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4 websites that failed


Have you ever stumbled upon a site and thought, "Good God almighty, what has this brand done?" Graphics gone awry, no distinct call-to-action, a blinding or bland color scheme -- all poor choices on the brand's part.

But there are learning lessons to be had from sites that just haven't realized the potential their brand has in the online space.

We asked four industry experts -- Jeff Rosenblum of Questus; Jeff Hatcher of Felt Media; Alan Schulman of imc2 and Hillel Cooperman of Jackson Fish Market  -- to take a look at a site within specific categories. What content and branding opportunities were overlooked? Where did the design choices miss the mark? Did the site offer enough incentive to keep the user intrigued?

Take a look at what they had to say, along with what best practices your site might be ignoring.

In terms of resources, few industries can compete with the automotive industry. As a group, it is the biggest advertiser in the country. While I often wonder why so many large brand websites have terrible design issues, automakers really have no excuse. Take Volvo, for example. There are very few auto brands with similar strength of history or reputation, but Volvo's site does not reflect an image of strength. From my perspective, the Volvo site makes three key endemic mistakes.

1. Home page information overload
It is critical to be efficient with words. If we hold up as examples Apple's success with its "1,000 songs in your pocket" campaign, and Stella Artois' "Perfection has its price," it is easy to see that less is definitely more. Blame it on the bad advice of SEO and SEM consultants, who insist that keywords appear frequently everywhere, especially on the homepage. Nevertheless, information-heavy homepages turn consumers off. It is great if consumers can easily find your homepage, but when they leave quickly in frustration, you have lost.

The Volvo homepage contains 40 words just within the main promotional area and another 46 links within the page. While it's hard for brands to make an impact without a core message to center around, it is virtually impossible to build brand excitement around a series of speeding bullet points. The main image and bulleted messaging rotates every five seconds -- the user cannot even read the entire text until it has cycled at least twice. Excessive text that rotates too quickly for the average person to read is a great way to get your consumers visiting your competitors' websites.

2. Lack of visual hierarchy
While countless hours are dedicated to information architecture, I am surprised by how often visual hierarchy is ignored. The Volvo site lacks appropriate usage of size, color and gradient -- all of which help the consumer prioritize the information presented in the manner the brand intended. The site contains redundant links such as "Design" and "Gallery," which compete with other more important links such as "Learn More." 

The light tones used throughout the site make it difficult for the average user to navigate it. Robust and more important elements, such as "Learn More," should be prominent enough to impact brand equity and consumer behavior.

3. Absence of leadership
On successful websites, consumers follow an engagement funnel with clear direction dictated by the brand. For an automaker, the engagement funnel typically commences with exposing a core brand message, followed by an introduction of key models, empowering photos and specifications. Ultimately, the funnel ends with consumers locating a dealership.  

By placing equal weight on all links and options, the Volvo website does not demonstrate branding leadership with its messaging. Users are encouraged to follow sub-optimal content -- rather than registering at the site to receive news and unique offers from their local Volvo dealer. The equal weighting of options, in combination with the lack of visual hierarchy, exacerbates the leadership problem, creating a site that is counterproductive to building excitement and branding.

Do not get me wrong -- consumers want options and all the relevant information. However, brands, like good dance partners, need to take the lead on their websites with clear brand messaging, site navigation and leadership. Ultimately, I do not think Volvo lost a lot of equity or purchase intent from me. But the site did seed a negative question in this viewer's mind: Could a car company's site engineering reflect the engineering of the cars it manufacturers? In this case, I sure hope not.

Jeff Rosenblum is the co-founder and co-president of Questus.

Throughout our research into the health category, it was hard to resist the temptation to focus on a site like "Rabies Just 4 Kids." However, we found the most obvious subcategory lacking a connection with the audience to be fitness club websites. A prime example is LA Fitness, where a veil of design treatments and workout-related imagery hides several missed opportunities.

