Big-name Web sites lack basic guidelines

A survey by industry research firm Giga Information Group has found that most of the Web's top corporate and e-commerce sites don't meet some basic industry and government standards for access, navigation and customer interaction.

A survey by industry research firm Giga Information Group has found that most of the Web’s top corporate and e-commerce sites don’t meet some basic industry and government standards for access, navigation and customer interaction.

As part of its Web Site ScoreCard study, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Giga reviewed 200 major Web sites and found that most lack basic yet fundamental features such as privacy statements, action links that let users interact with the site, global navigation aids, text-only access, search tools and other accepted methods to assist disabled visitors.

Failure to include such features on Web sites can result in frustrated customers and lost business for companies, says Steve Telleen, head of Giga’s Web Site ScoreCard service and author of the study.

"Every Web site should do a set of basic things. We couldn’t find a single site that had everything," Telleen says. "The types of things that were missing are generally easy fixes, but at the same time, they are the structure of the Web site."

Giga compared some of the Web’s top sites with standards recognised by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Standards for Internet Commerce, as well as published results from leading usability studies.

"Companies are failing to adhere to some of the most basic standards on the front end of their e-businesses," says Telleen. "Some companies do fairly well, and some are completely lacking. This study gives them something to make decisions on. They can look at it as a scorecard or as an analytic tool."

A spokesman for the FTC, which enforces consumer protection laws, says although the commission hasn’t written any specific regulations for online companies, "everything we require for brick-and-mortar businesses, we require for online companies." For example, online consumers must have the option to cancel an order if the vendor can’t ship a product in the time advertised, the spokesman says.

Likewise, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in both the private and public sectors. Examples of Web aids for disabled people include colour-coding for the visually impaired and the option to use a keyboard for those who can’t operate a mouse.

New Emphasis

Tom Harms, geographic operations manager at Hewlett-Packard’s Web site, HP.com, says HP this week will launch a complete redesign of its Web site, with a new emphasis on access for the disabled and greater navigation help for international customers. HP.com was one of the sites reviewed by Giga.

"In terms of access for the disabled, most companies have fallen down on that," says Harms. "A large part of our new look-and-feel effort was to make the pages conform to the Americans With Disabilities Act. It’s been deemed highly important."

Gail Houck, CEO and president of Alexandria, Virginia-based Houck and Associates, a Web development consulting firm, says a shift is occurring in the online world of corporate America. In the past, Houck says, companies were more focused on the design of their Web sites, rather than the functions.

"Companies are finally starting to understand that more than one department has to be involved in designing a Web site," she says.

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