Homepages from hell

No one sets out to design a bad website - but somehow, they do seem to happen. Whether it's SEO tactics so obvious it becomes difficult to read, dodgy fonts or low-quality images, we've all encountered them. But what makes them bad, why are some worse than others? Smarta has compiled its top five bad homepages - so you can learn from their mistakes and avoid the cardinal sins of web design.

The London Weekly

Behold the random fonts! Marvel at the pixelated images! Gasp at the distinctly dodgy Ajax menus!

Launched earlier this year, the London Weekly quickly became a source of fun - and lots of speculation it was a spoof - because of its low production value. The paper and its website have been accused of everything from copying and pasting press releases directly on to its homepage to making up journalists.

It's hard to know where to begin with this site: the text is all over the place, the images look as though they're thumbnails that have been pointlessly stretched, even though there doesn't seem to be any uniform size for them. The slideshow seems to pick slides at random, rather than having any order to it, and cuts people's heads off.

We could go on for hours, but the long and short of it is this: if your site doesn't look professional, clients, competitors and those who count will find it impossibly difficult to take you seriously. When it comes to web design, attention to detail is imperative: behave like the London Weekly, and you'll lose the respect of, well, everyone.

Yvette's Bridal Formal

YvettesWe were going to keep this to fairly well-known sites but, when Yvette has put in so much time and effort to be on our list, who are we to deny her dreams?

Yvette's is a veritable shopping list of everything bad and wrong with web design: it's Jackson Pollock meets Where's Wally?, littered with out-of-focus photographs of orange girls posing in polyester formal wear. It's loud (and we don't just mean the midi file), brazen and deeply, deeply offensive.

Really, though, it isn't just the seizure-inducing combination of colours which offends us. Nor is it the oddly creepy face constantly moving from left to right across the entry page. Nor is it the random screenshots of what look to be scenes from Second Life.

No, Yvette is guilty of a far more serious crime: namely, keyword stuffing.

Yvette's strategy is a sly one: blinded by the garishness of the site and the interesting layered effect she's managed to achieve with her images, Yvette has managed to fill her pages with keywords. On the homepage, 'bridal' is mentioned no fewer than 24 times, while 'Florida' comes up 40 times and 'gown' comes up 34 times - with 'Yvette' clocking up 80 mentions on one page.

She's hidden entire blocks of text behind images, while other words are disguised in the background.

In SEO circles, disguising your keywords that is considered exceptionally bad behaviour - and adding *~*~ after each phrase doesn't make it any better.

It looks like despite her rainbow-coloured website, the SEO hat Yvette prefers to wear is a more austere shade of black.

Office for National Statistics

ons

You'd have thought the people charged with looking after the nation's statistics would be good at organising information. Not so. The ONS' website is a labyrinthine nightmare, the kind of site user experience consultants dream about after they've eaten too much cheese.

One of Smarta's favourite ONS challenges involved trying find out what percentage of business owners are women. We knew the statistic was there somewhere - we had seen it before. We searched 'female enterprise', and came up with reports entitled 'Psychiatric Morbidity Among Women Prisoners' and 'Quarterly Conceptions to Women aged under 18, England and Wales' - so we tried 'female enterprise', where we came up with some good ones about research and development funding - but nothing that actually told us what we needed to know.

There's no rhyme or reason to the categorisation of reports or statistics - the majority of reports are helpfully categorised under 'Office for National Statistics' - and the search function quite simply doesn't work. Once you do find a report you're interested in, more often than not, there's no obvious link to click on to download it.

People looking at your website don't want to be challenged. They don't have the time to work out the code they need to get to the next level so they can unlock the door to your contact details. Websites need to be logical to navigate, or your users will lose patience - fast.

Hermès

hermes

Less a website and more a piece of art, Hermès takes us through an enchanting journey, charting the history and development of its product range.

