Who Commits The "Top Ten Mistakes" of Web Design?

by Jakob Nielsen on May 16, 1999

The previous Alertbox reviewed my original list of "top-ten mistakes of Web design" from 1996 in the light of changes in Web technology and usability during the three years since it was written. My conclusion was that the ten mistakes are still mistakes and should be avoided.

Happily, most major websites do avoid most of the mistakes. I have surveyed twenty prominent sites and found that they violate 16% of the list on average . In other words, the average large site violates less than two of the top-ten mistakes of Web design (unfortunately, new sites posted by smaller companies often have more violations than the big sites discussed here).

 

Design Mistake Violation
Score
Slow download times 84%
Non-standard link colors 17%
Long scrolling navigation pages 15%
Scrolling text or looping animation 12%
Frames 11%
Orphan pages 10%
Bleeding-edge technology 7%
Complex URLs 6%
Lack of navigation support 4%
Outdated information 1%
Average 16%

 

The table shows the average occurrence of each mistake in May 1999. Since the table shows violations, smaller numbers are better. Each of 20 major sites was scored for each of the design mistakes with an assessment of the extent to which the site violated the rules. Violations on home pages or prominent pages counted more than violations on secondary pages; consistent or blatant violations counted more than infrequent or minor violations.

I obviously could not review every single page on these very large sites, so the scores are based on a sample. Many big sites probably hide more outdated information in their bowels than I happened to see, so the score for "outdated information" may be under-estimated.

Large Corporations vs. Popular Websites

The websites for huge corporations with multi-billion dollar sales have substantially more mistakes than the most popular websites (those that get the most traffic):

  • Across the 10 largest corporations, the average violation rate was 20%
  • Across the 10 most popular websites, the average violation rate was only 13%

 

It is not an accident that the sites with the most traffic have an uncommonly low rate of violations of the top ten mistakes of Web design. On the contrary, it is because these sites are easy to use that they get so much traffic.

Among the big corporations, the best site was IBM with 11% violations. Congratulations, IBM. Admittedly, it may be slightly unfair to the other huge corporations to compare them with IBM which is partly an Internet company.

Among the most popular websites, the best site was Go with only 6% violations. The other main "portals" were close on Go's heels, however, with Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos all scoring a very respectable 8% violation rate.

The biggest differences between the corporate sites and the popular sites were:

  • Download time : corporate home pages downloaded at a snail's pace, taking 19 seconds on average, whereas the popular sites' home pages took an average of 8 seconds to download. These times were measured over an ISDN line during a weekend, so the picture is bleak indeed for users with analog modems.
  • Frames scored a 21% violation rate for corporate sites and were not seen at all on the high-traffic sites.

Choice of Sites

Big corporations were represented by 10 of the 11 American companies with the largest annual sales in 1998 according to Forbes magazine April 19, 1999. One of these big companies, Philip Morris, apparently does not have a website (except for a site related to a lawsuit), so I eliminated it from the list and replaced it with company number 11. All of the companies on the list have annual sales of more than $50 billion.

The large corporations were: General Motors, Ford, Wal-Mart, Exxon, General Electric, IBM, Citigroup, Boeing, AT&T, and BankAmerica.

I chose sales as my criterion for "big corporation" instead of stock market valuation (as used by most lists of big firms) because I did not want it to be impacted by the changing fortunes of Internet stock. Also, stock values are an indication of the predicted future size of a company and not its current size.

Popular websites were represented by the ten sites listed as receiving the most visitors in Media Metrix' April 1999 survey. All of the sites on the list have at least 14 million visitors per month. In principle, I don't like using "unique visitors" as a measure of site popularity, since loyal users or page views are much better indicators, but unfortunately I could not find good estimates of these other traffic metrics.

The popular websites were: AOL.com, Yahoo, MSN, Go, GeoCities, Netscape, Excite, Microsoft, Lycos, and Angelfire.


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