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A Look Back at 30+ Years of Website Design

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A Look Back at 30+ Years of Website Design

Web design has come a long way since 1991, when the first ever website was published. Exclusively text-based, this site marked the beginning of what would become a digital revolution.

And while recollections of “under construction” GIFs and blinding background colors make me thankful for just how far the web has come, there are some historical web design choices that actually demand a nod of respect.

Websites like this one haven’t been lost to time, either. If you want to see what a website looked like at any period since its launch, enter its domain name into the Wayback Machine and choose a date. In this post, let’s take a look at how web design has evolved, from text-only interfaces up through the sleek, modern designs we see today.

Early 1990s: Antiquity

The early 90s marks the start of our website design timeline. At this point, there was no such thing as a high-speed internet connection. It was dial-up modems, or it was nothing. Therefore, websites needed to be built for less-than-stellar connection speeds. They mostly looked like walls of text — what we now take for granted as “design layout” did not exist.

history of web design: an examle of an early html website

While later versions of HTML allowed for more complex designs, they were still very basic compared to today, consisting mainly of tags for headers, paragraphs, and links. Visual elements and styling like typography, imagery, and navigation were things of the not-too distant future.

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

While the function of these early sites was purely informational, we can see some design elements that apply today. These old web pages were very lightweight and optimized for a slow internet connection we all still experience from time to time. These design considerations took the user experience into account, something today’s websites don’t always do, even with faster speeds.

Yes, today’s internet can handle media-rich websites … but it still has some limits. Large media files, heavy graphic design, and excessive animations can all contribute to higher bounce rates when load speeds aren’t as fast as we want. Keep your user in mind when considering complicated design, and remember to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Superhero).

Mid-1990s: The Middle Ages

The middle ages of web design were plagued by on-site page builders and spacer GIFs. (Better than an actual plague though, right?) By the mid-90s, web design had evolved both in terms of structure and appearance. Designers began using table-based layouts to organize content, allowing for greater flexibility and creativity. Sites were still quite text heavy, but text could now be divided into columns, rows, and other navigational elements for better readability.

Graphical design elements also quickly grew in popularity. Page hit counters, animated text, and dancing GIFs are just a few of the graphical elements that mark this period in web design.

history of web design: the early version of apple's website

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

Today, there are plenty of reasons why table-based design is not the best choice for your website — the extensive markup, slow load times, and visual inconsistency are just a few of the pitfalls.

Regardless, this development was key in the evolution of web design: It was the first move toward non-linear page structure. Different elements could now be positioned in different sections of a web page, and designers had to consider the best way to present information to the user.

Page structure remains critical when thinking about navigation and content. It largely determines how the user experiences and interacts with your site. While these considerations might not have been at the forefront during the middle ages of web design, they are certainly at the forefront today.

Late 1990s: The Renaissance

Renaissance. Rebirth. Web design has had its fair share of reimaginings, but one of the first occurred with the introduction of Flash. Introduced in 1996, Flash opened up a world of design possibilities that weren’t possible with basic HTML. It was the marriage of virtual graphics and interaction.

While many of the same design elements from previous periods were still present, they were enhanced with animations, tiled background images, neon colors, 3D buttons, splash pages, and other multimedia.

Flash marked the beginning of visitor-focused design — structure and navigation became important considerations and designers began to hone in on appearance and usability over pure content.

history of web design: a website with flash elements

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

Flash was a game-changer, but it wouldn’t stick around forever. Flash is hardly ever used today and is deemed one of the biggest SEO sins of all time. Today, it’s the norm to opt for alternative methods such as CSS and JavaScript animations to get similar effects, or to embed videos from video hosting sites.

Early 2000s: The Enlightenment

The early 2000s were a period when usability and flexibility really came to the forefront of web design.

Leading the charge was CSS, a coding language that allowed developers to store visual rules in files separate from HTML, effectively separating content and style. This gave greater creative freedom to both web designers and content developers — content could now be developed exclusively from design, and vice versa. CSS made websites easier to maintain (less code and complexity), more flexible (div tags are independent of one another), and quicker to load (smaller files).

Better understanding of color psychology also led to increased use of whitespace and the decrease of garish colors, like neons. Links started being added to icons rather than just text, resolution and pixelation became more important concerns, and strategic placement of content also gained traction.

history of web design: an early website for the company polaroid

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

People typically scan websites looking for the information they need, so any site that makes this job easier gets a giant check-mark. Savvy web designers know that most users don’t read everything on a website, and understand how readers take in information.