In deconstructing the homepage, we immediately noticed a lack of clear messaging to direct users into the site. An ineffective Flash area dominates the page and offers no call to action. By introducing enticing imagery paired with appropriate copy, hooks and callouts, users can be drawn in. As an example, we recently redesigned eVOC Insights using this technique. Through the repetition of copy, hooks and calls to action on the homepage and drill-down pages, a system is established for the user to easily navigate through the site.

The heavy and harsh color scheme of LAFitness.com should be refreshed with a palette associated with the peace of mind and self-confidence that comes from having a healthy body. Complementing brand colors with soft, pleasing, natural tones can inspire a sense of calm and may increase time spent on the site.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this site is the lack of provoking content. A creative approach would be to offer inspiration by showcasing videos that highlight the personal triumphs of members. The Flash space could be used to direct the audience to these videos, or at least, should be redesigned with strong calls to action and concise copy that relates to members. Incorporating photographs beyond images of the club facilities and people exercising could also assist in establishing a personality for the site.

Internal site linking is crucial in leading your users to the content you want them to see. While some drill-down pages on LAFitness.com feature call-outs to other pages, these should be present on every page. The copy associated with these call-outs should be short, clear messages that prompt the user to click through. The most important pages in the site should be well linked to and supported by consistent left column sub navigation on drill-down pages.

Goals for LA Fitness

  • Provide motivation and inspiration to prospective members

  • Retain current members and improve their attendance

  • Convince the audience that you are self-confidence and healthy living experts

General recommendations
Members should be able to do more online than pay their bills or update their addresses. The Class Locator is a great feature, but it lacks prominence. It should be given a higher priority and its delivery could be enhanced through options such as mobile and RSS.

By engaging staff and its member base for feedback, LA Fitness could gain insight on how to provide a better online experience. Competitor Crunch.com, apparently in the early stages of a redesign, implemented a comment and voting system to democratically ask its users what they want out of the site. As a result, several suggestions are being incorporated into their planning.

LAFitness.com needs to provide a better online experience for their users and offer modern tools and key applications that allow members to make the most of their membership.

Examples to explore:

  • Mobile class schedules and email alerts

  • Blogs on health, fitness, diet, quick workouts

  • Live Gym reports -- "Is it crowded?"

Jeff Hatcher is co-president of Felt Media, a Philadelphia-based web design firm.

When it comes to entertainment sites, one that might want to delve into some stronger branding and better usability is Spike.com, the little bro' to Viacom's Spike TV network.

OK, so just because this is a network for guys doesn't mean it has to assault you from a user experience perspective. Honestly, it's great to have video on your homepage. But to make sure its value justifies the kind of homepage CPMs that video pre-rolls and spots are getting these days, please don't assault me with multiple pieces of video auto playing simultaneously. Some are ads and others are content, but who can distinguish?

Oh yeah....there's that "advertisement" copy burned in over the fat guy who is next to the clips of the bikini-clad chick who is right on top of the feature story. Lots of content categories to choose from here for your average brain-dead male misogynist -- like girls, games, viral and wheels.

But if you're looking for what's on the network that's hot or action-packed tonight, you'll need to do some digging down below the fold a bit. What I'd rather see is a network prouder of its logo and ethic (girls just don't get it) plastered right up front on the homepage with tonight's hottest content highlights rather than another story about the Sexy Pole Vaulter who took Gold. Those stories abound on every trashy guy's site. 

C'mon Spike, be proud, be loud, and stop looking like a syndicated site for guys with your logo tacked on it. You're the guy's guy network!

Alan Schulman is executive creative director of imc2.

The mortgage crisis has affected people in many negative ways. But it's not like we didn't know it was happening. Even if you didn't know what percentage of online display ad inventory was being bought by mortgage lenders, you knew it wasn't small. For years, their ads plastered every spare inch of real estate in many of the sites we all use. The ads also had a certain quality about them -- sort of a local radio meets what fonts come with Windows aesthetic. Miss them?

Have no fear... just head over to LendGo and bask in the goodness.

