The forgotten but impactful art of web aesthetics
SEO has always lived at the intersection of engineering, content and design. Of the three, design is the one most often treated like an unwanted child because so much of it is hard to measure. Google's Core Web Vitals are the most successful attempt at quantifying user experience, but they only cover one side of the design coin. The other side is much less tangible but no less impactful: the aesthetics of a site.
Web aesthetics are about how a website looks, i.e., the arrangement of components and how they come together. What seems highly subjective and artsy is meaningful at a time when most sites look the same and create the same content. Beautiful site aesthetics can make the experience memorable for users, which impacts brand returning traffic, brand searches and SERP CTR, even for commodity content.
Function vs. aesthetics
A famous Steve Jobs quote about design goes:
“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn't what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked."
- Steven Jobs
Broadly, we can separate "design" into functionality (how it works) and aesthetics (how it looks). Of course, there is a whole range of steps in the design process, from understanding the goal and user to testing and implementing. But for Marketing and especially SEO purposes, let's simplify design for a moment to show how one-sided our view often is.
Functional design in SEO focuses on:
Core Web Vitals
Font readability (size + contrast)
Navigation & links
Aesthetic design in SEO focuses on:
Colors & Whitespace
Layout (arrangement of components)
Composition (how separate parts come together into a "whole")
When Steve Jobs said design is not just how it looks but how it works, he wanted to make people aware of the functional side of design. But in the last two decades, Growth and Marketing have overindexed on function and underindex on aesthetics. A website can hit perfect Core Web Vitals scores but do a poor job of being aesthetically pleasing, which eats into the overall experience. I'm not advocating for slow, bulky sites that look like a pink Mayback with glitter on it. I don't want to bring Myspace back. Instead, I think we can move a bit more toward the middle of the spectrum between functionality and looks.
Why is that important? A lot of sites look alike because they only focus on the functional side of design. On top of that, a lot of sites compete for the same keywords with slightly better content, trying to build a taller skyscraper. But skyscrapers can now be built taller and faster than ever before, thanks to Chat GPT and generative AI. In that environment, web aesthetics can be a marginal advantage. Looking like "one of many" is a risk.
Imagine your web aesthetics are so memorable that your users can recognize your site without seeing your logo, domain or brand name. At that point, your brand is sticky, which leads to several 2nd order effects:
Share of mind = more sales
brand combination searches = higher topical authority
brand strength = better click-through rates
If you think that's too good to be true, let me show you some examples:
Each of these sites and brands has uniquely recognizable aesthetics, and they crush it in SEO.
But why are there so few companies that do this? To understand how we can solve problems, we need to understand how we got here. I see 3 main reasons:
One, most sites use site builders like WordPress, Webflow, Squarespace, Ghost or Wix because they have become really good and easy to use. However, as a result, the majority of sites use the same few templates.
Two, most companies imitate the sites of comparable but more successful companies. The cognitive fallacy is thinking that successful companies are more likely to do a lot of things well and test their design. Having worked with some of the most successful companies in the world, I can tell you firsthand that's not the case.
Three, internet users have been habituated to a minimalist aesthetic. Over the last 20 years, some best practices have built strong roots in the brains of designers and developers. Walking off the beaten path is risky. When Dropbox revealed a bold, new design in 2017, "the internet" bashed and thrashed it left and right. Being different can make you stand out but at the risk of being ridiculed. Most designers and developers choose the safe path, and I can't blame 'em for it. Bold moves need strong leadership support, and being able to take big risks is still rare.
To summarize, the reasons aesthetics are overlooked are site builders, imitation and low-risk tolerance. How can we work around them?
Seeing the website or content as a product
The best way to leverage web aesthetics for SEO is to regard the website or content as a product. We iteratively evolve products. Leadership speaks product language and understands product metrics. And when a product has market-fit and stands out, users are willing to change their habits.
Products have owners, a roadmap, and a vision. The key question then is: Who at your company/client owns web aesthetics, and how do they interface with SEO? If there is no owner or the company is too small for one, can SEOs advocate for web aesthetics?
In most cases, Aggregators already treat the website as part of the product since SEO is an obvious growth channel for them. Integrators, though, need to shift their mindsets and treat the content as a product instead of a marketing asset.
As a product, content has USPs, content-market fit, features and a target audience, which are researched, tested and measured. Most companies don't have that.
Tools like Clarity give us hints at user behavior and feature performance (you can tie features into "areas" and measure engagement or views).
How much does Google care about aesthetics?
Does Google care about bold fonts and unique layouts? Probably not. But Google cares about user preferences. Let's ignore speculation about bounce rate or the impact of CTR on rankings for a minute. How Google measures user satisfaction doesn't matter, but we can all agree that user satisfaction is a core stable of search ranking.
If your main scope is increasing organic traffic, you probably want to prioritize a lot of other fields: content, links, snippet optimization, etc. But once your site is in decent shape, thinking about web aesthetics could be the step change you're looking for. It might be time to give the unwanted child more love.