Therefore, intuitively placed information, visually accentuated links, and straightforward navigation are just a few best practices today’s websites should adhere to. Always design with usability in mind!

Mid- to Late-2000s: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution of web design begins with the birth of Web 2.0. It’s at this time that things really began to move toward the modern web. The growth of multimedia applications, the rise of interactive content, and the advent of social media are a few definitive features of this period.

Moreover, these changes largely dictated the way web design was … well, done. Aesthetic changes included better color distribution, increased use of icons, and greater attention to typography.

Most importantly, however, design became about content, and content became about search engine optimization. With the user now firmly at the center of design, selling products (at least explicitly) became the secondary function of websites — now it was all about getting found.

history of web design: a mid-2000s website for the company lulu lemon

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

As mentioned, the evolution of Web 2.0 saw the growth of SEO as a consideration. While these techniques have been adapted over the years, thinking about your website in terms of SEO is still a top priority for most thriving business websites.

SEO demands content, and content largely became the focus of web design during this era. Keyword optimization, inbound and outbound linking, authoring, tagging, and syndication technology such as RSS became natural design elements. While link spamming and keyword jamming soon exploited these techniques, these methods are no longer effective and (I hope) have largely fizzled out.

2010 to Now: The Modern Era

Today, over two decades after the publication of the first website, web design has firmly established itself as an irreplaceable component of every good marketing strategy. Recent research found that 50% of today’s consumers think website design is crucial to a business’s brand.

In terms of modern aesthetics, we have seen the proliferation of minimalism: sparse content, flat graphics (so long, 3D buttons!), simpler color palettes, and big and bold visuals. In addition, UX has taken center stage, giving way to such design features as infinite scrolling and single-page design.

You may have noticed that our website has embraced all these features with its latest design:

history of web design: a modern website for the company hubspot

One more key step in the evolution of web design is the mobile web. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, there has been a re-evaluation of the way websites are structured to accommodate for the growing number of mobile web users. This includes several mobile frameworks that take a “mobile-first” approach, and an even greater focus on mobile speed optimization, since phones usually lack the processing speed or connection strength of your typical desktop.

This digital revolution has also given rise to responsive design, in which page elements automatically adjust to the width of the browsing window, allowing websites to look good on any device or screen. Today, responsive design is necessary to ensure a pleasing mobile user experience, given over half of global website traffic comes from mobile devices.

Where will websites go next?

If there’s one factor that has informed every single one of these developments, it’s content. Every design element here has been adapted in such a way to bring the most relevant content to the user in the most efficient and effective way. Notions of accessibility, adaptability, and usability truly define this era of web design.

Though there’s much more we can do with web design today, it’s fun to take a look back at where we came from. Looking at how web design has progressed thus far, it’s exciting to think about where it will be in the next 20 years.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2013 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

examples of brilliant homepage, blog, and landing page design

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Why We Are Always ‘Clicking to Buy’, According to Psychologists

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Why We Are Always 'Clicking to Buy', According to Psychologists

Amazon pillows.

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A deeper dive into data, personalization and Copilots

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A deeper dive into data, personalization and Copilots

Salesforce launched a collection of new, generative AI-related products at Connections in Chicago this week. They included new Einstein Copilots for marketers and merchants and Einstein Personalization.

To better understand, not only the potential impact of the new products, but the evolving Salesforce architecture, we sat down with Bobby Jania, CMO, Marketing Cloud.

Dig deeper: Salesforce piles on the Einstein Copilots

Salesforce’s evolving architecture

It’s hard to deny that Salesforce likes coming up with new names for platforms and products (what happened to Customer 360?) and this can sometimes make the observer wonder if something is brand new, or old but with a brand new name. In particular, what exactly is Einstein 1 and how is it related to Salesforce Data Cloud?

“Data Cloud is built on the Einstein 1 platform,” Jania explained. “The Einstein 1 platform is our entire Salesforce platform and that includes products like Sales Cloud, Service Cloud — that it includes the original idea of Salesforce not just being in the cloud, but being multi-tenancy.”

Data Cloud — not an acquisition, of course — was built natively on that platform. It was the first product built on Hyperforce, Salesforce’s new cloud infrastructure architecture. “Since Data Cloud was on what we now call the Einstein 1 platform from Day One, it has always natively connected to, and been able to read anything in Sales Cloud, Service Cloud [and so on]. On top of that, we can now bring in, not only structured but unstructured data.”