I can't tell whether it's the influence of the grassy knoll in Windows XP or there was actually a study advocating on behalf of the soothing effects of endless fields of grass and blue sky, but there it is front and center. Luckily, you won't get too lost in the swaying fields because every square inch is covered with super subtle call-outs like "No Obligations," "No Credit Checks," "Bad Credit OK!"

Personally, I think the exclamation loses some of its impact when it's at the end of every single sentence! Even more egregious, however, is the misspelling of the word "completely." If typos aren't enough to instill you with confidence about your lender recommendation site, I don't know what will.

Up in the upper left hand corner is the ubiquitous LendGo logo -- a registered trademark, by the way. I'm not even sure why they bothered to trademark their logo because I can't imagine anyone actually wanting to use it. It's tiny, but it's clearly the ever-classic poorly drawn cartoon man running as he throws dollar bills (twenties?) from his hands into the air. Obviously, thanks to the folks at LendGo he's got so much money that throwing it -- literally -- is no big deal.

The folks at LendGo have made their site using what I like to call "the aesthetic of distrust." Basically, it's a site that is so unattractive, put together in such a slap-dash fashion, trying to get your money, hiding who they really are, that it's ultimately a rat's nest of links leading you to various pages of questionable reputation all in the hopes that you'll keep clicking until you've mortgaged your house, or done some other scary thing.

I'm not saying that the folks at LendGo are anything other than a reputable source of "Qualified Lenders and Low Rates," like its tagline says. I am saying that the way its site looks makes me wonder if I could ever trust the company.

Frankly, I'm glad all these sites look the same because, at least for me, I can identify and navigate away from them very quickly. I keep worrying that these sites will get smart and start to look professional, and then it will take more work to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Interestingly, I don't think that will happen. The sad truth is that sites use this aesthetic to get people to click because... it works.

Hillel Cooperman is a founder of Jackson Fish Market, a small company focused on making beautiful, branded, web experiences.

Nanette Marcus is cover stories editor for iMedia Connection.

Nanette is iMedia Communications' executive editor.   In addition to her roles at iMedia, Nanette has served as a specialist in content marketing, editorial content, public relations and social media for various clients. She's contributed to...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Barbara Postell

2010, March 04

Your website advertised "Refinance Rates at 4.25% Fixed!" and it also stated, "No Hidden Fees, Points, or Closing Costs!"
I completed a mortgage request for a refinance. When I contacted one of the four "trusted" lenders that you recommended, I was informed that my "Closing Costs" would amount to $4,500.00. This is in stark contrast to your website advertisement. Please explain this discrepancy, and if you can, please refer me to one of your "trusted lenders" who will comply with what your website advertises, IF you can!
Thank you.

Commenter: Nanette Marcus

2008, August 21

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Andrew - we do have an upcoming piece featuring great work in the space, so be on the lookout for that! And also be sure to check out our Creative Showcase section, where we regularly highlight great creative and websites.

Commenter: Andrew Siegel

2008, August 21

Great article, but why not take it to the next level and show off an example of GREAT work in the space. Regarding Spike, if they want to be Maxim online, then they've got it just right, but that wastes their greatest asset: their content. This site completely ignores 90% of their viewers, people going to the site after having seen a show, looking for additional info. Use the site to extend the brand, - storyline extensions, games, contests, related products, etc.

Commenter: Kim Stearns

2008, August 20

GREAT GREAT ARTICLE! I love the breakdown of these homepages with the inclusion of suggestions...well done!

Commenter: Neil Squillante

2008, August 20

Great article! It reminds me of the way B-to-B Magazine used to compare print ads. Well, maybe it still does, but I don't read print publications anymore. Please consider making this a weekly feature.

Commenter: Dave Morse

2008, August 20

It reminds me of when ad agencies are given responsibility to build a website!

David Meerman Scott wrote an excellent (must-read) article entitled, "Don't Trust an Advertising Agency to Build Your Web Site".

Read it here: http://www.davidmeermanscott.com/resources.htm