Adland's tangled web

For all their flashy animations and quirky widgets, are agencies' websites really giving visitors what they want?

What is the web for? Finding things out, you may well think. But try that with most of these ad industry sites and see how far you get.

Too many of these sites work on the assumption that visitors are so fascinated by these companies that they will jump through hoops of the designers' making just to find out what they are about. These sites expect visitors to mouse hopefully around looking for navigation links; to sit through pointless animations; to endure tinkly music and wacky sounds; to be charmed by caricatures of the entire staff; and to wade through screeds of self-regarding guff. But that's not how the web works. Visitors want information, and they want it within seconds, or they'll go somewhere else.

Most of these sites are built using Macromedia Flash, which agencies love because it lets designers create pixel-perfect layouts, as if they were creating a banner ad or a poster. But designers can never resist giving every site its own quirky system of navigation. Not only is this reinventing a perfectly good wheel, it means visitors have to struggle to make the site work. And simple things - contact details, examples of the work, vacancies, a taste of the agency's philosophy - can end up being buried deep.

Flash also stops browsers working properly; touch the "back" button in a lot of these sites and you go right back to the homepage, or worse, out of the site altogether. Flash prevents type being searched, enlarged or read out in a screen reader for the visually impaired. And it renders the site invisible to some potential visitors; you can't even see most of these sites on an iPhone, for instance. Worse, gratuitous Flash makes sites invisible to Google. A careful Google search ought to take you straight to a relevant agency site, but in most cases, it won't. For instance, who produced those clever Radio 1 web banners? Which agency has just launched in South Africa? What work has Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO done for the NHS? You - or potential clients - will search Google in vain.

Of the sites here, only Dare, Rapier and Ogilvy are properly open to search engines. And none of the sites has its own search facility, which is criminal if you believe the web is about helping people find things out rather than giving them what you think they ought to want.

Three marks are given, for appearance, usability and content, but really they are indivisible. A site that looks clever but is tricky to use and contains no content that sells your services is a waste of your money - and everybody's time.

- aislondon.com

Archibald Ingall Stretton's visual metaphor is a kind of mind map, but there's not much evidence of thought in the way the site is put together. The homepage says nothing about who AIS is, and makes the fatal assumption that the visitor can be bothered to work out what its doodled navigation links mean. Who would guess that "One thing that's on our mind" would lead to the company blog? Or that "OK, so what's it all about then?" would lead to six cliche-ridden pages on the agency's unremarkable philosophy? Despite the animated loading page and the cartoons, this is a text-heavy site, including a well-concealed newsletter. Tiny white type on a uniformly blue-grey background is less stylish than dreary. And don't touch your browser's back button, or you'll have to face the opening animation again.

Content: 7, Usability: 5, Appearance: 6

- agencyrepublic.com

Agency Republic's site, a symphony in red, opens with a speeded-up video of its staff milling about, accompanied by a tinkly song: playful, cute, insufferable. You get this thing every time you enter the site, and it's a puzzle to turn the sound off. Indeed, you have to do a lot of puzzling to navigate the site at all, so inept is the interface.

Most pages require you to mouse over red links on a red background, partially hidden behind white content panels that appear (slowly) when you first open the page. Scroll bars don't look like scroll bars, and when you go to the "Work" page, the main menu slides out of sight. As for content, the agency's work is comprehensively displayed, and there's a useful list of job vacancies. But you'll be lucky to find anything compelling to read about the thinking or the people, unless you care that "Dana wants to be a photographer when she grows up".

Content: 6, Usability: 4, Appearance 5

- amvbbdo.com

Another tired visual metaphor: a scribbling-hand loading page leads to a scruffy desktop strewn with Post-it notes, torn notepad pages, receipts and train tickets, which are the navigation links. There's nothing to say what Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO does, but at least the links have sensible labels: "Contacts"; "Clients"; "Our Work" etc. Sensible, that is, except for "Boasting Bit", which is where you find the agency's commendably hard-selling three-page manifesto. Galleries of print and TV ads are presented without any sort of caption, not even the clients' names. "Awards" is similarly gnomic, displaying the number of prizes without saying what they were for. Indeed, there's no other text except in the useful "Recruitment" section. The colour scheme throughout is dingy, and Flash insists you use a scribbled "Main Menu" link to navigate. Touch the browser back button and you'll be catapulted right out of the site to the last site you were looking at. Infuriating.