That’s a significant progression from the position, several years ago, when Salesforce had stitched together a platform around various acquisitions (ExactTarget, for example) that didn’t necessarily talk to each other.

“At times, what we would do is have a kind of behind-the-scenes flow where data from one product could be moved into another product,” said Jania, “but in many of those cases the data would then be in both, whereas now the data is in Data Cloud. Tableau will run natively off Data Cloud; Commerce Cloud, Service Cloud, Marketing Cloud — they’re all going to the same operational customer profile.” They’re not copying the data from Data Cloud, Jania confirmed.

Another thing to know is tit’s possible for Salesforce customers to import their own datasets into Data Cloud. “We wanted to create a federated data model,” said Jania. “If you’re using Snowflake, for example, we more or less virtually sit on your data lake. The value we add is that we will look at all your data and help you form these operational customer profiles.”

Let’s learn more about Einstein Copilot

“Copilot means that I have an assistant with me in the tool where I need to be working that contextually knows what I am trying to do and helps me at every step of the process,” Jania said.

For marketers, this might begin with a campaign brief developed with Copilot’s assistance, the identification of an audience based on the brief, and then the development of email or other content. “What’s really cool is the idea of Einstein Studio where our customers will create actions [for Copilot] that we hadn’t even thought about.”

Here’s a key insight (back to nomenclature). We reported on Copilot for markets, Copilot for merchants, Copilot for shoppers. It turns out, however, that there is just one Copilot, Einstein Copilot, and these are use cases. “There’s just one Copilot, we just add these for a little clarity; we’re going to talk about marketing use cases, about shoppers’ use cases. These are actions for the marketing use cases we built out of the box; you can build your own.”

It’s surely going to take a little time for marketers to learn to work easily with Copilot. “There’s always time for adoption,” Jania agreed. “What is directly connected with this is, this is my ninth Connections and this one has the most hands-on training that I’ve seen since 2014 — and a lot of that is getting people using Data Cloud, using these tools rather than just being given a demo.”

What’s new about Einstein Personalization

Salesforce Einstein has been around since 2016 and many of the use cases seem to have involved personalization in various forms. What’s new?

“Einstein Personalization is a real-time decision engine and it’s going to choose next-best-action, next-best-offer. What is new is that it’s a service now that runs natively on top of Data Cloud.” A lot of real-time decision engines need their own set of data that might actually be a subset of data. “Einstein Personalization is going to look holistically at a customer and recommend a next-best-action that could be natively surfaced in Service Cloud, Sales Cloud or Marketing Cloud.”

Finally, trust

One feature of the presentations at Connections was the reassurance that, although public LLMs like ChatGPT could be selected for application to customer data, none of that data would be retained by the LLMs. Is this just a matter of written agreements? No, not just that, said Jania.

“In the Einstein Trust Layer, all of the data, when it connects to an LLM, runs through our gateway. If there was a prompt that had personally identifiable information — a credit card number, an email address — at a mimum, all that is stripped out. The LLMs do not store the output; we store the output for auditing back in Salesforce. Any output that comes back through our gateway is logged in our system; it runs through a toxicity model; and only at the end do we put PII data back into the answer. There are real pieces beyond a handshake that this data is safe.”

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Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads (And How To Fix It)

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Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads (And How To Fix It)

Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

You ask the head of marketing how the team is doing and get a giant thumbs up. 👍

“Our MQLs are up!”

“Website conversion rates are at an all-time high!”

“Email click rates have never been this good!”

But when you ask the head of sales the same question, you get the response that echoes across sales desks worldwide — the leads from marketing suck. 

If you’re in this boat, you’re not alone. The issue of “leads from marketing suck” is a common situation in most organizations. In a HubSpot survey, only 9.1% of salespeople said leads they received from marketing were of very high quality.

Why do sales teams hate marketing-generated leads? And how can marketers help their sales peers fall in love with their leads? 

Let’s dive into the answers to these questions. Then, I’ll give you my secret lead gen kung-fu to ensure your sales team loves their marketing leads. 

Marketers Must Take Ownership

“I’ve hit the lead goal. If sales can’t close them, it’s their problem.”

