Top Corporations Clean Up Web Sites, Privacy Policies

Top companies seek more information from online customers, but offer more transparency into how the information will be used than they once did. The retail report from The Customer Respect Group rates companies on site usability, communications, and trust, among other factors on the Top 100 of the Fortune 500 sites.

Overall, Intel and Sears Roebuck rated highest with scores of 7.9. Scoring 7.0 or higher, the next 12 ranking include Hewlett-Packark, Medco Health, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Pfizer, Bank of America, CVS, McKesson Corporation, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Sprint. The average overall site performance is 5.7.

Fewer companies share personal data than they did in the past; 45 percent state they don’t share collected information with affiliates, business partners or third-parties. While information is maintained in-house, many companies use it to market to customers, often failing to provide a clear opt-out option.

“They make it very clear to opt-out of third-party, but for their own uses it’s a lot harder to get out,” Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group, told ClickZ Stats.

Collected data are used to pigeonhole customers and site visitors for marketing purposes, said Golesworthy. “We’re finding a lot more demographical marketing information collected.”

While more data are gathered from visitors, clear messaging regarding how information is used helps build trust. News of data security leaks and companies handing over personal data make customers wary of putting personal information into forms.

“The fire is being fanned by stories about lack of data security and data breaches,” said Golesworthy. “Part of that is also from the bottom of the spectrum, proliferation of e-mail and how it has spread around.”

One example of a company addressing such concerns is Bank of America, which categorically states on its site that information it collects will never be shared. “There’s an increasing demand for companies to categorically tell you they will not share data,” said Golesworthy. “And most, of course, change their policies to comply.”

Features such as search functionality, site maps, and a list of frequently-asked questions (FAQ) aid most sites’ usability. The majority of sites evaluated had search functionality; 43 percent of those had advanced search functions. Forty-six sites had comprehensive FAQ sections, and 71 percent offered site maps. All three features, an FAQ, site map and search, were utilized by 41 of the evaluated sites. About three-quarters of the 100 sites evaluated maintained a consistent navigation structure throughout.

“Customers want consistency,” said Golesworthy. “From a customer’s perspective, they want to get in, find what they want and get out again.”

Web sites haven’t made strides in reaching out to disabled users. Little has been done to address the six percent of the male population who are color blind; blind Internet users; and a growing number of retired surfers who seek design features such as color contrasts; text-to-speech; and resizable text.

“There have been standards in place since 1999. It’s seven years later, and adoption is slow,” said Golesworthy, though he said a California lawsuit against Target.com for not providing access to the visually impaired may change online practices, depending on the outcome.

Company responsiveness is another area in which Web sites show improvement. The time it takes to respond to most e-mail requests has shortened, though about 19 percent of e-mails continue to go unanswered. In most cases, e-mail turnaround is one day.

“Timeliness is still a bit of a struggle for them,” said Golesworthy. “E-mail is a moving target, e-mail coming in is increasing dramatically.”

Many online retailers and larger companies are adopting new ways to communicate with customers. Chat and instant messenger programs are a simple alternative to e-mail or phone for customers, and cost effective for the company. Golesworthy said chat operators can conduct three or more conversations at a time.

“An increasing number of companies are trying to provide direct access to a human,” said Golesworthy. “[Chat] is in the middle between telephone and e-mail, where you expect a one-day response time.”

The Customer Respect Group evaluates the performance of Web sites of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies. The report looks at more than 130 aspects of the online user experience with an emphasis on site usability, communications, and trust.

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