ONE of the basic rules of good web design is that websites should work for people using different browsers. However, many companies — including some with award-winning sites — are ignoring this accepted practice.
Failing to support other browsers makes companies look incompetent and unresponsive.
According to our reviews, there are widespread browser compatibility problems on IR websites today. They range in severity, but most are due to sites favoring proprietary technologies and not being designed to recognized international web standards.
Making matters worse, at least one website awards program has recently given top honors to sites that are defective. This calls into question the validity of the awards since they recognize companies that are snubbing up to a third of their online audience.
Companies whose websites do not work in multiple browsers risk alienating users and damaging their credibility. Investors who experience sites that don’t work properly in their preferred browser are likely to perceive that the company uses unreliable technology and that it lacks expertise.
The negative impression is aggravated if the problems are not fixed for extended periods, or when users are technologically sophisticated and know that the company is not following standards and managing its website properly. Informed users may even conclude that a company is mismanaging its money if it unveils a new site that isn’t compatible with multiple browsers.
Firefox, I.E. 7.0 put compatibility back on agenda
Cross-browser compatibility has always been a standard part of good web design and development. However, due to the almost complete domination of the browser market by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer many web managers and developers have neglected cross browser testing.
However, with the introduction in 2004 of the new Firefox browser, many companies will find that their sites don’t look or function the same way in the new browser as they do in Internet Explorer. This is because Firefox adheres to the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standard-setting body for the Internet. As such, it does not support Microsoft and other proprietary coding that web developers may use on their sites.
Since its release in November 2004, Firefox has rapidly grabbed market share, with global share in January 2006 estimated at about 11%, according to Onestat. In the U.S., the share is 12.55% while in Canada it is 18.43%. Other surveys put Firefox’s share as high as 30% in Finland and 25% in Germany.
Even mighty Microsoft has taken notice. It is working on an unscheduled upgrade of its Internet Explorer browser to compete with the superior functionality of Firefox. Furthermore, in its upcoming Internet Explorer 7.0 browser, Microsoft plans to support W3C standards more completely than in the past. The result is that sites designed for the vagaries of Internet Explorer 6.0 may not work properly in the new browser, as described in this checklist put out by the company’s browser team.
It’s important to take note that even though it’s overall share is low, Firefox users make up a highly influential segment of the Internet population. Part of Firefox’s demographic dovetails with that of online investors and opinion leaders. These users are well educated, earn high incomes, are early adopters of new technologies, and typically have the capability to influence others through blogs and other media.
However, one should not make the mistake in thinking browser compatibility is all about Firefox and Internet Explorer. There are other browsers that may have problems viewing your website. They include Apple’s Safari browser, Nestcape Navigator and the less well-known Opera. Also increasingly important is software for mobile devices and for disabled users.
Award-winning IR sites fall short of best practice
Our reviews in recent months confirm that problems are widespread. Among the sites experiencing severe problems are some that have recently been honored in awards programs. This raises serious questions about the validity of the awards and the expertise of the evaluators.
Take Edison International as an example. In February 2006, the company was recognized for having the “Most Innovative & Trendsetter IR Website” by the IR Global Rankings, a program run by a Brazilian outfit called MZ-Consult that is backed by the local Sao Paulo offices of ADR sponsor J.P. Morgan, audit firm KPMG and law firm Linklaters.
Edison International has a Flash-heavy investor relations website that is slow and cumbersome in Internet Explorer. In Firefox, however, the site is utterly unusable. This is shown in the two screen shots below.
Another example is British American Tobacco, which has won many awards for its IR website. In 2005, it was ranked #1 in the United Kingdom by MZ-Consult in its IR Global Rankings & Awards.
But there’s one rather significant detail the evaluators seem to have missed about BAT. Its site did not work in Firefox the same way it did in Internet Explorer. The screenshots below show how pages on the site are jumbled and the left navigation does not work in non-Microsoft browsers.
The result is that BAT’s site is unusable for a significant segment of the online population because it is not standards compliant. More importantly, the company does not seem to be reviewing its site regularly in multiple browsers, because this problem persisted for several months — not what you would expect of a best practice IR website.
Another of MZ’s award-winning sites, that of Brazilian bank Unibanco, has similar problems. The site’s navigation scheme is corrupted in Firefox, which effectively renders the site unusable. (See screenshots below).
The Unibanco situation has an added twist because the site is only three months old. To the astute user, this suggests that despite widespread publicity of the need to design websites to international standards, the bank and/or its vendors are either ignorant or negligent.
More broadly, many IR websites that use Thomson Financial‘s products are not properly supporting Firefox users. Three common issues are:
- Firefox does not support Windows Media Player’s proprietary technology so users may prefer RealPlayer. Yet Thomson Financial does not support both players equally.
- In some Thomson webcasts, an automatic compatibility test incorrectly identifies Firefox as an old version of Netscape and issues a false warning that the webcast cannot be played properly.
- Many Thomson sites use improper coding that results in within-page links that do not work properly.
Even when sites are properly designed and coded, users of other browsers may have problems viewing content that requires a plug-in. Firefox users may have to reinstall Flash and Java before the browser will render content formatted in these technologies.
Web managers should anticipate potential problems when providing Flash and Java content by providing HTML versions of the same content by default, and by using detection code and help features when plug-ins are required.
More attention needed to IR websites
Browser compatibility problems are symptomatic of a wider neglect of web-based communications by IR and other communications professionals. Managing an IR website effectively is a difficult and complex task. It requires skill, attention to detail and a keen understanding of the audience. Most of all, it takes a commitment to building effective relationships with investors and shareholders.
The Web is growing more complex and sophisticated at a very rapid pace. Investors are able to access the Internet through a growing number of devices, from handhelds to super large screen monitors. New technologies are changing the way in which information is published and distributed, including RSS for news and XBRL for financial data.
Rapid changes in technology and regulation mean it’s vital that firms pay more attention to their IR websites.
The Web is also being increasingly recognized and relied upon by regulators to ensure equal and more effective access to information for all market participants.
All of this means IR departments need access to competent consultants, web developers and service providers. They need to make someone in the department responsible for managing and coordinating all aspects of the IR website. At large companies with many shareholders, this is a full-time position, even when parts of the site are outsourced to vendors.
Yes, it costs money and it’s difficult to measure the value. But the reality today is that most investors spend more time interacting with a company’s IR website than any other type of contact with the company. A site that doesn’t work in all browser software, or which fails to meet the needs of investors in other respects, is an indication that the company doesn’t value its shareholders.