Sites Might Be Off-Track With Rich Media, Studies Suggest

New studies released Monday suggest that Web publishers hoping to make their sites more attractive to consumers might want to rethink using bandwidth-intensive rich media features.

According to a survey conducted by New York-based Jupiter Media Metrix, 40 percent of Web surfers indicated a preference for getting information from sites that are fast-loading and customizable, rather than those that offer cutting-edge technologies like rich media.

Similarly, using rich media technologies can hinder consumers’ ability to locate Web sites. A recent study conducted by search engine optimization firm iProspect suggested that using technologies like Macromedia Flash could hurt sites’ chances of being indexed by Web search engine spiders.

“Every Fortune 100 company today is spending millions of dollars to develop aesthetically pleasing Web sites with high quality content in the hope of attracting potential customers,” said Fredrick Marckini, who is founder and chief executive of Arlington, Mass.-based iProspect. “Unfortunately, many of the design elements that make Web sites visually attractive may also render these pages invisible to search engines. The result is that many of these Web sites are difficult and sometimes impossible for users to find on anything other than a search for the actual company or brand name.”

The findings, which fly in the face of the millions already spent on advanced site technology — like the near-ubiquitous Flash intros — suggest that bigger spending isn’t necessarily better.

“To make the best use of their budgets in the near term, most companies should avoid risky, glamorous Web enhancements,” said Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Cormac Foster. “Before beginning any site development, companies should survey their users because every site’s users are different. Retail sites especially might learn that they can address their user experience issues at a low cost without having to invest in new technologies.”

Such findings are also bad news for specialty rich media, 3D and virtual reality technology or design shops, many of which market their services to Web sites — e-tailers, especially — by promising a more immersive, compelling experience for users. The thinking is that these sorts of enhancements will encourage users to stay on the site for longer, and return more often.

However, e-commerce consumers polled by Jupiter said they’d rather have a faster loading page, citing that as the third-most important driver for their return visits (behind increased product information and ways to make product suggestions).

As a result, analysts say that companies can make their sites more appealing to consumers without any additional investment in technology — and should take steps to understand those needs before investing in more expensive, lower-ROI initiatives using rich and emerging media.

“Companies must perform surveys of their Web visitors that provide appropriate incentives for the participants,” Foster said. “In the current business climate, it is more important than ever to give users the best possible experience. Well-orchestrated surveys are likely to show companies that they can achieve a high-level of user satisfaction by making only basic and inexpensive enhancements.”

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