Of course, navigating around this enchanting journey takes a short tutorial which you can reach by clicking on the question mark. Can't find the question mark? No enchanting journey for you, then. Can't remember the fairly complicated instructions? Ditto.

Once you've worked out the navigation, you're presented with a series of images: a woman juggling hats - which means Hermès sells hats. A plate and a recipe for Prawn Consommé, which means Hermès sells - Prawn Consommé? No. It doesn't.

Beautiful though it is, Hermès' web designers seem to have chosen to forego the traditional function of the internet to inform, and gone straight for the 'entertainment' side of things - which means while we can happily click on a bag or find out that Hermès sells very nice ashtrays with elephants on; by the time we get there, we've had to memorise a new navigation system, then been taken through three perplexing soundscapes and a catwalk show, and we don't really know what to do with ourselves.

Well done, Hermès, for creating a thing of beauty. Tremendously innovative - but even more confusing.

Dell Adamo Laptop

adomo

Dell is so intuitive. It's like it knows what we're thinking before we've even thought it. How could we have possibly thought all we wanted from a laptop was a reliable, functional machine that crashes fewer than three times a day and discovers wifi networks when we need it to? No! We want so much more. What we want is something more winsome, more ethereal...

In fact - it isn't a laptop we want at all. It's a relationship. Which is, presumably, why the website invites us to 'discover', 'admire' and, eventually, 'commit' to the Adamo - as though it's some sort of cult or alternative religion, asking us to pledge a vast portion of our earnings in return for a vague sense of belonging.

As far as we can tell, the 'discover' and 'admire' sections both contain odd, conceptual images of the machine which, though showing us that it does - yes! - have a keyboard, a screen and a bit at the front with little holes on it we can only assume is a speaker; doesn't do an awful lot to show what the laptop as a whole looks like. 'Commit' is a little more informative, giving us its specs - but won't tell us the price. If we didn't know better, we'd think our new friend was trying to hide something. Perhaps it's just being coy.

We have little to say about the plinky-plonky music which starts off sounding as though we have entered a spa, then settles into a loop - something you only realise once it has started to become truly, truly abrasive - but this: it blared across the Smarta office as soon as we entered the site. Our colleague was attempting to conduct a telephone interview.

The Adamo website makes a lot of gaffes, but its worst has to be its general pretentiousness. If you're an artist or a designer - fine. Have conceptual photographs. But trying to turn a laptop into something it isn't is dressing mutton as lamb. Kudos to Dell for trying to do something different - but it doesn't work. They've lost focus on what the customer wants. Be clear, be concise - and don't let the marketing people take control.

So you see, even large organisations with hefty budgets such as the ONS and Dell can get it wrong. So here are Smarta's top tips for good web design to ensure you go to homepage heaven - not hell.

  • Don't be too flashy
    A couple of the websites listed above are flash-based, which makes SEO very difficult for them. If you've decided to have lots of fancy flash toys, keep SEO in mind and create an alternative, HTML-based site as well.
  • Be clear
    Before you type a single line of code, sit down and draw out your site map, making sure it's simple, clear and easy to follow. Your users shouldn't have to click more than twice to find anything, and it should be obvious where they can find what they're looking for. If you have a lot of content, this may well require a lot of thought - but believe us, it's worth it.
  • Don't do music
    It's annoying, it gives away rogue office workers and it's annoying. Did we mention it's annoying? Just don't do it.
  • Keep your SEO squeaky clean
    Black hat SEO is the worst kind of behaviour in the SEO industry - and keyword stuffing, disguising keywords under images, at the bottom of your page or even camouflaging them in the background are all examples. If someone finds out you're doing it, your business' reputation could be ruined. To find out more about black hat SEO, try the case studies here.
  • Stay professional
    If, like the London Weekly, your site doesn't look professional, your customers will trust you less. The devil is in the detail: dodgy spacing, incongruous fonts and oddly-stretched images are all warning signs to customers. Fix the small problems, and your website will look polished, professional and trustworthy.

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