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How do vendor web sites stack up?

Sept. 28, 2005
Is it easy to find the information you're looking for on vendor web sites, or do you get lost after the first dozen clicks? Here’s a summary of the results of a recent survey on how supplier web sites measure up.
By Larry O’Brien, Research Director ARC Advisory Group, and Walt Boyes, Editor in ChiefARC and CONTROL jointly surveyed automation end-users to determine what is important for customers when it comes to automation supplier web sites and how the suppliers measure up. Is it easy for customers to find the in-formation they are looking for, or do they get lost after the first dozen clicks? Here’s a summary of the survey results.Does a Vendor Website Matter?
Web sites have evolved to the point where they are the primary outward facing presence for automation suppliers, both for new and existing customers. Public supplier web sites have manifold purposes, ranging from public rela-tions to technical support and e-commerce. Many end-users reported that large corporate websites, such as ABB, GE, Honeywell, Siemens and others were less easy to use than end-user-targeted websites. This is almost certainly because of the dominant role of these sites in providing public relations and investor relations data, rather than technical information. Good Content and Ease of Use Rule
It’s a no-brainer that content and ease of use would rate pretty highly among automation supplier customers as key criteria for web sites. More than 75 percent of total non-supplier respondents rated content and ease of use as being very important or extremely important. This only highlights the growing importance of automation supplier web sites as the primary means of communication between the supplier and their customers. Good content is important, but what constitutes good content? For most respondents, product specifications and technical data are of primary importance (See Figure 1). Documentation and software downloads were important to close to 23 percent of respondents. Product configuration capabilities also ranked high, with a weight of close to 10 percent. What these statistics indicate is that most of the customer visits to supplier web sites are probably their existing customers looking for support data that is relevant to products that they already have rather than potential customers looking for information about a prospective purchase. FIGURE 1: WHAT USERS WANT
It is clear what end users want from a supplier website. What is not clear is whether suppliers are listening.

This does not preclude, however, the importance of the web site as a tool for attracting new customers. Product and services selection and application tools, for example, were ranked third in importance with a weight of 12 percent. Information on industry-specific solutions also carried a high ranking of more than 10 percent, which could also be a potentially powerful attractor for new clients. What is also reflected in the “good criteria” list is the relative lack of importance of the e-commerce function. Plac-ing orders ranked last in level of importance, accounting for less than a percentage point of weight in the total rankings. This could reflect a couple of key trends in the automation market that distinguishes it from other indus-tries. First, automation solutions often contain a high degree of customization depending on the industry, application, environment, regulatory requirements, and so on. This high level of customization does not lend itself well to the “point and click” approach to purchasing products on the Internet. This statistic also reflects the conservative nature of automation market end users, particularly in the process industries. Many of the key accounts that conduct e-commerce with automation suppliers do so through customized portals that have a highly secure connection, and not through public web sites. However, we must also point out the high volume of business that automation-focused e-commerce sites are doing, such as Omega Engineering (more than 50% of Omega’s order volume is now online) and the automation portal on E-Bay. This suggests that end-users who want information go to the suppliers’ web-sites, and some of those wishing to purchase do go to dedicated e-commerce sites.Second, a good search engine was ranked as the most important criteria for ease of use (See Figure 2), and can be a real timesaver when you need quick support information on a specific product. For many end users, the search engine, if it is easy to access and use, is the first place to go for information. The number of clicks it takes to get to the infor-mation you need is probably not that obvious to you until you realize you’ve been clicking for five minutes and still haven’t found what you are looking for, so it was no surprise that minimal clicks was the number two criterion with a weight of close to 26 percent. Having the web site structured around the product categories offered by the sup-plier, carrys a weight of 24.5 percent. FIGURE 2: THE ULTIMATE SUPPLIER WEB SITE
End users find agreement over what a good website should contain, and how it should be organized.
Think Global, Act Local
Respondents were split when it came to the preference for a single global site versus country-specific sites. Most customers want to see what the supplier’s capabilities are in their specific country, particularly in developing economies such as China and India, but the need for global corporate information and the presentation of a single face to the customer is also important. The divisiveness among respondents on the global versus local issue was reflected in the many comments we re-ceived for this question. One respondent remarked that there should be a single global web page from which the user can navigate to country-specific web pages. Another remarked that they hated country-specific web sites be-cause it made them wonder what they were missing on the other country web sites. This same phenomenon has occurred within some supplier companies, where the local organization creates its own web site to share in-depth data with clients within its region, but these independent web sites are usually not shared with clients from other countries. Management within the supplier company itself may be unaware that “rogue” country-specific web sites exist within their organizations. How Much Information is Too Much?
Respondents were equally divisive over their views on obtaining only the specific information they need versus being exposed to information about the supplier’s other products and services. Almost 54 percent of respondents stated that they like to see a wide range of product and service information, while the rest preferred to see only the specific information they needed. This response is interesting for several reasons. If close to half of the respondents prefer to see only the specific information they need, it follows that they also know what they are looking for before they go to the web site. This only underscores the importance that suppliers must attribute to existing customers coming to their web sites looking for product and technical support information. Of course, there is also a great opportunity for cross selling among automation suppliers. Most of the large automa-tion suppliers have diverse businesses that include not only automation systems, sensors and actuators, but also products that would normally be considered outside the scope of traditional automation, such as electrical equip-ment, building automation systems, and material handling systems. According to the results of this survey, at least half of customers seem to be open to the idea of finding out more about what the supplier has to offer them outside what their initial interests may include. Suppliers and End-Users Agree
Here are some clear website goals for supplier websites:
  • Have an information-focused website, different than the investor relations website of the parent company.
  • Have a site that is easily searched by a site-wise search engine, and is easily spidered by outside search engines.
  • Make your website navigation as intuitive as possible. One respondent said, “I don't count clicks - if it takes twelve, but each click was intuitive, that's ok by me.”
  • Keep your information technical and actionable.
  • Keep your site updated and fresh.

Survey Respondents

ADMITTEDLY, THE survey is a relatively small sampling of the automation community. We received a total of 79 re-sponses from non-supplier clients, which includes end users, systems integrators and engineering firms, and OEMs. Including the suppliers, we received 141 responses, but we have removed the supplier responses from the analysis presented here because of the obvious bias. Surprisingly (or maybe not if you believe that suppliers can be their own worst critics), the filtered results do not vary greatly from those with the supplier responses.

From a geographic perspective, sixty-three percent of our non-supplier respondents were from North America. Al-most 18 percent came from Western Europe, with other responses received from regions such as China, Japan, India and Eastern Europe.

About a quarter of our non-supplier respondents were in management positions in their company, while about 20 percent were systems engineers. Other disciplines represented included plant engineering, sales, maintenance and plant operations.

We also tried to get a feel for what types of products our respondents had influence in purchasing. Most of our re-spondents had influence or were responsible for systems purchases on the system side of either process or discrete manufacturing (PLCs and DCSs). Many also had responsibility for advanced control software and process field instrumentation. Close to 42 percent of respondents were also responsible for selection of service providers. Other areas of responsibility included drives and motors, production management software, control valves, breakers, start-ers, terminal blocks and robots.  

  About the Author
Larry O'Brien is research director for the process industries atARC Advisory Group.

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