By Sharon Gaudin

A recent survey of devout Web surfers shows that people's online expectations have skyrocketed over the last few years and they're quick to reject any Web site that doesn't keep up.

"Expectations are equally high regardless of whether people are online for work reasons or for personal reasons," says Michael Reene, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Enterpulse Corp., the consulting firm that ran the survey. "If a Web site doesn't meet their expectations, two-thirds say they don't return -- now or ever. They'll visit you and leave and you'll never know.

"We call it the Internet death penalty," adds Reene, who says they surveyed 300 people who use the Internet at least once a day. "You don't know how many people terminate their business with you because your Web site isn't good enough. We found intolerant demand."

There are four keys to what makes up a great Web site, according to Reene. The survey found that:

  • 96% said the site has to be continually updated;
  • 96% said it has to be easy to navigate;
  • 93% said the Web site must have in-depth information on its subject, and
  • 89% said they demand a quick load and response time.

And most Web sites -- other than the high-volume, high-visibility sites like Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, Yahoo and Google -- are not meeting expectations, says Andrew Bartels, research leader for e-business applications at Giga Information Group.

"It's fair to say that the benchmarks have risen," says Bartels, who adds that the high-visibility sites that are at the top of their game account for only 1% to 2% of the Web sites out there. "The quality today is better than it was two or three years ago but expectations have gone up at the same time. People simply expect more."

And the industries that are, in general, giving them more are the ones that have had the most competition from the dot-coms, according to both Reene.

"Amazon.com caused Barnes & Noble to have a great site," says Reene, adding that education, government and utilities seem to be the industry laggards in terms of their online presence. "Priceline caused Delta to have a wonderful Web presence. Where the industry was threatened by the dot-com intrusion, those businesses have responded remarkably."

Bad Web Site Can Damage Company Image

Being a laggard in the Internet age can be a formidable business hazard, says Lisa Melsted, an analyst of Internet business strategies at the Yankee Group.

Melsted says the health care industry is emerging as a Web presence while finance, retail and news publications pick up speed. But those that are dragging behind are putting their companies at risk. A bad Web site could damage public perception and branding.

"It's a learning process with very little time to learn," says Melsted. "Companies that may just be getting up to speed or that haven't invested as much in their site are at risk. Once someone has been online for a while and they get accustomed to a certain standard, anything less is a turn off."

And there are ways to tell if your Web site is a hazard or a boon for your business. Bartels recommends tracking specific trends on a Web site, such as:

  • Abandoned shopping carts, which could indicate the purchasing process is too complicated or it's not easy enough to change orders or quantities;
  • Visitors who come to the Web site look at one or two pages and disappear;
  • Dead ends that cause users to work their way backwards to get somewhere else on the site;
  • Low 'book-to-look' ratios. A site is expected to have 95 visitors for every five who actually buy something. If that 5% average drops down to 2% or 3%, it's a sign that something isn't working right, and
  • Broken links -- if a user clicks on something and it doesn't take her anywhere, she's going to leave the Web site.

Bartels and Melsted also recommend keeping a few rules in mind:

  • It should only take three pages from the time a user enters a site to get where he wants to go. Any more work than that and he will leave for a competitor's site;
  • Avoid fancy streaming video and flash introductions that hinder the experience for anyone without a high-speed connection;
  • Make sure there are multiple ways for users to find the information they want. A town government site, for instance, should not only have a listing of licenses but should have 'event listings', such as Getting Married or Starting a Business. Both routes will move users to the licensing information they need and one will help them find related information;
  • Technology is always evolving so keep your search engines updated, and
  • Make basic company information, like the main phone number and address, within one click of the homepage.
Reprinted from DataMation, an internet.com site
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