebook which I believe is a very simple design.

realist

May 31st, 2010

A bunch of these massively popular sites are both ugly and not as usable as they should be. (Weather channel, Myspace, Reference.com)

sav

May 31st, 2010

you forgot the biggest one: http://www.google.com/

sav

May 31st, 2010

Anyways, I’d say that a simple design lends a website to becoming -more- popular, because simplicity of design usually translates into simplicity of use. So if a website provides a needed service, you’re going to go to the one that’s really easy to figure out rather than the one where you have to poke around just to figure out where, for instance, the ‘checkout’ button is.

We went over all of this in my web design classes years ago, I assumed it was common knowledge among web designers.

sav

May 31st, 2010

To give the ultimate example, look at how Yahoo! and Google’s main pages have evolved over the years. Google has made their page more and more simple, while Yahoo! has added more and more stuff to their homepage. Now: who uses Yahoo! for web searches anymore?

Bertrand

May 31st, 2010

Content is king. That’s it.

… dare I say design is queen?

Together, they’ll live happily ever after!

Lee

May 31st, 2010

I think the key thing with all of these sites is that they provide content that you really do want. Sometimes you need to make a site look pretty to get traffic in or make users choose you over a competitor, but at the end of the day you just need to give people the information that they’re after and that is enough.

Eugene O

May 31st, 2010

The main theme I see with the websites listed are that they are all visited for their content rather than anything else making their aesthetics secondary.

Although several of the sites above could benefit from a face lift, appearance isn’t as important as it is on a designers portfolio site or a site promoting a specific product or event.

Macha

May 31st, 2010

I actually like the wikipedia website (both the old and new looks). It’s simple and gets out of the way of the information.

Catherine Wagner

May 31st, 2010

Each and every one of the listed websites have a niche purpose that their audience is highly focused on. Could they bee aesthetically more pleasing? Yes – but I sincerely doubt the users would care…unless the usability of the change made it more difficult to use the site.

PayPal, for example, has occasionally made aesthetic changes that frankly made their site less usable – and after audience feedback, reversed those changes, or made more changes that made the usability come back into play.

I wouldn’t say Wikipedia is aesthetically “unpleasing” so much as it is minimalist design. And given that people are going there for information rather than anything else, the minimalist design works well for them. They highlight the information, not themselves.

Even MySpace (*BLECH*) has a niche market it focuses on – and has a purpose with.

One of the biggest things we designers focus on is our audience. And each of these sites is responsive to its specific audience’s needs.

kertz

May 31st, 2010

I won’t expect MySpace in this list even in my dreams! Also you missed Twitter and Flickr(I’m Considering you ignored Google and Facebook intentionally)?

dan

May 31st, 2010

Well you are not officially a complete retard for including MySpace on the list.

laiq

May 31st, 2010

my website is also the most simplest design

Jacob Gube

May 31st, 2010

@dan: Is that really necessary?

Matthew Heidenreich

May 31st, 2010

a lot of those I wouldn’t consider for the list. I understand adding sites like craigslist as they are truly simple. Sites like paypal and imbd are actually very well designed, and the simplicity is part of the design. One site that should be on the list that is massively popular is drudgereport. It is terribly simple.

Kim | Money and Risk

May 31st, 2010

Corbett,

The disingenuity of this article is that you’re listing sites with a specific need that people have to use. Most of these sites provide the function of an electronic library. We all use dictionaries and libraries frequently in our lives. The sites facilitate either connections or a large information database.

If a site is unknown or new, they have to have good designs in order to encourage the readers to come back. If my site is as badly set up as Craigslist, no one would ever visit me twice. To be frank, I used Craigslist for the first time last week to post jobs and I would not have done it if it wasn’t for the large audience. The site’s navigation is absolutely awful. I hope to avoid Craigslist for another decade before I have to come back.

Cody Swann

May 31st, 2010

My master’s thesis was kind of on this subject. The goal was to discover if webdesign affected the perceived credibility of a news story. Long story short, it didn’t affect it one way or the other.

Tom - New Evolution Designs

May 31st, 2010

Looks like you shouldn’t of included MySpace ;)

Jordan

May 31st, 2010

Honestly, I don’t believe design, whether it be simple or fancy, has anything to do with their success. Each of the sites listed provides a unique service and that is what sells and has sold.

