Yesterday saw the publication of this year’s Bowen Craggs FT Index, which evaluates corporate websites according to how well they serve the public, their investors, the media, and jobseekers. 

I’ve been speaking to David Bowen about this year’s study, what makes a good corporate website, and Nestle’s social media lesson… 

How does the FT Index work? 

This is the fourth year that we’ve done this survey, and what we do is to look at 75 companies, made up of the 25 largest by market capitalisation in Europe, US and the rest of the world. 

It’s detailed study, and we spend an average of 12 hours on each website to produce detailed results. 

What are the trends you have noticed over the last few years? 

At a corporate level, a huge amount of effort and resources is still being poured into websites, and there is an ongoing trend of improvement, 8% on average since our first study in 2007. Companies have steadily got to grips with their websites. 

In the past, company websites sprung up like weeds, so by around 2002, many firms had lots of different websites doing different things, without thinking about how they all fit together. 

From around this point companies started taking the web more seriously and decided to pull their websites together. The European firms were the first to do this, and some started again from scratch as they started to take the internet more seriously. 

So, by the first FT Index in 2007, the European corporate sites we looked at were way ahead of their US counterparts which, with a few exceptions, such as General Electric, were a mess. 

Over the last four years that we have been doing this index, US companies have been doing what the Europeans had done before, and have made a lot of progress. 

For example, Proctor & Gamble had been way down the list, but thanks to a total rebuild, it is joint ninth this year. 

The Index is very critical of the corporate websites for Google, Microsoft and Apple, what do you think they are doing wrong? 

Some companies make the mistake of only considering corporate sires in terms of marketing, and so they are a mess for journalists seeking information, or for job hunters. 

With Apple and Microsoft, these companies are proud of being decentralised, and they have allowed that to continue across their websites. In the case of websites this approach is a huge mistake.

If you want to actually find out anything, then Apple.com is a nightmare. This is because they haven’t treated the website holistically, and have allowed one department to dominate the site. 

What makes a good corporate website? 

Corporate sites still immature, and there is no overall agreement about what a corporate website should be. 

Some say they are irrelevant thanks to social media, but I don’t agree with that view. For many companies though, their website is their biggest channel, their most significant publication. 

There are different possible approaches; for example Shell and BP are the top two sites in the survey, but they are very different. While Shell has relaunched its website twice in around two years, the BP site looks very similar to the one they had in 2003 t has just evolved and been refined over the years. 

A good website is one where the company decides what it wants to do with the website, and the result addresses these needs.

The purpose of a website may vary between firms, but the key is to communicate the message effectively. Corporate sites should be easy to use, and capable of serving the different audiences that may visit the site. 

A corporate website is a kind of billboard, and it can be many peoples first impression of a company so it needs to says something about them. 

Are brands which have had some bad publicity, e.g. Nestle, using their sites to react to events? 

Nestle has been slagged off for its poor response to the recent Greenpeace episode, but it responded through its website more quickly than others would have done. Nestle had a Q&A up on its website to address the points made by  Greenpeace  within 24 hours of the YouTube video. 

But they got themselves into trouble due to the Facebook page. They made the mistake of thinking that they owned their Facebook page. The Nestle rep tried to answer back and was torn to shreds. 

To a certain extent, I think that brands like Nestle can’t win on social media sites in circumstances like this. 

Nestle have learnt a huge lesson, the hard way, that other companies can learn from. No other company has tried to take on its critics on Facebook page before. 

Essentially, Nestle has done some real life testing of reputation management by social media, and has sustained a bit of a beating in the process. They discovered the hard way, and this is an example for other brands to learn from in future. 

You also mentioned Chevron as an example of a firm using social media to defend its reputation. How has it used YouTube?

YouTube is a powerful tool that companies can use for reputation management, as it avoids some of the potential problems of Facebook groups. Whatever comments people leave, brands’ videos remain at the top of the page. Brands can’t be mobbed as they can be on Facebook and other social media sites. 

Chevron has been involved with some lawsuits in Ecuador. I’m not certain of the rights and wrongs of the case, but this is an example of a corporate brand using a combination of YouTube and its own site to defend its reputation. It has published films of judges taking bribes, outlined its side of the case, and so on. 

One of the main themes in the Index is how companies are trying to integrate social media, but aren’t terribly sure how to use it. 

What are the organisational issues that influence corporate websites? 

There is this blurring between corporate communications and marketing, and all this has to come together in one site. Departments have to come together and talk, and this need, in some areas, is actually driving changes in internal structures. 

The best sites are the ones where a decision has been made to have a central web team sponsored by a senior manager, someone who can bash heads together. 

A much more overall, or holistic view is needed. So, while a site like that of Siemens blends marketing and communications information together to cater for different visitors, on Apple.com it seems that the marketing team has won the internal battle. 

Another point is that, if people at the top of the organisation don’t get the web, then the corporate site is likely to reflect this.