The latest survey of contractors' websites reveals that, with a few exceptions, the industry is failing to use the internet to its – and its clients' – advantage. We explore how, by following a few basic principles, construction firms can realise their online potential
Contractors' websites are lagging behind those of other industries and failing to exploit the potential of the internet, according to a survey by Leeds University. Four contractors are well ahead of the pack in the survey's league table: HBG, Galliford Try, Costain and Gleeson are separated by just one point each, and are 10 points clear of their nearest rival. But even they fall short of the standard set by the service sector.

This is the third survey by Dr Chris Preece of Leeds University's school of civil engineering. Preece says: "The picture is still poor compared with websites in other industries. The service sector is far more interactive with customers, and more sophisticated at gathering information on them. The top four contractors in the table compare fairly favourably, but could still do better on interactivity."

Preece isn't the only one who reckons the construction industry hasn't quite got the hang of websites. David Bentley, managing director of website developer NetConstruct, says: "Only a small number of contractors know what their websites are for, and their board and management have bought into it, and the firm has an e-business culture. A much larger number of contractors haven't realised the potential of what the internet can do for them. They all display their latest projects and news, but the net is all about two-way communication. Contractors can learn a lot from the websites of retailers and financial services firms."

Bentley believes that at many construction firms there is abundant enthusiasm for the internet at lower levels, but it hasn't reached the boardroom. The result is that "people are screaming for help to justify investment in websites to senior management".

Bentley claims a good website is particularly important if a firm is operating on a controversial site that could be vulnerable to a sudden bout of bad publicity. He says: "If something blows up at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, the media will go straight to the website – if you put your side of the story there, you can take a lot of heat out of the situation." Preece says websites are also a vital recruitment tool. He says: "At Leeds University, we know that 99% of students use websites to research companies."

So what's the secret of HBG's success? Preece highlights the fact that the look and content of the company's UK home page match up with the giant multinational's other websites. The firm researched competitors' websites and their own customers' needs, and trialled its own website extensively before it went online in autumn 2001. It also took advice from new media consultant Open, which told them to focus on simplicity and rapid response time.

People are screaming for help to justify investment in websites to senior management

David Bentley, NetConstruct

Give your company website a health check

  • Accessibility
    Enter your company name in an internet search engine. Your company website should be the first address that comes up. If it’s not in the first 10, you’re in trouble.
  • Speed
    When you click a link to a page on your website, how long does it take to open?Remember it only takes a few seconds for impatient internet surfers to start drumming their fingers and go to another site.
  • Responsiveness
    If a user emails an enquiry to your company website, how long do they wait for a response? The answer should be less than two working days.
  • Design
    Is the website attractive to look at? Does it give the impression of a leading company or a struggling business with no budget to spare?

  • Recruitment
    The careers section of the site needs to sell the company to potential employees. The list of job openings must be comprehensive, bang up-to-date and searchable by salary, location and type of job.
  • Checklist
    How many of the following can users find on your site with two clicks of the mouse: head office phone number, annual results, company news for the last two weeks, an email address for submitting CVs, and an enquiry form for potential clients? The answer should be all of them.
  • Five tips on lateral thinking

    Relax and concentrate Get out of the working environment – if you’re in the office, take a stroll outside. If you’re at home, turn off the television. And wherever you are, switch off your mobile. Suspend judgment Don’t dismiss any idea out of hand, no matter how wild or fanciful it might seem. Wacky ideas can be turned into something workable but dull ones can’t be made exciting. Follow a train of thought Let your mind wander, and jump from one idea to another. Try saying, or writing down, the first thing that comes into your head. Borrow ideas Creative thinking isn’t all about originality – try taking someone else’s idea and giving it a new spin, for example by applying it in a situation where it hasn’t been used before. Test your conclusions If you’ve followed the first four steps and reckon you’ve produced a fantastic brainwave, that’s great. But now you need to look at it from every angle – try running it by other people.

    Net assets: How the scoring system works

    The survey ranks the top 50 contractors as featured in Building (19 July 2002, page 44), on the quality of their websites. The scoring system gives the greatest weighting to the website’s content, which covers a range of features including company news, office locations, recruitment, accounts and environmental policy. Next in order of importance comes responsiveness: opportunities for users to send emails and enquiry forms to the company through its website, and the speed of the company’s response. The accessibility score reflects how easy a site is to navigate, and how easy it is to find using search engines such as Google. The design score is based on the site’s layout, menu, links and overall visual impression. Leeds University’s assessment took place between September and November 2002.