If your business depends on visitors returning to your Web site, you obviously want to make their experience positive. How you allow them to spend their time during their visit and what you do with the information they provide are becoming more important to consumers.

As part of the Web Site ScoreCard program—an effort to advise businesses that feature e-commerce as part of the Web site—Giga Information Group has compiled a list of common mistakes made by businesses. Two so-called “abuse mistakes” involve using Flash animation on the home page and collecting personal information without supplying a link to a privacy statement.

In this article, we’ll take a look at both errors and tell you why they should be avoided.
Our first article in this series, “Make sure the ‘e’ in e-commerce stands for easy,” suggested that Web sites need to provide clear information to visitors on the home page. Our second installment, “Customers getting lost? Give them a site map,” gives reasons why you should consider a site map for your business. Last week’s article, “If Web site visitors can’t navigate they will evacuate,” focused on improving your site’s search capabilities.
Using Flash
While Flash animations might be impressive and entertaining, they’re just as likely to annoy visitors who just want to search your site without delays, according to Steve Telleen, Managing Director of the Web Site ScoreCard program.

Such pages are the result when Web designers approach their sites as “extended” broadcast or print ads, Telleen said. He argues that such displays can be a distraction for visitors.

“You don’t need to hijack their attention because you already have it,” Telleen said. “There are no contextual distractions other than those that you provide.”

Other studies have found that 57 percent of visitors come to sites through search engines, suggesting that most people have specific goals when they arrive at your site, said Harley Manning, a research director at Forrester Research.

“Don’t get in the way of the user’s goals,” Manning said. “If people have come to your site for a purpose, why frustrate them? Don’t stop me with a Flash animation.”

Besides delaying potential customers, adding such features to your Web site will increase the cost, said Elizabeth Lawler, CEO of Iris Interactive.

“It should display some sort of message and not just be a gimmick,” Lawler said. “It can be disappointing if they put something high bandwidth on a page and make the user wait, and it’s nothing very special.”

However, others see the use of Flash becoming more common as the Internet begins to mimic television.

“Where we’re at in the industry, and where we’re going, is Flash,” said Dave Hunt, senior developer at Micro Computer Solutions. “As machines improve and Flash is more readily available, we’re going to see more and more of it.”

If you decide to use a Flash animation, users should have the option of bypassing the page. Some people don’t mind watching a well-done Flash animation the first time they encounter it. But repeat visitors will become tired of watching it each time they return.

Collecting personal information
While Flash animation is an obvious component to your Web site, the collection of personal information is more subtle.

While most businesses conduct themselves ethically, some do not. With the flood of stories about Internet scams and publicity about personal information being sold, it’s understandable that many people need reassurance that the company they’re doing business with will not misuse the information provided by site visitors.

To let visitors know how you will use the information that they’ve submitted, you should consider linking to your Web site’s privacy statement. If you don’t have a privacy statement, you should consider developing one and posting it on your site.

Although collecting personal data might be as simple as asking for a person’s name and e-mail address, the Web has made many people reluctant to give out any information, Telleen said. “They fear a flood of pushed information will follow, or that it will be used in some other way against their personal interests.”

Others downplay the fears that visitors may have about their information being misused.

“People don’t understand that the majority of the information that’s collected is used for the individual transaction, and it’s not shared,” Hunt said. “There are some companies that go out and grab that information and sell it, but that’s the exception.”

One way to reassure visitors is to obtain certification from a “watchdog” organization such as TRUSTe or the Better Business Bureau, Hunt said.

“You’re having someone else vouch for you,” he said. “If people see someone else’s seal on the page, it’ll help.”

What are users submitting and why?
Visitors also tend to be wary if your business collects demographic data that has nothing to do with the transaction.

“Having a privacy policy is important, but throwing it in people’s faces doesn’t excuse you if you’re collecting information for the wrong reason in the first place,” Manning said.

Manning uses the CarPoint and the New York Times Web sites as examples. CarPoint asks only for the year, make, and model of your car, “and anyone can look in my driveway and find that out,” Manning said. In return, “They give me a ton of information. They tell me my maintenance schedule, the cost of repairs, the Blue Book value.” On the other hand, the New York Times asks users to reveal their income level during registration.

Hunt suggests that if you want to collect demographic information, you should make its submission optional. Lawler believes that you should tell the visitor why you are collecting the information.

“It’s always good to invite the user to provide the information with a couple of sentences that say why you’re collecting the information, and what you’ll do with it, right there on the same page,” Lawler said. Visitors who want to learn more can then click to a privacy statement on a separate page.

Lawler also believes that if you’re going to ask for demographic information, it’s a good idea to post the questions on a separate page and avoid seeking answers that would identify the user.

Ultimately, people aren’t coming to your site because they want to tell you about themselves.

“The privacy policy is an important part of it, but it is just one part,” Manning said. “It cannot get you out of your responsibility to provide value, to trade information for value.”

Ray Dittmeier is a freelance technology writer based in Louisville, KY.

What’s your opinion on the use of Flash animation on a Web site home page? If you use Flash on your site, tell us why you made that decision. Post your comments below or send us an e-mail.