Damien Smyth

May 31st, 2010

Common features of these sites? Content truly is King!? Lots of white space? I mean the true maestro in this regard is #Google

dan leatherman

May 31st, 2010

I think all is well with this post besides the fact that you didn’t criticize Ezine Articles for their use of Papyrus (:

Brad

May 31st, 2010

All sites are designed. Simplicity is part of design. Good and bad design is all relative depending on what the sites’ needs and functions are. A great example would be Craigslist. Craigslist isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t need to be. It makes you feel like you are getting a good deal. Hence, the design is effective.

I am not going to debate whether content or design is more important, because they are both crucial. But those of you who deny that design is an essential part of creating a website, you are sadly mistaken. Good design helps a sight become navigable and organized. Good design can also build a website’s credibility.

Design is completely relative to the feel or purpose of the website.

helenschmelen

May 31st, 2010

You’ve got a different idea of simple than I do! Aesthetically, Craig’s list is far from simple and far from ‘design’. The best of plain and simple would have to be http://www.apple.com/ Your idea of simple seems to also be ‘boring’. I would have chosen none of these. Some are truly horrible. Won’t say which.

Nikos

May 31st, 2010

Wikipedia definately a winner here but I’m amazed by craigslist success!

Keith Mountifield

May 31st, 2010

I’m surprised that Amazon.com / .co.uk is not on the list.

Most of these sites have ‘evolved’, rather than been ‘designed’ in one major project. They are also highly targeted and most will use a variety of user testing both before and after the launch of a ‘tweak’ of new feature. Each has carved themselves a strong position in their specific niche and are what we in th UK would call a ‘Ronseal Site’ – ‘It does what it says on the tin’.

I would also suggest that when you get to a certain level of authority in your field design becomes less important. Good professional looking design in a web site is, surely, intended to aid credibility. When you already have that credibility on a national or worldwide level design matters less. Do we stop using Amazon because it doesn’t look great? No. We keep using it because we know we’ll get what we want at a good price.

Therefore, for large sites of this type, visual design becomes less important compared with usability and functionality.

Thankfully, we don’t have Craiglist in the UK, but looking at it for the first time, it reminded me of the classified pages in any local newspaper. Not particularly user friendly.

I’m not sure that I would have included mySpace in the list since the vast majority of pages have large elements of user created content and design. Facebook would have perhaps been more appropriate.

However an interesting subject and great discussion. Thanks

David Radovanovic

May 31st, 2010

Following Corbett Barr’s website link http://thinktraffic.com/ brings one to http://www.hugedomains.com/domain_profile.cfm?d=thinktraffic&e=com instead. Very clever though a little disingenuous.

inigo

May 31st, 2010

This is a joke. Google is the definition of minimalism.
Facebook’s design is way simpler than Myspace.
Craigslist looks like it got left behind after web 2.0
Simplicity comes hand in hand with efficiency, Piratebay has 4 banner ads in 1 page!

Fikri Rakala

May 31st, 2010

Why there is no Facebook in the lists?

Young

May 31st, 2010

Haha as you can see from the comments people will crucify you for calling myspace “simple”! I’ve also hated myspace since its inception for its absolutely horrible navigation and layouts. I personally think they took the “customizable” thing a little too far, and it’s possibly the only extant source of pet peeves I have against fixed backgrounds. Wikipedia trumps all the others, while Google also did well… but IMDb and Craigslist are not “simple.” 80% of their content can be removed in my opinion, and no one would miss it. I do, however, admire Craigslist sometimes for its stubborn rejection of CSS. Something slightly badass about sticking to the old in the face of the new – like samurai swords or chopsticks!

Corbett

June 1st, 2010

Hey everybody, thanks for the comments. Thanks Jacob for letting me guest post here. Six Revisions is such a great site.

The theme of the article was intended to be sites with “lackluster” or visually unappealing designs, as opposed to the “plain and simple” title Jacob chose to use. I suppose calling these sites’ designs “lackluster” might have offended some. Regardless, the question still stands: what is the role of aesthetics (which these sites all lack to some degree) in designing a popular website?

@Thomas – I agree, design is more important for unknown sites. You have very little time to catch a new visitor’s attention. Design can help you overcome that hurdle.

