Last year's league table of the 50 largest contractors' websites found that firms had a lot to learn. Leeds University has just complied a second table: so which firms have got the hang of this e-marketing business?
Contractors can give themselves a pat on the back. Since the first league table of their websites was published last year, the quality of most sites has improved dramatically.

In 2000, the university's research showed that few companies were making effective use of their website as a marketing tool; most couldn't even be found without the URL. Now, 84% can be reached using search engines such as Yahoo and Google – a 54% improvement on 2000. Once you have found the site, more contractors are contactable through them, and response times are speeding up. Overall, the websites' scores have improved by more than 10% since 2000.

"The sites are easier to navigate and you can find contact details more readily – we're quite surprised at the progress," says Ian Cox, co-director of website research at the university.

The researchers assessed the websites according to the same three categories used in 2000's survey: the quality of the site's content, how easy it was to find an email address for the contractor and then get a response, and the quality of the postal response. These categories were given a 75%, 15% and 10% weighting respectively. The aim was to give a general indication of each website's effectiveness as a tool for promoting the contractor's business to its market.

And the winner is …
The survey for 2001 brings a new leader, MJ Gleeson, which says it was determined to improve on last year's sixth place and has proved it by thoroughly revamping its website.

In terms of email responses, the results were good, with 68% of contractors responding to emails within two to five days. Cox was impressed that more than half of the companies sent a postal response to his requests, although the quality of the information was variable.

As for website content, Cox found plenty of information available. However, it was not always relevant to the needs of customers, according to the criteria established by a focus group of architects, QSs, builders and engineers. "Key business areas should be explained – you can't assume the user is familiar with the company," says Cox. "More information about clients and more client testimonials should be included. This is the kind of information that helps users – potential new clients – make decisions."

The researchers also noted that more than a quarter of contractors did not publish their annual report and accounts online, and 15 made no reference to their health and safety or quality assurance policies.

MJ Gleeson won because it did include this information, and provided high quality responses to the researchers' emailed enquiries. Cox explains: "On the Gleeson site, contacts for each aspect of the business were easy to find and the information we received was relevant to our questions. The fact that Gleeson came top does not mean its site was better than the rest in every way, but that it can communicate effectively with customers."

John Macartney, Gleeson's group marketing director, is delighted – and relieved – with the company's success. "It's brilliant! It's so good because we really wanted to improve on last year's result and have done a lot of work to improve our response times."

The company has organised the site so that each of its offices can be readily contacted and enquiries go through to the relevant staff member. So why was Gleeson so anxious to improve? Macartney says: "We view the site as an important tool for communicating our strengths to customers, investors and potential new recruits." The site has about 4500 visitors a month.

Stay on your toes
Galliford, last year's top dog, blames its fall on its merger with Try Construction and a shift in focus. "Galliford Try owns three housing businesses and we are selling houses as a direct result of our website, so we've been putting our efforts into the homes web pages," says Steve Jennings, sales and marketing director at the group. But watch out for next year's league – Galliford Try says it is reorganising its web presence before Christmas. Soon, one home page will take the user to any of the company's 316 business units within three clicks.

HBG and Mansell have both improved their scores dramatically. HBG says it has completely rebuilt its site during the last year, with a strong emphasis on its recruitment pages. "We felt that recruitment is a key function of the website. We asked students and graduates to comment on the new pages as they were being developed, so that it was designed from a demand point of view," says Alan Smith, HBG's director of public relations. Cox adds that HBG was one of the few firms to add a personal touch to emailed response.

Mansell concentrated on improving navigation around its site, and added links to each of the pages to simplify the connections with the site's home page. The company is now looking to incorporate more project information so that consultants can access project details.

Contractors such as Carillion, Bowmer & Kirkland and Bovis Lend Lease did not respond to the researchers' emails, so scored less highly this year. Cox says most contractors could still improve on their response times.

Investors, job seekers, customers, employees and clients are all using the internet. To make a positive impression, a website needs to provide relevant information almost immediately. "The user will simply leave your site and go to another within seconds, if yours is confusing," says Cox.

The challenge is to make a website the extension of a company, rather than the poor relation of its brochure. As Galliford Try's Jennings says: "Nobody knows exactly how the web will develop over the next few years. But to come across as a big player, you've got to be there. You never know who might be looking."

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