Ten years on - what's gone up, down and sideways?

A couple of weeks ago we looked forward to see whether corporate websites will survive, and concluded they would. Now David Bowen looks back, to the start of the Bowen Craggs Index, to see how they have changed.


On 28 March 2007, the first Bowen Craggs corporate website index was published in the Financial Times. We did it because the FT asked us to, and it seemed rude to say no. The challenge then was to take an incredibly labour intensive benchmarking methodology and adjust it so that we could review and give scores to the sites of 60 of the biggest companies in the world. We wrote up our reports in Word documents, and kept them to ourselves; only the scores were published.

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That was then, now is now, but not that much has changed in the way we do the Index. The main changes: we now publish all the supporting reviews in our database, we look at the 200 biggest companies - not 60 - but we only write up the best, plus best practice from across the 200. It was interesting to see just how bad some websites were, but not necessarily that useful. But any efforts to reduce the amount of work we put into reviews has been largely fruitless - they take very many hours to do. 

But what of the websites themselves, how have they changed? 

First, they are not just websites any more. Or rather, the Index doesn't just cover websites - it includes social media and apps too. Social media was just sticking its head above the ground in 2007, though it wasn't called that. 'We see little evidence of Web 2.0 and its interactive functions being used to build communities online,' I wrote. 'These may be because corporate giants are laggardly, or because they are rationally cautious'. Sometimes it feels as though I could say the same now. 

So what has got better worse, and not changed? Pulling together our reviewers thoughts, here is a rundown.

Better

  • Look and feel. The idea that a website could be a glossy magazine with beautiful pictures was an obscure one. Now it's a commonplace.

In 2007 we gave Total high marks for its visual quality

 

But it can't match the current site, which exploits images for their effect rather than using them as 'furniture'

  • Websites are also less likely to make you sea sick. Video is more common now, and often slickly produced. But there is little animation, and Flash animation has (for technical reasons) pretty much been abolished.
  • There is vastly more consistency across web estates. Linked developments in the last 10 years have been a growing understanding that the centre needs to have greater control (that is, better governance) and the spread of single Content Management Systems across organizations. Most big companies used CMSs then (though not all - GSK didn't, for one), but worldwide systems were rare. Our latest review of Nestlé says 'country sites are all held on a standard template, providing a good level of consistency'. In 2007, we said that 'country sites are localised with no apparent consistency to the look. Even the logo varies.'  There are of course still companies that have wildly different looks across the estate - mostly (for reasons we've discussed in the past) from the US, though here too companies are starting to see the benefits of a 'whole web' approach.
  • Websites are more likely to be doing what they should be doing. Ten years ago, they were often dominated by investor material; nowadays you are likely to see much more of a mix as web managers have taken control, rather than bowing to the wishes of the most influential department heads. 'Responsibility' stories are more likely to appear on the home page, as companies discovered (sometimes the hard way, as with BP) that corporate sites are a (no, the) frontline reputation management tool. There will probably be something for jobseekers, as data shows that these typically make up the biggest group. Surprisingly, to many, companies have discovered that even 'pure corporate' sites attract a lot of customers - they need to be served, both with suitable messages and with clear signposts to point the way to the shop.
  • Within the core corporate information areas, improvements to corporate social responsibility publishing are worth noting. In 2007 some companies used the web well to report environmental and other non-financial data; now, many do. 

Down

  • The flipside of improved graphic design has been a widespread collapse in usability. We have written about this so much that I won't go into detail, but in essence the three elements are 1) An inability by most companies and agencies not to follow fashion; the fashion in this case being to hide navigation in the name of visual effect 2) a lack of understanding that corporate sites are quite different from (fashion-leading) brand and media sites 3) the arrival of responsive design, which convinced many (wrongly) that the mobile experience was more important than the desktop one. It's annoying, because there is no reason why a good looking site also should not also have good navigation. 
  • Although graphic quality overall has leapt, there has been a convergence of look and feel - many corporate sites are 'samey'. Once again responsive design is partly to blame: the need to make sites work in different configurations on different screen sizes reduced designers' options. It's easier to produce blocks that can be moved around as a screen size reduces, so that's what many designers did. This can be countered; but it requires imagination and hard work. Here are three home pages - all in the top 10 of our Index. Spot any similarities?
  • Press sections were often not good 10 years ago, a function of a lack of interest in media departments. Many are even worse now. The problem is that the whole concept of 'the press' has been shaken up by social media, and traditional press officers no longer know who they are supposed to serve. Is it just professional journalists, everybody who publishes an opinion, or something in between? Press sections now reflect that uncertainty; the result is a poor service for all. 

Sideways

  • Most web-based corporate information hit the imagination barrier well before 2007, and hasn't made much progress since. For investor relations, this is not important: the service was often good then, and it still is now. Why fiddle with it? 'About us' sections have pottered along with no major upheavals. Careers has always been an area of innovation, though there has been depressingly little progress in the core 'job application' area. Third party sites are still used by almost everyone, and they have done little to set the world on fire: indeed we still sometimes find that the only non-responsive area on an otherwise responsive site is the application site. Countering this, there has been a lot more activity in social media: LinkedIn, of course, and now Glassdoor. 
  • Internal search engines were rubbish in 2007. They still are. This despite promised advances in artificial intelligence and a fashion (beware that word) to put a big 'What do you want to do today?' search box on the home page. Unless the underlying technology makes the engine work better, that seems unwise.
  • Interactivity has made relatively little progress, I think because the sort of simple activity that works well on the web was as doable 10 years ago as it is now. BP had a carbon footprint calculator 10 years ago; it still has one. The difference is that then it was on the main site; now it is only on a microsite. Faster internet speeds have encouraged more use of video, but large companies wanting to be loved in the narrowband as well as the broadband world have been careful not to become reliant on them. 
  • The recent fashion for storytelling is really nothing new. But of course that goes back well before 2007 - way way before the internet.

And if you want to see a company that has moved sideways - or, depending on your point of view, backwards, have a look at the Royal Bank of Canada site. Here it is in 2007, and now. Can you tell which is which?

- David Bowen