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Survey Attacks Flashy Web Sites

by Jim Bray

It turns out that, despite the current trend, adding fancy Flash animations to web sites isn't the smartest thing a company can do.

I've been saying for years that just because you can put a whiz bang promotional animation on the front of your Web site doesn't mean you should but judging by the increasing number of these billboards, Web designers and the companies they work for haven't been listening.

The point I've been trying to make is that Web sites aren't just showcases to dazzle surfers' eyes; they're first and foremost communications and marketing tools, and if the surfing public can't find the information it seeks quickly and easily they'll surf over to a competitor's site quicker than you can say "virtual reality."

And now a study by a major Canadian public relations agency backs up my unscientific opinion with some actual science, which if nothing else gives me a chance to say "Ha! I told you so!"

The goal of the Benchmark Porter Novelli survey was to determine the media's view (and we all know how fair and balanced they are, don't we?) of how effective corporate and institutional Web sites are, and to learn how journalists would improve the Web sites they turn to on a daily basis as they do their jobs.

It's unfortunate that the survey only asked journalists, rather than real people, but it turns out that their complaints match ones I hear from people who, unlike journalists, do live in the real world.

According to the survey, the vast majority of journalists say they rely on the Internet as a key work tool, but too many of the sites they visit merely offer titillation instead of being useful resources.

Well, duh! What they're saying is that they rely on the Internet as a research tool the same way a company's potential customers do when they're looking to choose a product or service. But with so many sites and only a limited amount of time to find the information they need, they're not about to waste time on a Web site that doesn't make things easy for them.

"Too many corporate web sites seem to be showcases rather than usefully informative," commented one journalist in the survey proving, if nothing else, that even journalists can get it right once in a while.

When asked to identify the specific information they are looking for on a corporate Web site, 94 per cent of the media types said they wanted the company put its contact information where it can be found easily. Well, Duh again! And, in their typically self-focused manner, the journalists said they also wanted to see a special "media area" where they could find press releases, photos and the like.

I agree to a certain extent. There definitely should be such information made available, but it should be freely available to anyone who's interested in such stuff, and not just some journalistic elite class. One of the great things about the Internet is that it can empower ordinary people; it can allow them to access the same information as those pampered people who pride themselves on supposedly bringing us "just the facts," yet who so often manage to twist them to fit their own agenda or mindset. It helps people make up their own minds.

Anyway, the survey clearly shows that while Web developers are busy pushing nifty technology and sites that sing and dance, their creations often end up confusing the medium with the message. In fact, while I was surfing to research this rant, I came across a US-based Web developer's site that used Marshall McLuhan's famous quote "The Medium is the Message" as its slogan.

I hope they go under quickly.

The medium isn't the message. The medium presents the message for people to see, but if people have to work harder to get your company or organization's message than your competitor's, guess whose site is better and guess whose site will be more successful.

After all, do you sit through those interminable animated pages, after the first couple, or do you click "skip intro" and go looking for the beef?

Despite this study having only polled Canadians, the advice applies to Web sites everywhere: be easy to surf and offer relevant information and the world may beat a path to your virtual door.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006