Standing Out While Fitting In: Why Your Website Shouldn’t Be Too Different from the Competition

Imagine you’re writing an online dictionary, but you think the current way dictionaries are written is a bit of a bore. After all, they all use the exact same format: the word being defined is in bold at the top of the page, the definition follows, the part of speech is somewhere in there, and the word is used in a sentence further down the page.

standing out photo

It’s lame, and you are an innovator. You’ve decided you’re going to lay out your dictionary differently. The word is still going to be at the top of the page, but it will be followed by the word’s origin and the number of times it has been referenced in popular culture like songs and movies. Then, there will be a riddle that contains the word, and when you click through for the answer to that riddle, you will also get the word’s definition.

Now, you actually have a pretty clever product idea on your hands. It sounds like a fun, interesting way to learn new words. It also sounds highly distracting.

Why do most people look at a dictionary? To find a word’s meaning, obviously. But that is not usually the only reason. Visitors who look to an online dictionary for a definition are usually working on something, whether it’s a paper for school or a project for work. The last thing those visitors need is distraction.
With that in mind, how many visitors to your site do you think will make it to the definition? Do you think they’ll come back? And, most importantly, is your site really even a dictionary?

It might be boring, but there’s a reason dictionaries, both in print and online, look almost identical. People come to them for the same information, and the more quickly the books or sites can provide that information, the more satisfied the users of those books and sites will be, resulting in happy faces and repeat business.

Website Design Serves a Specific Purpose

The vast majority of online retailers include two things on their homepages, a search box to look up a product and categories to help visitors find or browse through the items they have for sale. If there is anything else on the homepage, it is almost always the retailer’s current deals, which are also meant to promote browsing by visitors.

Does that seem a bit familiar? It should. We all encountered this layout long before online shopping became a staple in society. In physical retail stores.

Whether they exist behind four walls or take up virtual space on the Internet, retailers are retailers, and, when it comes to retail, product is paramount. When you walk into a physical store, you have two basic shopping options: you can go straight to the item you came into buy (use a search box) or you can browse (look through categories). Just like with an online retailer, products in stores are labeled by category, with signs to help you find what you’re looking for, and if there is anything at all to distract you from the products on the shelves, it’s more signs letting you know which of those products are on sale.

Retailers incorporate these same components in their store designs because they have the same objective, to sell you merchandise, preferably as much of it as possible, and anything that distracts from that is… well, just a distraction.

Being Boring is Good Business

Like retail sites, hotel websites borrow liberally from traditional hotel industry methods in the development of their online systems. Their sites provide the same general functions that calling a hotel on the phone used to provide. A potential guest can declare the desired dates of his or her visit, choose the type of room her or she would like to book, and get an immediate response as to whether the hotel has availability. They can also find out how much the room will cost, get any questions they have immediately answered, and get a run-down of all the hotel’s amenities.

That is what consumers expect from a hotel’s website, a simple system that provides booking and answers in a way that feels somewhat familiar. Which is why hotel sites look a lot like other hotel sites, and restaurant sites look a lot like other restaurant sites. Years of trial and error have proven these layouts ideal for visitor satisfaction and conversions.

Being Boring is Boring

So, what do you do? The Internet is overloaded with websites all vying for the attention of consumers, and you can’t stray too far from the path of your competitors or you risk alienating your potential customer base. Just because your site design can’t be that far out there doesn’t mean it must be utterly humdrum.

Many websites have the same basic purpose. There is no getting around that. But there is no rule saying your website can’t be chockful of personality. If you want to set your site apart from its competition, the secret isn’t in revolutionary design (which can actually hurt your conversion rate if you take it too far), it’s in branding. Maybe your hotel is built on luxury, or aims to appeal to Millennials, or artists, or business travelers. This is something you can accomplish within the existing framework of your niche. There are plenty of sneaker brands on the market, but only one Nike swoosh.

If you’re launching a new online business, or already have a business that isn’t doing as well as you would like, put extra time and effort into your branding and persona. Some conformity will always be necessary to succeed in an online niche, but with the right combination of web copy, colors, and images on the page, you can make your company website stand out while fitting in.

Shawna Newman is a digital marketing consultant with an emphasis on site-building and SEO, and is working on behalf of Bond Media.

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