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The FT Bowen Craggs Index, which was published in FT Digital Business this week, celebrates all that is best in corporate websites. But come on, what’s really interesting is what’s worst, isn’t it? I have been going through the sites that fail to make the grade to see what patterns I can find.

It is important to make clear that, with a list of 60 companies, we are not saying these are the worst corporate sites – just the worst among the very large companies (selected evenly from the US, Europe and rest of the world) that we looked at. To see the list, click here.

The most obvious pattern is one of nationality. The lowest ranked company is China Mobile, preceded by two Russians (Gazprom and Surgutneftegas) and Saudi Telecom. Not far above them are Saudi Basic Industries and another Saudi company, Al Rahji Banking and Investment, as well Lukoil of Russia. Rather extraordinarily, half the companies in the 41st to 50th range are Japanese. In other words, if we divided the table into football-style divisions, 10 in each, the sixth division would be dominated by Russians and Saudis, and the fifth by the Japanese. As intriguing are the Europeans and Americans that are failing – but I will come back to them later.

Why are these companies bunched by nationality? Because, it seems to me, they are comparing themselves with each other, rather than looking at the best the world offers. The Saudi sites are pretty but light on content, while the Russians are basic first generation models – similar to many western site of about 10 years ago. Actually I quite like the design of Lukoil (www.lukoil.com) because it looks retro. But that is not I fear the intention.

All these companies need to look abroad to see the standards set elsewhere – not just in design, but also in areas such as social responsibility and the environment, where they are doing very little. It should not take much boosted content to send the Saudi sites zooming up the ranking, while all the Russians need is to put some money aside and start again. If they are looking for a home-grown example, they might like to examine Yukos (www.yukos.com). It is high quality because it is, or was, aimed at overseas viewers as part of the oil giant’s attempt to get sympathy and publicity before it went bankrupt (the site is still there – worth looking at, if only as an insight into the strange world of Russian business).

Russian and Saudi site owners might argue that the web is not so vital because their countries are relatively unwired (16.5 per cent and 10 per cent penetration respectively, according to internetworldstats.com). Japanese corporations cannot make the same claim. So what is wrong with their sites?

Well, the metric where the Japanese tend to do badly is ‘message’ – this covers visual design and specifically the role of the home page in portraying the company to the outside world. It is about brand in its broadest sense: what is the company saying to customers, but also to jobseekers, investors and anyone else. Japanese design tends to be clumsy, and I don’t think this is a matter of differing culture. Look at the home page of NTT (www.ntt.co.jp). Pointless use of Flash, crude superimposition of text on pictures, and oversized fonts are a bad idea anywhere. Honda’s corporate site (www.world.honda.com) is badly shown up by its American cousin (which has also bagged its rightful address, www.honda.com). The design is plain odd, with huge pictures pushing useful links out of sight . Click through to any subsidiary site and, just before you leave, a little cartoon man waves at you – sweet, but is this really one of giants of the corporate world?

The other sites come from the US or Europe, but for various reasons are just not very good. In fact some are plain bad. American International Group (www.aig.com) has a fundamental flaw in that it is really two sites (the other is www.aiu.com) and they are not well linked. The ‘about the company’ page has one paragraph. Investors, journalists and jobseekers get a poor service: non-Americans looking for a job are likely to find themselves in a loop between the AIU and AIG sites. And it is not much use to customers, especially if they are outside the US.

CitiGroup (www.citigroup.com) has a note saying a new site is coming soon, which is tacit admission that it needs a good overhaul, and it does. The messages it gives off are particularly weak, which is largely a function of old age. Pfizer (www.pfizer.com) is similarly long in the tooth. I hope it is given some of its own medicine soon.

More worrying are sites that are not old, but are still poor. AT&T (www.att.com) and EDF (www.edf.com) have some good features, but are let down by appalling construction. If you want people to get cross with you and your brand, make your site really hard to get around. These are not sites that are starved of resources, they are just uncoordinated - a sign, I would say, that no-one is in proper charge. EDF’s Flash-powered musical home page, which also acts as a navigation hub, must be the daftest device we found on any of the 60 sites we looked at.

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

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