Why do Indian companies create websites? The answer is obvious - to present themselves to their customers, investors and other stakeholders. The mad rush to set up corporate websites was triggered off by the IT and dot-com boom, and even otherwise reclusive companies wanted their spot in cyberspace.
From government ministries to private companies; liquor manufacturers to Mucchad Paanwala and the neighbourhood slimming clinic - everybody had a site. Some companies were so carried away by the unending dot-com hoardings aimed at hustling money out of venture capitalists, that they began to advertise their web addresses through the same medium. Those were the days when the "e" prefix added to any business caused a jump of at least 20 per cent in stock valuations.
Remember how CRISIL and Hindustan Lever jumped? In fact, if prices did not vault the CEO's actually sulked (remember ICICI's lament that the market was not valuing it correctly?).
The reality check was inevitable. As the dot-com bubble was pricked, some companies are beginning to find the demands of their websites irritating. All sites are designed for interactivity - they have these little buttons saying 'write to us' or something to that effect. And people take the invitation seriously enough to dash off innumerable queries - some sensible and others simply irritating; what is worse is that they expect replies.
Indian companies by and large do not like replying to queries. In fact, except for the statutory annual results or adulatory puff pieces, Indian promoters prefer to keep a low profile.
As Financial Editor of a national newspaper, I remember getting into a scrap with the Chairman's secretary at Great Eastern Shipping, because I had the temerity to ask for a brief bio-data of the chairman to update the reference files. I was told that the publicly listed company did not have a communications department and I would not get the information for at least 15 days because the top three persons in the organisation were traveling. Today, a spin-off company (Gesco) is the target of hostile takeover bid, mainly because its languishing stock price made it an attractive target. The price of neglecting shareholders, one could say?
Great Eastern is not an exception; hundreds of publicly listed companies have similar attitudes. They only speak to the press only when they want to raise funds or want puff pieces published during the negotiation of a significant alliance or collaboration.
The entry of foreign institutional investors with their army of research analysts caused a significant change in attitudes. Companies planning to list abroad through GDR issues, were forced to start talking - but again, this is restricted to their annual and half yearly results.
The existence of websites has not changed matters. Not all companies update the sites. Large groups such as the Tatas or even multinationals in consumer products, telecom and pharmaceuticals, do not update press communications or even make their annual reports available on the Net.
A random, need-based sampling of corporate websites threw up some interesting facts. For instance, I once searched the Infosys site for nearly two hours to find out one little fact - when did it first go public? Infosys' otherwise extremely comprehensive website probably suffers from excessive modesty and did not have a historical sketch about itself. I finally found the information I needed under frequently asked questions. (Why didn't I think of that!)
A few years ago, a colleague created some fictitious e-mail IDs and asked Reliance Industries questions about its results during a web-broadcast of its results. The foreign sounding names received a response, others did not.
Last year, I discovered an interesting dialogue box on the Reliance site which allowed surfers to talk directly to the Ambani brothers - " Ask Anil and Mukesh", it said and I did. There was no reply to my query. A few months later, while trawling the Net again, I noticed that the invitation to talk directly to the brothers had vanished. Probably too much of a strain to interact with strangers?
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) faced this too. It started out placing email addresses of all its Executive Directors (EDs) on the Net but quietly dropped them saying that investors tended to mark the same complaint to all EDs and cause needless replication.
Not replying to mail, is a problem which most sites suffer from. The Bombay Stock Exchange never replies to queries on the Net and in this it keeps good company with the Chief Vigilance Commission (CVC). The CVC seeks information from the people but does not even acknowledge mail - a fact that irritates many of its potential informants and fans. On the other hand, ICICI, Mahindra & Mahindra as well as Hindustan Lever are extremely prompt; so is the government owned meteorological office.
Then there is the problem of inadequate information. Haldia Petrochemicals has a fancy award-winning website but don't look for the latest on its cash problems. It is the same with the Ispat Group of the Mittals. They have a group site as well as a separate sites for each individual company - but very sketchy information on all of them about the status of their many delayed projects or even the latest results.
This also applies to the world software leader Microsoft India. It has an extensive press section where I sent in a query on Bill Gates' India visit and his discussions on E-governance with Indian Chief Ministers. I initially received a swift counter query asking why I needed the information and then complete silence.
Hindustan Lever was among the earliest Indian companies to set up a website and made a big splash with its plans to leverage the power of the Net and e-commerce in its business. Strange that the company did not attempt to ensure that its website reflected its new thinking - in fact, its site addresses investors, job seekers, and business interests but not its consumers. The company is now planning to update/revamp its site.
In fact, when one looks at the woeful lack of information on websites of private companies and multinationals, one has to appreciate the effort of the public sector, government and regulatory bodies such as the Reserve Bank of India and the Securities and Exchange Board of India in providing a lot of basic data, reports and information.
The National Informatics Centre (NIC) had done a commendable job in creating comprehensive websites for all ministries of the Government of India. Thanks to NIC the average individual with a Net connection can access all important government documents and committee reports as well as the Union Budget all round the year. Not many people know about the Press Information Bureau Site - it provides immediate and meticulously updated public access to all government press releases and announcements as soon as they are released to the media.
A site more interesting than the CVC is that of the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) which lays bare the rampant misuse of funds by state agencies and public sector companies in stunning detail.
Though bookings on the Net may still be some distance away, railway and tourism sites provide adequate information on little known tourist destinations in India.
Overall though, Indian companies are still making their presence in cyber space. They have to become organised to figure out how to make websites become more useful and interactive and a powerful business tool.
As things stand, it would appear that barring some of the better private sector companies, it is the government sites that may have a lot more to offer.