Steel sites that fail to stack up brilliantly

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A lot of people in Port Talbot, IJmuiden and other steelmaking towns must have been looking at two websites recently. They work for Corus, formerly British Steel and Koninklijke Hoogovens, and they will have wanted to know as much as possible about the companies bidding to own them: Tata Steel of India (which has just won the battle) and Companhia Siderurgica Nacional of Brazil. Given that the web is the best – almost only - source of information on the two groups, I wonder which made them feel more comfortable.

The battle has also given me an excuse to look at sites belonging to giants in the developing world; and to see how they stack up against the Western corporations that take up most of my time. The answer: not brilliantly.

Putting myself into a Corus employee’s shoes, I wanted to see what messages the companies give out on their home pages, how professional the sites are and finally, if possible, how they treat their employees.

I started with the home page. What is the immediate impact?

CSN (www.csn.com.br) has nice photos that are industrial but manage to avoid a feeling of grime and dirt. One trick, very neat, is to take a shot that includes the tops of a plant’s chimneys, but that consists mainly of blue sky and green hills. I also got comforting messages about an obsession with quality - the main headline was about the company receiving the ISO 14001 certification. Another link I could not resist was ‘Political quality’. This turned out to be a set of intentions, including one that ‘we must guarantee that the morale of our employees is as high as possible’. Not much to do with politics, but mildly encouraging.

Tata Steel (www.tatasteel.com) is all flashing panels and bright colours: a two aspirin job. As well as a pictorial header that jumps around presenting a series of happy slogans, there are four other animated elements. Even the static bits are rather over the top – the banner announcing the acquisition has strange shadows on the fonts and a fading of colour. The Brazilian site feels comfortingly European; this one does not.

Websites reflect the cultures that produce them, so it would be quite surprising if an Indian site did feel European. So forget about that: start clicking the flashing buttons and see what happens. One says ‘Q3 results 2006-2007’ – I think we can ignore that. The other says ‘MD’s greetings 2007’, which looks much more interesting, and is. A window pops up with a Flash-powered graphic of a tree that grows out of the ground, surrounded by slogans such as Industrial harmony, Empowered Communities and Happy Employees. A message from the managing director then appears, headed ‘Greetings to all stakeholders for 2007, when Tata Steel will enter its centenary year!’ It’s all about sustainability, which shows that that mantra, at least, is shared around the world. ‘The purpose of business is not just making profits,’ Mr Muthuraman says – good news, probably, for the Corus line. It’s a shame though that Tata does not carry such clear expression through to its Vision 2007, which is ‘to seize the opportunities of tomorrow and create a future that will make us an EVA positive company’. Eh?

What about professionalism? CSN does not start well with its failure to work on many browsers: the ‘English’ link appears only on Internet Explorer, which will stymie many people. Navigation is rather clumsy, with an unnecessary animated effect as you pass the cursor over links. The investor relations section’s layout has nothing in common with the rest of the site, though at least it appears in a new window so you can always return. I am always unwilling to criticise non-anglophone companies for their English (you should hear my Portuguese), but a company with international pretensions should avoid having an ostentatious ‘Minning’ headline on its mining intro page.

The Tata site is better though it is quite unconventional, which never helps usability. It also has some oddities such as dropdown links that are so faint as to be almost unreadable. And even in the investor relations site it has a scrolling news ticker panel; I wish it would keep still for a moment.

I normally look at a combination of ‘community’ material and the careers section to see what it might be like working for a company. CSN limits my opportunities because it does not have a careers section, as far as I can see. It does have a social responsibility page, which is long and worthy. But in this area Tata wins hands down. Careers has its own substantial site, while the sustainability section is huge, full of pictures and displaying an impressive range of sporting and cultural activities. I wonder if we will see a Port Talbot chapter of the Tata Archer Academy?

Who would I rather work for? I can’t say. But I would ask the gents at Tata to switch off some of their animation; or they may find employees calling in sick with a headache.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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