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Coporate Website Content Design Failures

Examining the failures of the web content design of many enormous consumer corporations.

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, General Electric, and IBM. 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 corporations?

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 it—when 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 content—any useful information to read—what 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 Ellis—but that essentially describes the generic look of many corporate web sites).

Of course, Flash can be used as a way to present content—words, 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 batteries—which 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 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 page—that 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, this can't be a good idea. On the web, where the “back” button and the URL bars loom temptingly, making people wait is business suicide.

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. When there are so many good “dynamic” sites out there, why are there still so many bad ones? Part of the problem may be overbuilding and needless custom design. There are already excellent Open Source databases out there, which can be endlessly customized and updated by any skilled designer. Yet many companies prefer to spend their money reinventing the wheel so they can have their own proprietary technology, even if it doesn't work.

Sometimes, 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. On disney.com, your first greeting is a message that your computer is sufficiently up-to-date (or not) to handle the site. Is that really the magical and fun impression you want to give visitors?


About the Author

Joel Walsh is the founder, owner, and head writer of UpMarket, an online copywriting / internet marketing services firm & web content provider to small and medium-sized businesses.

Joel Walsh