Lapizuli - 6:41 am on Mar 4, 2011 (gmt 0)
I do think they use aesthetics, and that they should - it makes a difference to user experience, particularly to the ability to navigate - but I can't see it being everything. And I don't WANT it to be the only factor, darn it all, because I don't have control of that. ;)
I'm pretty sure it's not the comments - they were moderated by me, and I don't allow spam links, and they're all spot on topic and decently written. The brand poll might be a problem, but it has thousands of responses and users seem to like it. Users spend an average of over 4 minutes on the page and over 40% return to visit again. The main reason I know the page is useful isn't my own ego, bloated as that often is - it's that I've received a number of "I'm so thrilled I found this site!" comments. (They think of it as a website, when it's actually a web page on a bigger site.) Whereas the top-ranking, two-entry site has a link to an ostensible discussion forum, where there's a header that says something like "35 messages" or whatever, but there are only two.
But again, those sites were already going strong before the update and only boosted slightly - the big hit I took was site 3 overtaking mine, and site 3 WAS a more simply designed, though not attractive, site. ( Had the appearance of a basic HTML old-fashioned website.)
NONE of the general-interest content sites are clean looking, including, bewilderingly, EHow, an algo "winner" that is as crowded as a mess hall at noon, with ads peppered all over, top to bottom.
Would be very interesting if design quality were really at the root of this...