@Paul – yes, the distracting nature of ads really comes across when you look at these sites as a group.

@Ben – if you do some digging, you’ll likely find startup competitors for each of the sites above, it’s just that no one knows about them yet. Perhaps better designed alternatives will eventually dethrone some of these?

@Kim – are you proposing that the sites on this list (like your Craigslist example) are massively popular because they were started before visually appealing design was possible or common?

Mathias M. Stav

June 1st, 2010

KILL MYSPACE! Seriously!

Cliff

June 1st, 2010

Craigslist is so cluttered and hard to navigate. it’s a headache just to look at it. Perhaps that’s why I don’t use it. Ezinearticles is an eyesore too. But there’s a huge difference between “plain and simple”, “cluttered and hard to find anything” “plain and ugly”. As many have said and I will repeat – Content is king. But if you can’t find the content then there’s really no point. But having a plain and simple website doesn’t mean it has to be ugly. (yea yea ugly is subjective – but to a point).

Jacob Gube

June 1st, 2010

@David Radovanovic: That was an honest mistake. Corbett’s site is http://thinktraffic.net. Accidentally used http://thinktraffic.com – which redirects to HugeDomains.com.

Kaushik

June 1st, 2010

Man! you forgot Reddit.

Minnix

June 1st, 2010

Where’s Linked In? :)

David Wheatley

June 1st, 2010

This is an interesting article, as a fan of minimalist design I find that Wikipedia should maybe not be included here, it has an academic appeal, purposely designed for simplicity (maybe this is a reason it’s so popular). Living in the UK I have never used Craigslist but it appears to be too cluttered and therefore difficult to use.

Great Article…

pakaworld

June 1st, 2010

Jacob Gube please can you define the “Massively Popular Websites with Plain and Simple Designs” for us. I think that way it will help me and the rest of the design family to know what you see as a “simple design” in this post. Thank you.

Jacob Gube

June 1st, 2010

I didn’t want to go with “… Ugly Designs” because “ugly” or “lackluster” or “visually-unappealing” is subjective and negative. For example, I personally like PayPal and Wikipedia’s web design/site aesthetics, I don’t think it’s ugly. I agree that MySpace and a bunch of other sites here aren’t “plain and simple”. I think when you think “plain and simple”, you think of minimalist aesthetics or usable user interfaces, so I see where the pushback/confusion is coming from.

Tutorijali HDonWEB

June 1st, 2010

Content is the key, design matters just for the first time visitors

Racha G

June 1st, 2010

I believe the job of the Web Designer is in creating a good experience.. the design should be task based, and a designed website doesnt have a million flying colors and distractions, it’s actually as clear and to the point as can be.
these websites dont lack design, they are designed to the point that they want to serve.

what i discovered with social media sites or sites that users provide the content for, that the design has to blend in and nt take priority. therefore as minimal elements as possible, but that alone is a design challenge.

Jason Gross

June 1st, 2010

I see a lot of comments debating what sites should or should not be on the list. I think Corbett did a good job picking out sites that illustrate his point.

When I see the term “simple” sites with the sites he listed I think of sites that just don’t invest a whole lot into their design. This could be really simple coding or less thought into layout.

Some of these sites work just great with the design they have. Craigslist and Wikipedia are both really easy to use in addition to being popular, so a redesign project may not do them a whole lot of good.

Sites on this list such as the Weather Channel or the IMDB could benefit from a redesign though. To me this is because they are trying to crunch too much info into pages. A lot of feature creep here.

A side effect of this article may be to point out a re-design vs. a re-align. Wikipedia and Craigslist don’t really need a new site because their information is aligned in a way that is understandable and easy to navigate.

Joel Kidd

June 1st, 2010

I have never liked the design of the IMDb website. It has always seemed too cluttered. I think the Paypal site or the Wikipedia site are the two best on the list. Both are very clean and organized.

Ogvidius

June 1st, 2010

Many of these sites don’t follow web trends, but I think that’s a good thing. Design blogs and websites like that are often the trendy, fashionable guys of the website world that are on the edge of all the latest trends and technology. Whereas the big guys just play it simple and don’t try to be trendy. This works for a lot of the big websites, where it is probably an absolute pain to get the idea of a redesign passed, but they can get updates every now and then, like Wikipedia. As many have mentioned, Wiki and PayPal are fine and they work well for what they do. I think they would suffer from a redesign rather than benefit from it. And if they follow the web trends, the website will be out of date next year. Timeless designs work for these big websites (look at Google).

