In my opinion, ugly sites can perform very well, and there are a number of factors that can contribute to that:
First, ugly sites are often sites that were originally built back in the 1990s by some business owner who had no web design sense or technical knowledge but wanted to promote his business online. It was much more difficult back then to actually sell online (not many shopping cart scripts existed, and ones that did exist were very expensive). So the business owner didn’t just install a cart and sit back and wait for orders to roll in. Rather, he put valuable and unique content on his site. Over the years, he added and added and added more and more content, and garnered lots of link love, and now his site is very well aged and very well linked.
The MacGregor Sailboatsite is a good example of this. It was built by Roger MacGregor himself, who designed the MacGregor sailboat and who owns MacGregor Yachts. It’s a horrible horrible site from the perspective of design, usability and navigation. It does all of that completely wrong. But it’s packed chockful of everything you ever wanted to know about the MacGregor, and MacGregor owners love that site.
Second, ugly sites are often sites that were built by hobbyists — people who are simply passionate about a topic, and started their site without any intention of making money from it. Before eBay, before CJ, before AdSense, these hobbyists were out there creating volumes of good content about their topic of interest.
They, like the business owner above, garnered lots of link love, and today have well-aged and well-linked sites. Perhaps they’ve added AdSense or affiliate links on their site, and now they realize some hefty income from their hobby site. It’s icing on the cake for them; they didn’t start the site to make money, and if the money dried up they would continue to maintain the site. They didn’t know or care about design, and they still don’t. But they offer some of the best resources for information about their hobby. Non-profit organizations often fall into this category too. A Page About Freemasonry is a good example of this type of site. It was created by a guy who is a Mason and who loves Masonry, and wanted to share information about it. The site is nothing special, design-wise, but it contains scads of good info about Masonry.
Third, ugly sites that are ecommerce sites are often built by small business owners who can’t or won’t pay a professional to build their site. They use whatever free software they can get their hands on, and they do it themselves. They care deeply about their business, but they have no clue about web site development.
These sites can do well because the owner’s personality and passion very often shine through loud and clear. People get a sense for how much the owner cares about his product and business, and so they trust the site enough to buy from it despite its lack of professionalism and design aesthetic. These sites are often created by business owners who are very active within the community of people who use their products — so they’re known within the industry, and people feel comfortable buying from them.
AmmoMan is a good example of this type of site. My word! I would never deliberately design an ecommerce site to look like that! But lots of people who shoot know AmmoMan is a good place to buy ammunition, and lots of shooters have met the owner at various shoots and gun shows over the years.
So…. yes, ugly sites can do very well. But in my experience, whenever I’ve taken on a client with an ugly site and redesigned it, it did better than before. My redesign will typically also improve search engine crawlability, usability, navigation, etc., so it’s not an apples/apples comparison. But it provides evidence that ugliness, by itself, is neither required nor sufficient for a well-performing site. When ugly sites perform well, it’s typically not because of their ugliness but in spite of it. People are very forgiving of ugliness when the site gives them the information they couldn’t find anywhere else, or sells them the product they need at a better price than they can get anywhere else.