How many times have you heard one of your marketers say something like this? When your teams are heavily siloed, it’s not hard to see how they get to this mindset — after all, if your marketing metrics look strong, they’ve done their part, right?

Not necessarily. 

The job of a marketer is not to drive traffic or even leads. The job of the marketer is to create messaging and offers that lead to revenue. Marketing is not a 100-meter sprint — it’s a relay race. The marketing team runs the first leg and hands the baton to sales to sprint to the finish.

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via GIPHY

To make leads valuable beyond the vanity metric of watching your MQLs tick up, you need to segment and nurture them. Screen the leads to see if they meet the parameters of your ideal customer profile. If yes, nurture them to find out how close their intent is to a sale. Only then should you pass the leads to sales. 

Lead Quality Control is a Bitter Pill that Works

Tighter quality control might reduce your overall MQLs. Still, it will ensure only the relevant leads go to sales, which is a win for your team and your organization.

This shift will require a mindset shift for your marketing team: instead of living and dying by the sheer number of MQLs, you need to create a collaborative culture between sales and marketing. Reinforce that “strong” marketing metrics that result in poor leads going to sales aren’t really strong at all.  

When you foster this culture of collaboration and accountability, it will be easier for the marketing team to receive feedback from sales about lead quality without getting defensive. 

Remember, the sales team is only holding marketing accountable so the entire organization can achieve the right results. It’s not sales vs marketing — it’s sales and marketing working together to get a great result. Nothing more, nothing less. 

We’ve identified the problem and where we need to go. So, how you do you get there?

Fix #1: Focus On High ROI Marketing Activities First

What is more valuable to you:

  • One more blog post for a few more views? 
  • One great review that prospective buyers strongly relate to?

Hopefully, you’ll choose the latter. After all, talking to customers and getting a solid testimonial can help your sales team close leads today.  Current customers talking about their previous issues, the other solutions they tried, why they chose you, and the results you helped them achieve is marketing gold.

On the other hand, even the best blog content will take months to gain enough traction to impact your revenue.

Still, many marketers who say they want to prioritize customer reviews focus all their efforts on blog content and other “top of the funnel” (Awareness, Acquisition, and Activation) efforts. 

The bottom half of the growth marketing funnel (Retention, Reputation, and Revenue) often gets ignored, even though it’s where you’ll find some of the highest ROI activities.

1716755163 123 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 123 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

Most marketers know retaining a customer is easier than acquiring a new one. But knowing this and working with sales on retention and account expansion are two different things. 

When you start focusing on retention, upselling, and expansion, your entire organization will feel it, from sales to customer success. These happier customers will increase your average account value and drive awareness through strong word of mouth, giving you one heck of a win/win.

Winning the Retention, Reputation, and Referral game also helps feed your Awareness, Acquisition, and Activation activities:

  • Increasing customer retention means more dollars stay within your organization to help achieve revenue goals and fund lead gen initiatives.
  • A fully functioning referral system lowers your customer acquisition cost (CAC) because these leads are already warm coming in the door.
  • Case studies and reviews are powerful marketing assets for lead gen and nurture activities as they demonstrate how you’ve solved identical issues for other companies.

Remember that the bottom half of your marketing and sales funnel is just as important as the top half. After all, there’s no point pouring leads into a leaky funnel. Instead, you want to build a frictionless, powerful growth engine that brings in the right leads, nurtures them into customers, and then delights those customers to the point that they can’t help but rave about you.

So, build a strong foundation and start from the bottom up. You’ll find a better return on your investment. 

Fix #2: Join Sales Calls to Better Understand Your Target Audience

You can’t market well what you don’t know how to sell.

Your sales team speaks directly to customers, understands their pain points, and knows the language they use to talk about those pains. Your marketing team needs this information to craft the perfect marketing messaging your target audience will identify with.

When marketers join sales calls or speak to existing customers, they get firsthand introductions to these pain points. Often, marketers realize that customers’ pain points and reservations are very different from those they address in their messaging. 

Once you understand your ideal customers’ objections, anxieties, and pressing questions, you can create content and messaging to remove some of these reservations before the sales call. This effort removes a barrier for your sales team, resulting in more SQLs.

Fix #3: Create Collateral That Closes Deals

One-pagers, landing pages, PDFs, decks — sales collateral could be anything that helps increase the chance of closing a deal. Let me share an example from Lean Labs. 

