Time to look at the website of the biggest company in the world. I have never looked at PetroChina before, but then again it only became the biggest company after a small slice of it was floated last week. That concentrated huge attention on it, not least through its site - which has been staggering under the weight of interest. That is a sign that the group did not realise how important the web was about to become; a lack of understanding that, for the moment at least, is shared by much of China’s corporate establishment.

In this year’s FT Bowen Craggs Index, the only Chinese participant was China Mobile (criteria is based on market capitalisation). Next year there will be a squad of them, thanks to surging values and new quotes. China Mobile came bottom of the 60 companies we examined this year, and while a an early glance suggests that the overall Chinese story will be much happier in 2008, the country’s corporate sites remain a long way from the cutting edge.

There is of course a good reason why the Chinese should not give the same emphasis to online communication as Western companies must. With 12.3 per cent of the population online (according to Internetworldstats.com), the web is not a plausible domestic mass communication channel. But what it is is a route to the middle classes (12.3 per cent does mean 162m people), and particularly to external audiences, especially investors. It is clearly that this latter group is most firmly in the minds of comms departments at the moment.

China Mobile’s site is an extreme and rather unhappy example of investor focus. The home page uses basic animation to tell us that it is a “mobile information expert”, but is otherwise a summary of financial and operating data. The look is plain, the layout clumsy, and the English flat (“Announcement with respect to appointment of director”). Although the company owns Chinese-language marketing sites, these are not apparently accessible from the corporate site, and we could not find any careers information in either English or Chinese. Of social responsibility material, obligatory on Western sites, there is no sign.

PetroChina’s site is much better but has been struggling to keep up with unwonted attention this week. I found it almost impossible to get into on Thursday, though it had staggered to its feet by Friday morning. Evidence that the website has been under much scrutiny – I wonder if the bosses will note this, and authorise the investment needed to make it more technically robust.

Being better than China Mobile is not a great accolade, of course. By Western standards PetroChina’s site is basic. The look is quite pretty – and distinctively Asian – but uses unnecessary animation. The content is far better balanced than China Mobile’s, with the standard sections we would expect from a big corporate, but the detail tends to the modest. Business Strategy, within About Us, is just one short page, while Products and Services information is notably thin. Investors are given a good depth of information, though it is all in downloadable pdf form and has none of the bells and whistles analysts are coming to expect. The fact that the investor home page is also the corporate governance page suggests that PetroChina is driven more by a need to fulfil requirements than an urge to exploit the medium. “The Company has always and conscientiously complied with the requirements of the China Securities Regulatory Commission …”, the page begins. My ‘lawyers in charge’ warning klaxon has been sounding furiously. Incidentally, I did check the Chinese version of the PetroChina site against the English one, and as far as I can see it covers much the same ground.

A group of Chinese banks has also moved into the big capitalisation league: Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Bank of China, and China Construction Bank. Three things strike me about them. First, they are serving consumers as slickly as anyone, in both Chinese and English. The ICBC is promoting a security device based on a USB stick, which looks scarily sophisticated. Second, corporate information is heavily skewed towards investors, with other elements getting cursory attention. ICBC has a deep archive of financial information, but no press section nor anything on social responsibility. Bank of China gives prominence to to its investor links, but tucks everything else away behind an About BOC link at the bottom of the home page. China Construction Bank appears to be taking the web most seriously of the three – one sign is that it has grabbed the “dot com” address favoured by international groups. But it too separates investor material off from About Us content – this section is still being built, which says something about priorities.

Third, the English on these sites ranges from somewhat flat to plain odd. The ICBC has a careers page that begins: “Top-ranking cause needs top-ranking talents and top-ranking talents desire to join in top-ranking team.” How good is your Chinese, you may ask indignantly, but the truth is that giant corporations do need to “speak” good English in the international medium of the web; and there no shortage of Anglophone editors they can draw on. I could of course have made the same criticism of most continental European companies a few years ago, which is a clue for the future. They have caught up, overtaken, and moved to the top of our Index. Will the Chinese do the same?

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

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