The art of making a website that is useful, beautiful and gives users something that the competition doesn’t is a difficult one. You can’t just slap a bunch of ones and zeroes together and hope you’ll end up with the next YouTube or Facebook. Getting ahead of the competition and staying there requires a nuanced approach to design that no one fully understands: even companies with huge bankrolls behind them have tried and failed to make a great website. Success or failure comes down to a number of factors. Experience. Creative flair. Luck. But though the formulae is hard to pin down, by taking a look at the designs that have won out over their competitors over the years, we can start to get a bit of an idea of what it was which set them apart.
When it first started to gain popularity, Facebook was just another social media site in a sea of start ups. Bebo, Friendster and Livejournal are just some of the names you might remember from this era of the net. The short lived nature of social media sites at the time was something of a running joke, and many expected that it was just a matter of time before Facebook went the same way as the rest.
But that never happened, and today Facebook remains one of the most popular websites in the world. When Google launched it’s own social platform known as Google+, many thought fickle users would flock to the new product, but unlike in the past people proved loyal and Facebook didn’t just maintain its customer base, it continued to expand out of sight. But why did Mark Zuckerberg’s creation buck the social media trend to survive? Why didn’t it end up on the social scrap heap like so many others before it?
It all comes down to design. Facebook offered users something surprisingly unique: a simple to use, simple to understand layout that was quick, efficient and not bogged down by design elements or advertisements. That was the key to expanding their user base beyond the traditional 13-20 age group. Facebook was versatile and exciting enough to attract younger users, but simple enough to use to not scare off the older crowd as well. All of a sudden parents were using the same site as their children, and neither group made it unappealing to the other. Having your mum on Facebook didn’t make it uncool, which was unheard of in the past.
The Competitor That Lost – Myspace
Despite their similar target market, Myspace and Facebook were, and remain, very different. Myspace wasn’t exactly user friendly, and it never tried to be. It was all about youth: bright colours, unique page designs and music. It was an alien landscape to many older users who weren’t exactly computer whizzes, and once it’s young user base started to appreciate Facebook’s usability over Myspace’s self expression, it had nothing to fall back on. Add to that an overburdened advertising platform which slowed the site down significantly and you had a recipe for disaster.
An obvious addition to any list about web success stories, Google is nevertheless worth of this spot, as it wouldn’t have gotten where it is today without the design philosophy it utilised in its early days – and which it continues to embrace today.
Google was founded in 1998, a time when the internet was barely out of its infancy and dial up connections were the norm. In this market speed was key, as most users simply didn’t have the bandwidth to load complicated pages. Enter Google, with its minimalist design, lack of ads on the home page and ultra simple to understand layout. Having nothing but a search box and a brand name helped to make Google load much faster than its competitors, and this combined with its unique approach to search made it the immediate go to for many people.
Since Google was nothing but a tool for people to find what they were really looking for, this minimalist approach wasn’t just acceptable, it was preferable. People didn’t have to look hard to find what they came for – it was front and centre before them. Google turned its advantage into a runaway freight train which has seen it become a mega corporation today.
The Competitor That Lost – Yahoo!
Some of you might have expected to see Bing.com here, but we believe Yahoo! is a more fitting example. While Bing came along much later as a response to Google’s monopoly, Yahoo! was a direct competitor which simply failed to match Google’s success.
Perhaps ‘lost’ is too harsh a term, as Yahoo! is still around and relatively successful. However there’s no denying that it hasn’t seen anything of the same success as Google. Yahoo!’s much more cluttered home page which featured multiple links, ads and other paraphernalia that distracted from its purpose, hurt it badly in the early days. Though today its home page looks much more like Google’s, the change was simply too little, too late.
A video sharing site seems like an obvious thing, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the internet had one that really took off. We’re talking about YouTube of course. The format absolutely exploded. YouTube was bought by Google in 2006 for 1.65 billion dollars, less than two years after it’s inception! But what made YouTube’s rise so astronomical?
A lot of YouTube’s success came down to timing. It was founded just as broadband internet connections were becoming mainstream. Dial up had made video sharing more or less impossible, but with faster bandwidths users were suddenly able to upload and download video content. But it wasn’t all to do with being in the right place at the right time, YouTube employed design elements that its competitors didn’t which sucked people in without them even realising it, and kept on bringing them back for more.
Comments were a big part of this. The YouTube comment section has become a byword for pointless arguments featuring the absolute bile of the internet. But it’s these arguments which people became invested in, going back and forth for hours, weeks, sometimes even years. YouTube has made a few attempts to clean up the comment section over the years, but it hasn’t done a lot of good. But despite being a hive of absolute wretchedness, the comment section is a big part of what kept people coming back. There’s just something about it which sucks you in.
YouTube also had new features such as subscriptions, which allowed users to quickly and easily find the content they were interested in as soon as it was uploaded. Rather than being an endless quagmire of millions of videos, YouTube put up a structured facade which allowed people to identify what they were looking for rather than just swim around aimlessly. If they so chose they could then dive down the rabbit’s hole.
Another thing which many sites still struggle with today is an efficient and reliable video player. YouTube’s worked right out of the gate, giving users confidence they weren’t going to experience crashing, lagging or any other annoyances. The fact that so many sites still feature horrifically bad video players makes the fact that YouTube got it right the first time around all the more remarkable.
Perhaps the biggest single element which caused YouTube to take off was when it allowed its content to be embedded easily onto outside sites. This was a huge boon for an entire generation of MySpace addicts who wanted to sahre their favourite music with their friends..YouTube has been so successful at what it does that the suffix “Tube” has been commandeered by all manner of lesser sites attempting to tap into YouTube’s success.
The Competitor That Lost – Dailymotion
To be honest, it feels harsh to say that Dailymotion lost to YouTube, after all they’re still around and kicking as one of the larger video sharing platforms on the web. That said, with a similar launch date and very similar platform to YouTube, there’s no doubt that it never managed the same success. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the site initially launched in French. This language barrier to a huge part of the world was an immediate hindrance which wasn’t reconciled for some time, giving YouTube a head start.
There’s never been an encyclopedia as comprehensive, or controversial, as Wikipedia. The guilty pleasure of countless university students who vainly try to push the rumours of its unreliability into the back of their minds while they try desperately to finish their final assessment, Wikipedia is an internet phenomenon with few contemporaries. The success of Wikipedia is pretty simple, but it’s a formula that’s difficult to emulate. A combination of clean, ad free design without distractions with user generated content has allowed Wikipedia to become incredibly comprehensive. Having no ads on the sight has made Wikipedia reliant upon donations, but it’s also given it a certain authenticity that elevates it over sites that make money from ads.
The clean design of Wikipedia, outlining its information as factually as possible with as few distractions as possible has made it extremely popular with all sorts of users, and has made navigation extremely easy as it remains consistent site wide.
Competitor That Lost – Citizendium
The fact that this website was founded by one of the original founders of Wikipedia makes you think that it would have had a leg up over the rest of the competition as well as its progenitor. Not so. Despite founder Larry Sanger trying his best to rectify the perceived fault of Wikipedia – it’s reliability – Citizendium never gained the same sort of traction. The fact that not anybody could add or change content meant that the pool of contributors was vastly reduced. Content is king, and in the face of a competitor with vastly more information, Citizendium simply couldn’t compete. Citizendium is perhaps the best example of how just one fundamental change in design philosophy can make or doom a site.