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Nightmare on online street

Last month we looked at the best Web sites in the world. This month the tables are turned as we discuss the worst mistakes that can be made on the Web. By ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

What are the worst mistakes an organisation can make on its web site? How can you ensure that your company embarrasses itself as effectively as possible? One of my ongoing projects, called Nightmare on Online Street, is to collect samples of these mistakes as they occur.

The wonder of the World Wide Web, and its greatest terror, is that a web site is there for all the world to see, and sometimes even to save for posterity. The result is that the greatest mistakes made on corporate web sites or in corporate Internet strategy can stick around for years after the damage has been repaired.

In most cases, fortunately, once the damage is repaired the offence is quickly forgotten. It does depend, however, on how long it takes to repair the damage.

South African Breweries, for example, took around three years to change a front page that could not have been better designed to chase away visitors. The entire page consisted of a disclaimer that in effect disavowed responsibility for the accuracy of any information contained within the site. That’s like a bank having a sign on its front entrance saying ‚We take no responsibility for your safety once you enter these doors‚ . Last year they finally changed their site, introducing a user-friendly front page that was designed for consumers and investors rather than for the lawyers.

With the passing of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act this year, it may well be necessary for large businesses to refer their web sites to lawyers, but they really do need to keep them at arms-length.

Anglo-American also gave their design strategy over to the lawyers for a while. The result was that anyone calling up either the site itself or any press release on the site was first confronted with an additional window, known as a pop-up, containing a similar disclaimer to the one that used to grace the SAB site. Now the disclaimers are consigned to the bottom of the press releases where they belong, and few will hold the mistake against the lawyers.

Such mistakes are minor compared with the demands placed on users by many supposedly ‚advanced‚ sites. They add all kinds of bells and whistles that will make their sites look amazing ‚ eventually. For the viewer to experience these sights and sounds, they often have to accept the download and installation of a ‚plug-in‚ ‚ an additional piece of software that will add to the web browser’s functionality.

In most cases, however, visitors to these web sites have no understanding of the plug-in technology or even the reason for requiring the plug-in. All they see is that the site is attempting to download new software into their systems ‚ and most of them run a metaphorical mile. Unless they know their likely users are attuned to the Web and to new downloads, site developers should always design for basic web access contained in the currently popular browsers. Designers like to show off, however, even for the least possible benefit. Some sites require users to install something called the Comet Cursor, without explaining the benefits. Those who don’t know what it is certainly won’t install something so obscure, and those who do know what it is certainly won’t install it for fear of the known problems it causes on their computers.

So now you’ve made sure that your site is designed for usability, and not for lawyers or designers. What about the marketing people? They may be the most dangerous of all.

They are the ones who convince the site developers to put up unrealistic promises, such as a new design to be ready within the next 48 hours or 30 days or whatever they decided sounded good to the audience. One site that is no longer in existence promised ‚Back in 1 hour!‚ ‚ for several months. Most development and design work runs over the budgeted time, resulting in apologies or even embarrassment. And then the site goes up, but something goes wrong, and the site goes down. The marketing people tend to come up with creative excuses, which are then pasted on the front page of the site. The best excuse of all is to explain what really happened. The worst excuse is none at all, i.e. pretending that nothing happened. Almost as bad, however, is the excuse that insults the visitor’s intelligence. The best example, encountered constantly, is the one that says the site is temporarily unavailable due to its tremendous popularity. It’s hard to believe that there are people who believe the public will believe that one, yet it is one of the most popular excuses around.

Then there is what I call the Annual Going Out of Business Sale, which is the notice on a Web site to advise visitors that it is no longer operating. That’s fine when it is a small business that is taking down its web site and really going out of business. It’s not fine when it is a large brand or organisation, or part of a large corporation. The least that could be done is for visitors to be redirected to the corporate parent site. My favourite example was a company with the slogan ‚It can be done!‚ , which for almost a year appeared above a notice saying it had terminated all its services.

Finally, there is the public relations disaster that can occur when you ignore what others are doing to your brand on the Web.

The greatest South African example was the attempt by SAA to deny a former passenger the right to use the domain to publicise his dissatisfaction with his flying experiences. SAA roped in a large firm of US attorneys, best known for its government work, to fight their case. They claimed their trademark had been infringed, and cited precedents like Vivendi winning back and Accor beating down the owner of in support of their argument that people seeking their site would come across the antagonistic site and confuse it with the corporate site. The arbitrator in the case dismissed SAA’s claim as ‚nonsensical‚ , thus providing posterity with a great precedent for taking on corporate giants on the Web.

There are two rules for dealing with such online attacks. The first is, try to get to the heart of the problem and find an equitable way of satisfying the customer (as SAA admittedly did attempt to do before pulling out the legal bludgeon), even if it means a cash payout equivalent to demonstrable losses. The second is, don’t immortalize the failings of your customer service by taking your customer to court when you have slipped up.

We could add a third rule, although you might think it goes without saying: don’t ignore these customers.

Land Rover has done a superb job of ignoring a customer whose new vehicle was damaged while in the company’s care ‚ after numerous other complaints had been made about its performance. The company will not consider the reasonable request to replace the vehicle. In response, the customer has put up a web site entitled ‚Worst 4×4‚ , which has around 1500 pages viewed by visitors a month. The cost to the customer was three hours of design time. The cost to the company goes beyond bad public relations. Instead of a quick and obvious settlement, continued damage to both reputation and sales is guaranteed.

Unlike a recent court case which saw a rival motor manufacturer win an interim order against a customer who plastered his vehicle with slogans like ‚Worst 4×4 by far‚ , the customer in this case has given the manufacturer ample opportunity to respond. Its failure to do so is an example not only a public relations issue, but also one of its online strategy ‚ or lack thereof. Therein lies the biggest online mistake of them all.

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