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<Et tu, Yahoo?
or Don’t let your site lose its identity or Less is Less>
By Daniel Will-Harris

When the web started, all pages looked basically the same--because they had to. They had gray backgrounds and maybe a few headings or a graphic here or there, but it was so exciting just to have access to the information that it didn’t much matter. Now it does.

Recently there’s been a disturbing (at least to me) trend that’s making more and more sites look the same again, only this time apparently because they want to. I see it as a mistake and hope I can warn you away from following the examples of some of the big guys.

I call this the “Yahoo-ization” of the web. Yahoo’s design is very simple: a logo graphic on the top, then text for the various categories. This is perfect for their on-line card-catalog approach--it’s simple and it’s fast.

But now others are starting to copy this look, and in the process they’re all starting to look the same--and losing their identity (or “brand”) in the process.

It’s hard enough to visualize where you are on the web, and when the sites all start to look the same, the no-longer-unique sites are the losers.

>Visual branding

It’s getting to the point where you can’t tell Yahoo from Excite from Snap from c|net from anything else. Maybe these sites think they’re being clever and you’ll be confused and visit them instead of Yahoo. If they think that, then they’re idiots.

Maybe they think that looks don’t matter, because, after all, Yahoo is not all that attractive, but it continues to be the most visited site on the web. Once again, they’re missing the point. It’s popular because of what it does--and tons and tons of word-of-mouth. People who don’t yet even know what a “search engine” is have heard about Yahoo from a friend. Yahoo succeeds despite its look. (Investors who have made  Yahoo worth more than big successful companies that are actually making money are even more misguided, but that’s another story.)

Let’s take c|net as an example. They started out with a very strong visual brand. They had their now-familiar red-circle logo, but more than that, those pages with the big yellow bars on the left and right. Everything was this yellow, and one particular green. It was strong, striking, and memorable, and it helped them establish an image on the web. You knew you were on c|net when you saw those colors.

But c|net recently redesigned their site and now it looks like “Yahoo in yellow.” It’s boring, it’s bland, but worse than that, the articles on “inside pages” lack the distinctive colorbar, so frankly, you could be anywhere on the web. At one time they had some of the most cutting-edge (and technically clever) design on the web. Now they’ve been reduced to some kind of graphic heading for features and little else. What’s the fun in that? Yes, you still get the information, but not the experience. What’s worse, they’re squandering the image they worked so hard and spent so much money to create. Now they have green bars with yellow text that’s ugly, hard to read, and not very distinctive. I ask you, is that smart?

Instead of the colored bar, they now have colored headers and footers with links to the various sections on the site. That’s OK, if you’re at the top or bottom of the page, but when you’re in the middle, you’re nowhere. You’re lost in cyberspace (and you don’t even have the advantage of that really cool-looking robot with the big glass head and all those spinning disk things)!

>Ludicrous lemmings...

Zdnet.com , perhaps because they’ve been fighting tooth-and-nail with c|net for “hits,” has now followed their march into blandness. If it was bad enough for c|net, apparently it was bad enough for ZD. (Of course, this is the same company whose parent site has navigation that’s entirely graphic with no ALT tags, so that gives us some kind of idea of the smarts behind their sites).

Who can explain the reasoning behind this? Speed? Is it really worth saving one or two seconds in exchange for a site looking so nondescript? No.

Some people love to say that the web is “different,” but I say that people are the same. People didn’t suddenly change overnight and now no-longer care how something looks. If that somehow happened while I wasn’t looking, then why is packaging still selling products? Why do magazines still work hard to create distinctive designs? People don’t suddenly turn off these deep-seated (though often subconscious) visual cues just because they’re looking at a computer monitor. It’s ludicrous to even suggest it. The people who say this should be embarrassed, but apparently ignorance is bliss. I wouldn’t know :)

>Color Bars

At least ZD’s site retains a blue navigation bar on inside pages, but here’s the thing about those colored bars--they’re just colors. They don’t actually say anything, except to kind of remind people where they are. But since there are only 215 web-safe colors, just having a blue bar is no longer enough.

I don’t understand why more sites don’t do what I’ve always done: include a repeated logo on the color bar. My own site used the colorbar technique long before c|net and was, in fact, one of the very first on the web to do so. But I knew even three years ago that a flat color wasn’t enough, so I repeated my logo within that color. The result: the site’s logo is repeated endlessly down the page and visitors always know what site they’re on. It’s not obnoxious (though it could be if the colors weren’t subtle), it’s informative.

On The Wire I don’t repeat the logo, just the dot that looks kind of like the old pin-fed paper used in teletype machines and old dot-matrix printers (can you even remember that far back or were you not born yet?). This is more subtle than repeating the logo, but it still presents a distinctive image that you don’t see in other places on the web.

It doesn’t take much in terms of file-size to create a background image that reminds people they’re on your site. The background image here is just 2.5K, an average second-and-a-quarter download. It’s worth it.

>The flip side

I’m not saying that size doesn’t matter. It does. msNBC’s site goes too far in the other direction. Their interface is too graphics heavy, too slow to download and yet still doesn’t provide enough visual branding. (They also make the mistake of using cutting edge technology for the navigation, stuff that doesn’t always work, but that’s another story).

A great example of good branding, combined with good-looking graphics so well designed (both visually, and technically because they use few colors so they’re remarkably small) is news.com, a c|net company. The interface is simple, yet distinctive. They’ve retained the “branded” yellow bar (at least for now). The site loads quickly and looks good. It’s clearly possible. They even use ALT tags on the graphics so you can go to a story even before the graphics load. Will wonders never cease.

>The bottom line

So before you “follow the big guys” and start stripping your site down to a bare-bones Yahoo-y look, remember this: One of the only ways to get people back to your site is to have them 1) remember you, and 2) remember you fondly, because they could find what they wanted. They won’t remember you if your site looks like everyone else. And they won’t remember you fondly if your navigation stinks, but, once again, that’s another story.



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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