Your mother probably told you not to judge a book by its cover. While this is certainly sound advice, it turns out it just isn’t practical—at least not when it comes to the Internet. While many web designers, developers, and content managers have heard the expression that substance trumps presentation, research done at Stanford University suggests that a website’s appearance may have a bigger impact on user impressions than one might think. What this suggests is that, while content remains king, web users really do judge websites by the design.

One way that users judge a website’s design depends on how tailored—or not—it seems to be to its target audience. The research linked to above found that websites properly tailored to their audiences were more credible, and therefore more effective. For example, if you are a music producer and you want to appeal to a young female demographic, it is critical that your design reflect the interests of this group. Your site would need appropriate colors and graphics. Displaying a site that is primarily grey and has no links to other popular interests for the target demographic would be less than ideal. Remember, “Quality in web design is the degree of fulfillment of the user’s expectations.” -Anders Toxboe of I recommend reading the article it comes from, which you can find here. is appropriately designed for its audience., an online store for “geeks” is appropriately themed for its audience.

Once your visitors are hooked on your design, other factors come into play, such as the quality of your content, number of errors, rate of updates, ease of use and trustworthiness of your authors. Although useful content is of the utmost importance, we can’t forget how much our links, graphics, ads, promotions and such contribute to visitors’ perceptions of our sites.

A 2006 study performed by researchers at Pace University discovered a significant connection between website design and visitors’ attitudes toward those sites. A site may contain information that a user is seeking, but if that information is difficult to find, or presented in an amateurish or unprofessional layout, users are likely to form a negative impression of that site. (Read the study here: PDF) showcases sites with unprofessional, amateurish, and generally bad design. The goal is to learn what not to do by seeing some of the best of the worst.

The same study concluded that visually attractive websites have been shown to produce a “halo effect” that forms a positive impression in users’ minds. Users see a visually appealing site and assume that the organization behind the site is just what they are looking for and can provide the services they need.

Although there are many things that can be done to foster trust, a professionally designed website, appropriate to your target audiences, is a critical component to creating a positive first impression with an audience. Website design cannot be ignored as a key component of any successful enterprise. Think about it, if you were given a choice between shopping at two mattress stores, and one had immaculate landscaping and a clean exterior while the other didn’t, which one would you be more likely to trust? Whether you’re selling something or not, your website is your digital storefront. Make sure that you make it someplace your customers will want to shop.

For more on building trust, check out Stanford’s Web Credibility Project.

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