The exception being craigslist. Which is just downright hideous. Somebody redesign it, please!

Theo

June 1st, 2010

What is the difference between content and service, or is all the same ?

Multyshades

June 1st, 2010

although there are too many sites which having plain and simple outlook but here what u sharing with us are really massive and popular websites i agree with you. may be that because i also love that kind of stuff lol

Nick Young

June 1st, 2010

Out of these, PayPal has by far the worst interface ever. It’s very unnatural and time consuming to navigate. It’s completely counter-intuitive!

Answers, Reference, and Wikipedia are the best simple functional effective designs by far.

Jason

June 2nd, 2010

I think craigslist needs a face lift. Even though I know it’s still an active service, the fact that it has that retro-1994 simplicity, uses 12pt Times New Roman for all its listings, and never changes (not even color scheme!) all give me pause when I go there.

Sure, it’s meant to be the web equivalent of a newspaper’s classified ads, but it could stand to be better-looking and more elegant.

Peter

June 2nd, 2010

The more a site invests in design, the less usable it is. That is the simple fact. Take a look at flash sites, lots of style points, but you get practically nothing out of it and it is not scalable at all.

There are 2 types of websites out there. Websites with content designed with usability in mind, and websites with style, designed by corporations with more money than brains.

To each their own.

may phat dien

June 3rd, 2010

This is a joke. Google is the definition of minimalism.
Facebook’s design is way simpler than Myspace.
Craigslist looks like it got left behind after web 2.0

Jordan Walker

June 3rd, 2010

minimal is the best.

Sevastos

June 6th, 2010

You can’t judge a design by the success/traffic of the site.

I won’t even comment on myspace being on a list of “plain and simple designs”.

Evan

June 8th, 2010

This is your list of plain and simple designs? IMBD has one of the most complex sites that I’ve seen on the web. And MySpace? You’ve got to be kidding.

Remember, design is not just how it looks. It’s how it works. And much of these are very complicated web apps.

Jamal

June 10th, 2010

Why WikiPedia? I think WikiPedia falls in the category of apple.com and wordpress.com, not in the list of pretty ugly craiglist and myspace.com.

Steven W

June 12th, 2010

MySpace?

Nick

June 25th, 2010

This could be more about the fact that function will usually win over form. Two sites with identical functionality may perform differently depending upon their design, but when people are using a site principally because of what it DOES they are less influenced by design. A good idea with a lousy design usually beats a good design of a lousy idea.

Michael

July 2nd, 2010

This should be “10 massively popular websites I wrote down while smoking crack”
Many of these sites are far from plain and simple. Cases in point:
MySpace, IMDB, Wikipedia, Answers, Weather.

milton

July 15th, 2010

The 10 sites mentioned in this article, all have a massive amount of users who uses the sites regularly. If the design is too advanced and intrusive, it’s annoying to come back to the site.

Milan

November 16th, 2010

I think you could add here: YouTube, Google, Amazon

Les

November 17th, 2010

Looks like at least half of the comments came from people who read the title and skimmed over the list of websites, but did not read one word of the actual article.

So there’s at least two lessons to be learned:
1. Be precise with titles, because people do skim and when they do their reading comprehension can be next to zero.
2. Don’t comment if you haven’t read the article.

KC

November 22nd, 2010

This was a helpful article and discussion. I am building what hopefully will be a very scalable website so this helped me make up my mind.

I agree that content is king and if you want to appeal to a mass audience, white space is the way to go since it is not likely to repel any users from coming back.

The new trend is what TeamCoCo.com and others are doing. I’ll probably design something similar to that model. Designs that are more like an online newspapers seem to be the most credible.

Nice post!

Jennier R

February 22nd, 2011

I don;t think a beautiful web design may become a high traffic website, it depends on your website content and also the marketing effort.

v-boom

March 4th, 2011

Looks like at least half of the comments came from people who read the title and skimmed over the list of websites, but did not read one word of the actual article.

So there’s at least two lessons to be learned:
1. Be precise with titles, because people do skim and when they do their reading comprehension can be next to zero.
2. Don’t comment if you haven’t read the article.

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