A paradox: Why isn’t every Web site a great site?

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In the mid 1980s, years before the Web, I found myself in France for a week interviewing various businesses about their use of Minitel, France’s ‘‘videotex’’ online service.

At one stop, an executive at an online shopping service made a comment that, at the time, I thought was marvelously insightful and logical.

‘‘On Minitel,’’ she said in accented English, ‘‘a good idea is promulgated overnight.’’

Her theory was that because companies could review the design and functionality of their competitors’ online efforts, they would quickly make a habit of appropriating the best ideas as their own. Individual innovation would still occur, she suggested, but it would be short-lived, as good ideas promulgated like ripples on a pond.

Elegant as her analysis sounds, it really has not come to pass. In this issue, BtoB’s NetMarketing 200 list (starting on Page 24) demonstrates a tremendous variability among b-to-b Web sites. Even sites within one of the 15 vertical industries we survey often finds breathtaking differences from the top of the category to the bottom. For the most part, though, the category leaders feature e-commerce, personalization and various online business applications; at the bottom are sites with routine marketing information and generally no interactive features.

A closer look at the NetMarketing 200 also reveals that some industry sectors--notably Manufacturing: High-Tech, and Financial Services and Insurance--are very high caliber, with the difference from the top of the list to the bottom only a few points on our grading scale of 0-35. By comparison, the Agriculture/Food Processing sector shows a differential ranging from 30 to 13 points.

Why these big differences in Web site quality and features? There are at least two immediate explanations: the technical sophistication of the industry and a financial opportunity to use the Web site to bring in revenues. Looked at in this way, it is no wonder high-tech manufacturing, then Software and Financial Services and Insurance take the top honors on our lists. (, in fact, was the only b-to-b Web site to achieve a perfect score of 35. See Page 31 for a profile of this quintessential b-to-b site.)

Finally, the French executive years ago was dead wrong in assuming that creating compelling and useful online sites was easy. It’s not. It takes money, unwavering boardroom buy-in and, above all, talented developers and marketers who can develop an Internet strategy and continually revise it in reaction to changing customer needs and competitive forces.

Undoubtedly, flawed b-to-b Web sites are challenging their owners. Some companies are reaching a point where they will have to decide to commit serious resources to these efforts or accept the harsh fate of standing still while their competitors rocket ahead.

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