Content: 5, Usability: 6, Appearance: 6

- ogilvy.com

Ogilvy's homepage is dominated by the bottom half of David Ogilvy's signature, which looks more like a mistake than a design statement. But the page tells you what the agency does and has meaningful (if tiny) navigation links. One click takes you to contacts, press releases, company information, the agency's portfolio, or the individual organisations under the Ogilvy banner.

Being HTML-based, the site works properly. The type can be enlarged and searched; the back and forward buttons on your browser work; and if you want to find out how Ogilvy came to win a Cyber Lion at Cannes, Googling those words will take you to the right page. Sadly, though, the portfolio is hidden behind a wall of gratuitous Flash. And the site looks corporate and reads worse, with no sense of fun.

The most stimulating things to read are in the "History" section, which seems symbolic.

Content: 6, Usability: 8, Appearance: 6

- daredigital.com

This is a bold and straightforward site that means business. The opening page carries only a striking example of the agency's animated work - different each time you come to the site - and a text menu; it could do with a one-liner to say what Dare does.

Subsequent pages are largely made up of concise and well-written bursts of resizeable, searchable HTML text. It's one click to Dare's self-description, which is 27 well-chosen words long, and two clicks to biographies of its "People", sensibly concentrating on the agency's 13-strong management team.

"News" is scanned-in from the trade press and big enough to be legible. "Work" is ingeniously presented in situ, on mocked-up web and newspaper pages, but there's no commentary on it.

"Clients" is a let-down, though, with just a page of logos not linked to the work. With Flash kept to a minimum, the site doesn't break the browser, the content is accessible from Google and, with the exception of the "Work" pages, it will work on a phone. A nice piece of work - and a good advertisement for the agency.

Content: 7, Usability: 9, Appearance: 8

- vizeum.co.uk

This is a pug-ugly site whose mustard, black and grey colour scheme suggests it might belong to the AA. Everything is squeezed into a tiny panel, apparently cut out with blunt scissors, and the opening page says nothing about what Vizeum does. To move around, you have to sit through a succession of slow-loading transitions touting Vizeum's baffling in-house slogans: "smile synthesizers", "chemists of conversation", "positive connections". It takes three clicks, and a lot of hanging about, to find a phone number. Interested in the track-record of Vizeum's management? Hard luck: but here's a page of yellow-skinned Simpsons-style caricatures of the entire staff, telling you nothing but their first names. The writing, when it eventually appears, is clumsy, and as for the work, there's just a list of clients and not one word about what Vizeum achieved for them.

Warning: inadvertently clicking your browser's back button will take you to a blank page. D'oh!

Content: 4, Usability: 4, Appearance: 4

- rapieruk.com

Rapier's site looks bright, loads quickly and lets you get to the information you want. On the downside, the homepage has too much "mission-defining" type, makes annoying noises you can't turn off and features an unmarked clickable link (to "our take on the world", which you might think was important). But "Contacts" and the agency's "Story" (an attractive slideshow) are only one click away.

Management biographies, individual news clippings and specific examples of the work take two clicks: and the work is accompanied by brief boasts about its success. There is nothing about recruitment, but the site reads well, and it has good web manners.

A parallel HTML version means you can enter from a non-Flash device such as a mobile phone and get to the content from a Google search.

A purposeful, well-thought-out site that reflects well on Rapier.

Content: 8, Usability: 8, Appearance: 8

- nakedcomms.com

Is an advertising agency like a doll's house? Not unless you are Naked. Its site is entirely based on that metaphor, which would have been old hat at the turn of the millennium. The result is more animated greetings card than website. Finding even the most basic information requires you to mouse around the screen in the hope of unearthing something useful among animated animals, kitchen appliances, clocks and office equipment. And you will grow old waiting for the pages to load. You can find the agency's work under "Gallery", but it is buried deep. And it is pretty feeble that a link to "reel" should end with the dreaded words "Coming Soon". Compelling and purposeful text, meanwhile, is notable by its absence.

Content: 5, Usability: 4, Appearance: 9

- motherlondon.com

The opening screen of this site promises to tell you "EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT MOTHER BUT WERE TOO AFRAID TO ASK". In fact, it tells you nothing, other than that Mother has a beautiful building full of beautiful young people. A QuickTime VR panorama, which opens in an annoying full-screen window and is painfully slow to reload, allows you to roam around the premises. You can click on individuals and objects to find out about them. The information - or misinformation - you are given is of no discernible value except, perhaps, if you are an identity thief. You'll look in vain for anything about advertising or the agency, even its phone number.

Masses of work has obviously gone into this magnificent folly - the building doesn't look bad either - but if I was a client, I'd be wondering about how Mother was spending my money.

Content: 0, Usability: 2, Appearance: 5.