The residents of GeoCities share a certain feel among their home-grown sites, very different at a glance from e-commerce retail book and music sites.
But there's one kind of design style that business marketers in particular should be studying, because it's the style driving the most profitable sites on the Internet. It's easy enough to find: Just look at any of the sites ranked in the Top 10 of this month's NetMarketing 200 list.
All of the sites in the 200 are excellent. But the Top 10 are exceptional: These are Web businesses belonging to major companies that have re-engineered their entire operation around the Internet. Take a look at the sites on the list -- marshall.com, cisco.com, bay.com, ibm.com, 3com.com -- and you'll be surprised at the uniformity of their design and organization.
It's instantly recognizable: This is the sleek, understated look of the modern e-commerce machine.
It boasts a deceptively simple interface: Very text-oriented, easy to navigate at a glance and tiny graphics. There are no fancy gimmicks here, and generally no wait for various scripts to load. What highlighting there is, is tasteful. Users in a hurry (say, 99 percent of the customer base) can always search the product catalog directly from the home page. And all of these sites are happy to have you pay for your purchase right there online.
It's not a design that overwhelms in any way, and that's the point. These sites are running millions and even billions of dollars of product orders through their servers, and they want to look like the online equivalent of a stately institution.
So how do you distinguish among these top sites in terms of design? Mainly in the little things, since they all do the big things well. They all have powerful database and e-commerce engines (not to mention a lot of manpower) driving the operation, and these aren't easily duplicated by smaller companies.
But the design elements are, and they can be adapted effectively by any Web business handling transactional e-commerce.
Even the small design touches can make a difference (without necessarily costing a lot). For example, not all the top sites offer an 800 number right up front. But Marshall Industries, the No. 1 site, sets up its site so practically the first thing that loads are the words "Open 24 hours" and the 800 number. A small marketing point, but not to be overlooked by anyone who knows the frustration of searching for a phone contact on a business site.
Marshall's Web site is instructive in other ways as well: It offers more default parameters for its catalog search directly from its home page. Its daily news is displayed a little more nicely. It even tells you the date each day, an effective touch that many sites ignore.
Small things, as I say, but not to be dismissed. You notice these elements when you navigate a lot of these top-performing sites in a short time. Add some of these design elements sensibly to your site, and it can pay off for you as well.
David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.