Why Prettier Sites Will Rank Higher in the SERPs

In the past few days, I’ve been playing around with Live.com. My observations have led me to the theory that “Live” is a very human editorial intensive project. As such, how aesthetically pleasing a site is will dramatically effect how well that site ranks. Understanding this shift will be crucial to you if you want to rank well search engines in the years to come.

Here’s why . . .

Let’s say that you are in charge of Search at Microsoft. You have a virtually unlimited budget and your job is to do what Microsoft has done in every market they have entered: your job is to win.

Step 1.
The first thing you should ask yourself is “Who is my target audience?” Who do you want to adopt your product? Is it the technically savvy? The very intelligent? The techie crowd? The power user?


If you are at Microsoft and your goal is to win, your target audience must be the median 80% of searchers.

Step 2
What does your target audience want to see as a result when they are searching? Do they want to see authoritative sites? Sites that have been online for 5 years? Sites with a lot of links pointed at them? The sites that are the most popular in a given niche?


For your target market, when they click a result they want to see a professional looking site: a pretty site – something that is aesthetically pleasing. They want a nice layout with pretty graphics. They want simple navigation. They do not want plain Jane text or a site that looks like 95% of blogs do.

They want to feel like what they landed on is not spam, not old, not geeky and might just have the answer to what they were searching for. They want to think that there is a legitimate company behind the site they landed on.

This part may be the toughest part for you to swallow. But you are not in the median 80% of users. You are a power user and you are a geek. Don’t believe me? Try going to your average football game or night club and using terms like “SEO”, “Blog”, or “Tag Cloud” with everyone you meet.

Most people don’t even know what the term “Search Engine” means. Once you get your head around that we can move on to . . .

Step 3
How can we deliver what that median 80% searcher wants? Well, there are about 6.5 million sites tracked by Alexa. We can safely say that any site without an Alexa ranking does not need to be indexed. Is there an algorithm that can tell you if a site will be pleasing to the human eye? Probably not. “Art” and “Style” would be very difficult to teach to a computer.

But since you only have a set of ~6.5 million sites to worry about, why not just hire people to review all the sites manually? The top 500,000 sites would represent more than 90% of web traffic. So lets say you hire 500 people to review those sites and 1,500 people to review the other 6 million.

For the High priority sites that’s just 1000 sites per person. That’s Hardly a difficult task for 1 person to monitor. For the lower priority sites, it’s about 4000 per person. That’s more difficult, but still doable.

I’m not saying you throw out the algorithms, I’m saying you use them as a starting point and then pick the best looking ones from there.

This method would satisfy the greatest number of users and it would be a drop in the bucket relative to the value of the market.

2,000 people, even if you hired them in the US (although I don’t know why you would) would only cost you about $50k per person per year or $100 million per year. Considering that Microsoft made $12 Billion in profits in the past year, they can easily swing that.

In fact, they could spend even more on human review. They could hire people from overseas for much less. They could easily hire 10 times that number of editors for less than $600 million per year (just 5% of company profits). Considering that revenue related to search advertising brought Google $2 billion in profits in the past year, I’d say that investing $600 million to deliver the best results is a no brainer.

Now will these people all be experts in every field? No. But they don’t have to be. There job is deliver the results that the median user will like most. Those results will be professional looking sites that answer the searchers queries. The blend of human editorial review with algorithmic analysis will be the wave of the future. Simply changing algorythms will not be able to best what an army of human reviews armed with similar algorythms can produce.

What does that mean for sites that are ugly looking? Sites that look like, say, SEO Black Hat does today? It means that we will either have to redesign to “Look” pretty, or we will not survive in the rankings long term.

Look for an SEO Black Hat redesign in the very near future . . .

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11 Responses to “Why Prettier Sites Will Rank Higher in the SERPs”

  1. itrends says:

    We are actually a lot closer than that to human search. Just look at ChaCha search. This is where a guide will help you through the search results. They are then picking what you will see…..

  2. itrends says:

    Oh, and I am sure this can be abused. What if you become a guide and just direct your users to a page that generates your ref links from clickbank products etc….

  3. AlterMac says:

    There is one error: Only US-Sites rank with Alexa. The Alexa Toolbar is used seldom on the other side of the pond. If MS want’s to break the near 90% of Google marketshare in Europe an Alexa-Rank doesn’t fit.

    Maybe the army of human filters are the SE-Users themself: Simply Track the Back-Button and Rank the ones wich don’t come back.

    Good Bye for MFA and the ugly ones!

  4. mrbig25 says:

    Well, that’s sort of what Cha Cha is doing, no?
    ChaCha seems a little rough right now and has been dismissed by some, but Scott Jones has been around the block a few times.

  5. oatmeal says:

    In my experience, the majority of non-techie users barely ever notice the design of a site. What they’re mostly concerned with is the quality of the information they find, not the pretty packaging.

  6. joebanner says:

    Should we expect a new design here soon? 😉

  7. Stuart says:

    While I see some problems if they were to use Alexa I don’t necessarily agree with AfterMac’s assertion that Alexa only ranks US sites. .com.au sites are certainly ranked on Alexa.

    I wonder whether ‘pretty’ sites are what people look for. A survey taken early this year found that people who shopped online during the Christmas season were more prepared to buy from sites that looked ‘professional’ – many of them were quite prepared to shop at sites they had never visited before if it looked ‘professional’.

  8. rxbbx says:

    Those ajax things are great. Just little things. Site is ok.

  9. spiffy360 says:

    Pretty sites ARE rankinging higher, way to go on this article. I’m an old dog ex-Netscape marketing professional and I learned how to get great ranking in the late 90’s. I would suggest that any White Hat SEO including Frederick Marckini of iProspect.com does the same thing I do when you accept a large $80,000 or more per year organic SEO – SEM job; You CROSS your fingers when you are done with the SEO of the client’s site. I’ve optimized more than 100 sites over the past three years, and the ones that rank on page one today of Google are pretty sites. now I know the ugly ones that are ranking on page two and page three HAVE the potential to rank on page one… I can see why they don’t and NOW I am pretty sure I know how to fix them. This is a GREAT blog.

  10. evulvmedia says:

    Man, just think of one of those jobs- for the PORN category.

    What do you do, Ray?

    “Well, I look over 1,000 porn sites for Microsoft on a daily basis. I FIELD TEST them, test their… ummmm… USABILITY and… ummm… fitness for a PARTICULAR PURPOSE…”

  11. […] There was a 74% climb in the number of Google search referrals. MSN switched to live – and live hated my old layout because it was ugly (let’s see if that picks up any with the new design).. Yahoo was down slightly and Ask Jeeves up slightly. […]