When you think of the world's most successful businesses,
what names come to mind? Most likely, consumer-oriented
giants such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Sheraton, Disney,
IBM, and General Electric. Not only have they spent
billions on advertising to buy their way into your head.
They offer convenient products and services that have
made them a part of your life.
But when you think of the most successful web sites,
what names come to mind? Names like Google, Yahoo! Amazon,
AOL, Kazaa (for better or worse), and Hotmail.
The late-1990s mantra about the web being a disruptive
technology that would destroy traditional companies
may have been overstated. But a decade and a half into
the web's existence, it is clear that the world's leading
corporations have been sidelined on the web.
The biggest shopping site is not walmart.com but amazon.com.
The biggest map site is not randmcnally.com but mapquest.com.
Established companies have usually only been able to
buy their way into this market through acquisitions
(as with Microsoft's purchase of Hotmail, which it used
as a base for creating MSN).
Why, with few exceptions, were the world's most successful
web sites not launched by the world's most successful
Many Big Name Companies' Web Sites a Vast Waste of
Time for Visitors
The McDonald's web site talks about food, but has no
real menu. The Coca-Cola USA web site has no clear ingredients
list or nutritional information, no recipes for floats
or mixed drinks, no company history, and nothing else
useful to people who like Coke. All that information
has been inexplicably located on the "company"
page, which on every other web site is used for investor
relations. The Johnson and Johnson web site has useful
information if you can access itwhen the author
attempted to open it, it crashed two different web browsers
(Internet Explorer and Mozilla) before finally yielding
(to the Opera browser).
Many big-name companies' web sites offer lessons in
what not to do in web design. The biggest lesson by
far is not to sacrifice usability in an attempt to look
cool, and never forget why your users came to your site
in the first place. McDonald's may be the world's largest
restaurant chain, but it didn't get that way because
of its web site.
Why Big-Budget Websites Are More Often Bombs than Blockbusters
The web sites of many successful corporations (both
B2C and B2B) are like big-budget Hollywood movies that
spend millions on stars and special effects, and a quarter
of a percent of the budget on the script. Worse, the
special effects of blockbuster web sites are far more
annoying than impressive.
Special Effect that Bombs Number 1: Flash!
When web sites don't offer any contentany useful
information to readwhat do they put up there instead?
Spinning Coke bottles. Chicken McNuggets and French
fries that zoom out toward you when you position your
cursor over them. Changing pictures of generic-looking
office buildings and men in suits (on the web site of
real estate giant CB Richard Ellisbut that essentially
describes the generic look of many corporate web sites).
Of course, Flash can be used as a way to present contentwords,
both printed and recorded, and pictures that actually
illustrate something. But more often, it is used to
impress. And most often, it ends up annoying. Who wants
to spend the better part of a minute waiting for a rotation
of generic pictures of smiling models?
Special Effect that Bombs Number 2: Splash Screens
You type in duracell.com expecting information on batterieswhich
you will find, if you have the patience not to hit the
back button while the site shows a picture
of a battery revolving painfully slowly.
On http://www.mcdonalds.com you're met with pictures
of happy children playing with Ronald McDonald and a
menu to select what country you're from.
Johnson's and Johnson's web site shows a logo before
automatically redirecting you to the main pagethat
is if it doesn't crash your browser first (which happened
when the author tried to access the page on May 2, 2004
Another way big consumer corporations' web sites from
Schick to Mercedes-Benz to Thomas Cooke waste your time
with splash pages is by making you choose what country
you're visiting from. This could have been detected
automatically, or at least, useful worldwide content
could have been placed on the homepage, with an option
to choose a country prominently displayed.
Splash pages are the internet equivalent of making
patrons wait in line out front before letting them inside.
Unless a site belongs to a night club or a professional
services firm with too much business, keeping people
outside can't be a good idea.
Special Effect that Bombs Number 3: Overbuilt or Badly
Built Dynamic Functionality
Every web surfer has a story about a shopping cart
that malfunctioned just when they were about to click
purchase on something they really wanted.
Or a detailed form that lost all the information after
the submit button was pressed.
Sometimes, malfunctioning dynamic content can distort
the way an entire site presents itself. If the dynamic
content is so complex that it presents problems for
many users, it is unlikely the dynamic content is worth
it. When I visited disney.com in May 2004, my first
greeting was a message that your computer is sufficiently
up-to-date (or not) to handle the site.
In short, you may want your small or medium-sized business
to get as big as Coca Cola or Disney, but you'll never
get there if your website looks like theirs do.
About the author:
[Formatting: for web, please use "website content
writer" as the link's anchor text (visible link
text)] Joel Walsh's business, UpMarket Content, lets
him partner with web designers and other creative people,
as a website content writer: http://UpMarketContent.com