The first-ever league table of contractors’ web sites is about to be published, and it shows that you don’t have to be big to rule the net. Here’s how the rankings were compiled, and how to challenge for the top spot in 2001.

A medium-sized Midlands contractor has whipped construction giants Carillion, Bovis Lend Lease and Balfour Beatty to come top of a new league of contractors’ web sites. Leicestershire-based Galliford leads the first-ever table of contractor’s sites, as researched and compiled by the civil engineering department of Leeds University.

The university’s research showed that, on the whole, contractors’ web sites were not effective marketing tools. The survey identified a number of defects that would dissuade users from accessing the site and getting the information they needed. Many fell at the first hurdle, proving difficult to access without exactly the right web address. The researchers also found that the on-line information was not relevant enough to the needs of the user and that firms were poor at responding to requests they received through their sites.

Chris Preece, a researcher and lecturer specialising in marketing and business development at the university’s school of civil engineering explains the purpose of the exercise. “We saw e-commerce developing and wanted to see how web sites were being used as a marketing tool by contractors,” he says.

The first step in compiling the rankings was to track down web sites for the firms in researcher ABI’s top 50 contractors. Preece and his colleagues began by using search engines such as Yahoo, AltaVista and Freeserve, but only 30% could be found this way. Some were easy to find through guesswork; www.wates.co.uk, for example, would not overtax most surfers’ powers of deduction (although they would be lucky to hit on www.shepherd-integrating-innovation. co.uk). The remaining addresses had to be gleaned by phoning the company and asking. One-fifth of the firms had no site, or one that was under construction or one that was not found.

Once identified, the sites were assessed according to three categories: how easy it was to find an e-mail address for the contractor and then get a response, the quality of its content and the quality of the content of the postal response. These categories were given a weighting of 15%, 75% and 10% respectively.

In the first category, the speed of response showed a serious lack of integration between the web site and the departments responsible for dealing with e-mail requests: more than half of the contractors failed to post a copy of their latest brochure.

However, most points were awarded for the web site itself. To define exactly how this should be gauged, Preece got together a focus group of engineers, QSs, architects and builders and asked them to identify the information that they needed. This covered extracts from the company’s report and accounts, past projects, client testimonials, partnering experience and evidence of good health and safety practice.

Other criteria were how easy the sites were to navigate, their design and level of interaction and contactability.

The results speak for themselves – and it is not necessarily the big contractors that have the best web sites. Galliford was suitably appreciative of its success. “I have to say it is a most unusual honour,” says Steve Jennings, sales and marketing director and the brains behind its web site.

One example of how to organise a successful site is given by fourth-placed Carillion, which gets 33 000 hits a month for its home page. The content side of it is run by the corporate affairs department with the firm’s IT staff providing technical back-up. However, its content does require constant attention: “It’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge: we are constantly updating it,” says John Davies, media relations manager and the man responsible for content.

Kier is pleased with its ninth position in the league tables. Group IT director Terry Walker is planning to upgrade the site towards the end of the year. He will be looking to expand its e-commerce capabilities, allowing plant to be hired on-line. The firm already has a facility for tendering for work through its web site.

Recruitment is a valuable side-benefit of an attractive site. The Internet is a major source of information for those graduates that have grown up with the web. It has been said before, but firms that show they are leaders in the Internet stakes are going to be leaders in recruiting the high-calibre staff that make or break a company’s reputation. “If you ask a graduate recruit where they get company information from, it will be from a web site because they are so used to it. It is not the last thing they do but the first,” says Jennie Price, chief executive of the Construction Confederation.

But web sites are not the be-all and end-all of winning work. Those that put tender lists together will not, as yet, base their decisions on the quality of a contractor’s Internet presence. It is early days for these sites as a means of information but their importance will grow. According to Rob Smith, London managing partner with Davis Langdon & Everest, they will soon need to contain the information identified by Preece’s focus groups. “It is in its infancy and I wouldn’t discount a firm because its web site wasn’t up to scratch,” he adds.

To keep a watchful eye on the changes in the quality of contractors’ web sites, the team at Leeds University plans to run the league table annually. In the next 12 months they also plan to publish a ranking for the top 50 consultants.

Wot, no Amec?

Amec does not appear in the ranking because it does not submit its contract awards to ABI’s survey of the top 50 contractors for the 12 months to January 2000. This does not mean that it does not have a web site: in fact, Amec will launch the first phase of its upgraded site (www.amec.com) in October with a completed version ready at the beginning of January. The revamp has been prompted by the acquisitions Amec made last year, particularly that of Canadian contractor Agra. The upgraded site is being co-ordinated by the Toronto office of Amec.

How Galliford made it to the top

Galliford.co.uk first reached Internet screens around the globe in July 1998. Now everything the company does goes on the site, including the annual report and accounts, press releases and contract awards. “We know the clients are increasingly using it because of the hit rate [which is about 800 a month],” says Steve Jennings, the contractor’s sales and marketing director. Two years ago, the contractor was not so confident. “It was an act of faith to start with. We knew electronic business and e-commerce were coming in and the technology was available,” says Jennings. Galliford invested £12 000 and got together with Ramesys, the company that had handled its IT support for the past 12 years. It also employed a Warwick-based graphic design firm called Watermark to come up with the layout. But the work was not over once it was up and running. Jennings found that it had to be continually updated. He also advises a redesign once a year to keep the home page fashionable and attractive and to make sure the links to other pages are clear. As of this week, all the company’s vacancies will be advertised on the Internet. Already, half the responses to any job advertisement come via e-mail. The new process will allow applicants to fill in an on-line application form that goes straight to the human resources department.