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Corporate websites: Sites now get the attention they deserve

Financial Times
By David Bowen
Published: April 2 2008 02:23 | Last updated: April 2 2008 02:23

Ten years ago the world’s largest companies were obsessed with getting their collective heads round the world wide web. But they paid it too much attention and by five years ago, many of them had all but lost interest – another mistake.

Now, websites are getting about the amount of attention they deserve, a good deal of which has been applied in the past year.

This is the main message from the second FT Bowen Craggs Index of corporate website effectiveness. A third of the web estates we looked at last year have been substantially revised. Some have been overhauled, introducing a coherence they have never had. The big gripe of so many web managers – that bosses see the medium as marginal – is being widely addressed.

This year the Index has been expanded from 60 to 75 companies: the top 25 in the FT Global 500 – ranked by market capitalisation – from the US, Europe, and the rest of the world (including Russia). Five of the newcomers are Chinese, but they also include high profile westerners such as Google, Hewlett-Packard and PepsiCo. A handful of companies fail to meet the market capitalisation criterion, so have been dropped.

The Index is unlike other rankings for two reasons. First, it takes an overall view. Rather than concentrating on a particular element, it looks at the jobs a web presence is asked to do, and sees how well it does them.

Second, our approach is “expert” rather than “check box”: our analysts, experienced in both business and the web, make judgments at every stage (see Methodology).

It is hard to see patterns based on sector – Coca-Cola, for example, has one of the best websites in our survey and PepsiCo one of the worst. But, as last year, there are strong regional themes with some subtle developments.

The big story is that European companies still have the best websites. They take eight of the top 10 positions: all are companies that decided a few years ago to take the web very seriously and are offering an excellent service that they are constantly refining.

Within Europe, newcomer Unicredito Italiano follows ENI in proving that Italians – relatively new to the web – can leapfrog their northern neighbours.

But there are signs that US companies are stirring. More than half of them have made significant changes in the past year – considerably more than those from other regions.

ExxonMobil and Pfizer have both jumped from stodgy and old-fashioned outfits into smart new clothing – they have a way to go in beefing up their content, but the structure and messaging are now good. Others have started to move but have a long way to go – AIG has sorted out its US site, but not the rest.

There are still too many US sites suffering from poor governance (a posh word for how they are run), which leads to a strange mix of good content and terrible functionality: Verizon is in the leading group when it comes to investor and media metrics, but is worst bar none on construction.

Similarly, Google should know better than to let its decentralised philosophy play havoc with its web presence. While the site (we looked mainly at the “About Google” areas) scores well because the content is generally excellent, it is seriously unco-ordinated.

Why is Coca-Cola so much better than PepsiCo? Because Coke sees its corporate website as a part of its overall brand-building, while Pepsi uses it primarily to talk to investors, and does so with no great skill.

There are patchy signs of movement in the rest of the world too, though for now the Chinese and Russians are packing the bottom of the table. They look and behave like sites from the past.

I suspect that will change, at least for the Chinese. Bottom-placed China Mobile, a Hong Kong-quoted company, has a deeply unimpressive site. But its majority shareholder China Mobile Communications Corp – state-owned and therefore not in the list – has just launched a site that stands up well to western rivals. If that is the start of a trend, expect significant moves.

As last year, it is the Japanese who disappoint. Only Canon’s site has had a significant make­over. Honda’s international site is shown up by its US subsidiary, which also owns the “dot com” address, while the banking sites are all a bit of a mess.

Here are further important themes from the Index:

● Video and multimedia, mostly Flash-driven, are making a big impact. Siemens has superimposed an all-singing multimedia home page on its site – it changes every month or so, and is a sophisticated way for the shaken giant to express its technological prowess.

Several companies now use videos on their home pages – it makes sense with broadband, as long as the modem-driven get a decent alternative.

● Multimedia is part of a move to make websites more interesting, fun even. Chevron pulls you in to play Energyville, a game to bring power to an imaginary city, while Petrobras has a game where “Ort finds himself surrounded by unbalanced environments”.

A rare touch of flair from Japan is the Web Banking College, a virtual world with games, in the local language version of Sumitomo Mitsui’s careers area.

● Developments under the label “web 2.0” are hard to spot, though many of them are happening away from the corporate site. We are seeing the use of blogs to provide a chatty alternative to formal content. Most are found on IT sites and in careers areas, though Wal-Mart’s frank Check Out, a blog by its buyers, is an intriguing sign of openness.

● Relaunching can make things worse. General Electric has fallen back, partly because its home page is less well managed than it was, but mainly because it has a new navigation system that has been launched without enough attention to detail. Sites need to be debugged, but not just technically.

● Hard graft pays off. The top-ranking sites built a solid platform a while ago, and are busy polishing it. Siemens has added a fancy new home page, but has otherwise left a solid and rational web presence intact. Shell has concentrated on bringing a great estate of country and business sites into a smoothly co-ordinated whole. Likewise, Unilever has been rolling out carefully localised country sites for the past two years.

● Two technical points. First, be cautious about using a “sniffer” to guess where visitors are from by using their IP addresses. AIG does this, with the result that Americans get a smart home page but everyone else gets the terrible old one. Better to have an international page all can appreciate, and let people choose where to go from there.

Second, do not be dogmatic about new windows. Several sites have recently adopted a “one window” policy – click a link and the new page opens in the same window. It makes little usability sense.

As Julie Howell of Fortune Cookie, and formerly web expert at the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People, says: “As long as clear warnings are given, multiple windows don’t cause accessibility problems.”

David Bowen is website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co ([email protected])

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