Our webinar page has a CTA form that allows visitors to talk to our team. Instead of a simple “get in touch” form, we created a drop-down segmentation based on the user’s challenge and need. This step helps the reader feel seen, gives them hope that they’ll receive real value from the interaction, and provides unique content to users based on their selection.

1716755163 298 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 298 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

So, if they select I need help with crushing it on HubSpot, they’ll get a landing page with HubSpot-specific content (including a video) and a meeting scheduler. 

Speaking directly to your audience’s needs and pain points through these steps dramatically increases the chances of them booking a call. Why? Because instead of trusting that a generic “expert” will be able to help them with their highly specific problem, they can see through our content and our form design that Lean Labs can solve their most pressing pain point. 

Fix #4: Focus On Reviews and Create an Impact Loop

A lot of people think good marketing is expensive. You know what’s even more expensive? Bad marketing

To get the best ROI on your marketing efforts, you need to create a marketing machine that pays for itself. When you create this machine, you need to think about two loops: the growth loop and the impact loop.

1716755163 789 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 789 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To
  • Growth loop — Awareness ➡ Acquisition ➡ Activation ➡ Revenue ➡ Awareness: This is where most marketers start. 
  • Impact loop — Results ➡ Reviews ➡ Retention ➡ Referrals ➡ Results: This is where great marketers start. 

Most marketers start with their growth loop and then hope that traction feeds into their impact loop. However, the reality is that starting with your impact loop is going to be far more likely to set your marketing engine up for success

Let me share a client story to show you what this looks like in real life.

Client Story: 4X Website Leads In A Single Quarter

We partnered with a health tech startup looking to grow their website leads. One way to grow website leads is to boost organic traffic, of course, but any organic play is going to take time. If you’re playing the SEO game alone, quadrupling conversions can take up to a year or longer.

But we did it in a single quarter. Here’s how.

We realized that the startup’s demos were converting lower than industry standards. A little more digging showed us why: our client was new enough to the market that the average person didn’t trust them enough yet to want to invest in checking out a demo. So, what did we do?

We prioritized the last part of the funnel: reputation.

We ran a 5-star reputation campaign to collect reviews. Once we had the reviews we needed, we showcased them at critical parts of the website and then made sure those same reviews were posted and shown on other third-party review platforms. 

Remember that reputation plays are vital, and they’re one of the plays startups often neglect at best and ignore at worst. What others say about your business is ten times more important than what you say about yourself

By providing customer validation at critical points in the buyer journey, we were able to 4X the website leads in a single quarter!

1716755164 910 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755164 910 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

So, when you talk to customers, always look for opportunities to drive review/referral conversations and use them in marketing collateral throughout the buyer journey. 

Fix #5: Launch Phantom Offers for Higher Quality Leads 

You may be reading this post thinking, okay, my lead magnets and offers might be way off the mark, but how will I get the budget to create a new one that might not even work?

It’s an age-old issue: marketing teams invest way too much time and resources into creating lead magnets that fail to generate quality leads

One way to improve your chances of success, remain nimble, and stay aligned with your audience without breaking the bank is to create phantom offers, i.e., gauge the audience interest in your lead magnet before you create them.

For example, if you want to create a “World Security Report” for Chief Security Officers, don’t do all the research and complete the report as Step One. Instead, tease the offer to your audience before you spend time making it. Put an offer on your site asking visitors to join the waitlist for this report. Then wait and see how that phantom offer converts. 

This is precisely what we did for a report by Allied Universal that ended up generating 80 conversions before its release.

1716755164 348 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755164 348 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

The best thing about a phantom offer is that it’s a win/win scenario: 

  • Best case: You get conversions even before you create your lead magnet.
  • Worst case: You save resources by not creating a lead magnet no one wants.  

Remember, You’re On The Same Team 

We’ve talked a lot about the reasons your marketing leads might suck. However, remember that it’s not all on marketers, either. At the end of the day, marketing and sales professionals are on the same team. They are not in competition with each other. They are allies working together toward a common goal. 

Smaller companies — or anyone under $10M in net new revenue — shouldn’t even separate sales and marketing into different departments. These teams need to be so in sync with one another that your best bet is to align them into a single growth team, one cohesive front with a single goal: profitable customer acquisition.

Interested in learning more about the growth marketing mindset? Check out the Lean Labs Growth Playbook that’s helped 25+ B2B SaaS marketing teams plan, budget, and accelerate growth.


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