Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Mon 22 January 2007

Does your club hit the net on the Web?

The Web, it's been said, is a wonderful thing. How did the world ever cope prior to 1996 (or somewhere thereabouts) without so much information at its fingertips? We've all embraced this amazing resource to such an extent that it now forms a part of our daily lives. Many of us regularly find time to visit our favourite websites - be they search engines, online auctions or news sites, but what if you're into footy in a big way? What's out there for the keen fan of the round leather ball game?

Quite a bit, as you can imagine, but the chances are you will at some point wander by to check out the official website for the team you support and if that's the case, can you expect your visit to be enjoyable, educational or downright disappointing?

That's what we at SPAOTP wanted to find out. (Actually that's not entirely true: our regular contributor Kedge suggested we conduct such a survey way back in 2006 and as we had nothing better to do, we thought we'd take him up on his offer.)

Working it out
So if you visited the official website of a Premiership team, for instance, what sort of thing would you be likely to look for? Well we figured you might be interested in the young players coming through the ranks and which stars of the future were currently learning their trade in the 'Academy'. It's also possible that you'd be interested in your club's history and would like to know what, if anything, it might have won by way of honours.

Another big lure to visiting a club website is to buy tickets for an upcoming match. No more queuing up in the rain on a cold, wet, Monday morning at the stadium - you hope. And what if you're the conscientious type that wants to know all his Fantasy League players are fit for this weekend's games? You'll be wanting a decent News section to put your mind at rest, won't you?

But it's not all about features on a club website. Chances are your visit could easily be spoilt by having too many adverts dominating the screen or a poor navigation system that prevents you from getting to the info you want. Worse still, you might be asked to register your personal details just to get at the most basic of features.

These were the kind of things we wanted to take into consideration when judging each of the twenty Premiership club websites, so with that in mind we went ahead with our investigation, and this is what we found.

The Findings
The first thing you realise when you're looking at the sites of all the top clubs is how many look so similar to each other. There's a reason for this: half of the websites we looked at were designed by Premium TV which meant they shared the same look-and-feel, the same kind of navigation menus, plus a rather disturbing feature: the need to register before you accessed anything worth looking at.

This, frankly, is a joke. To have to sign your life away just so that your club can tell how many followers it's got or what pages they're viewing on the site is utterly unnecessary and uncalled for. Some of us reserve the right, quite justifiably, not to register on websites if we don't want to, and in this case there shouldn't even be a need to. Why, then, prevent us from seeing the News section - pretty standard fare, we think you'll agree - just because we won't sign up?

This is not a good thing, so if you support Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Reading, Sheffield United, Watford or Wigan, don't be surprised if your club scores badly. All the other clubs haven't got a problem in providing a totally accessible website, so your club has no excuse.

Some things, however, were pretty ubiquitous among those sites we viewed. Every club seems hugely keen on providing an online TV channel for us to subscribe to and watch, and every club has an online store from which to purchase replica shirts, mugs, car stickers and all manner of merchandised tat. Betting sections are also commonplace on each of the Premiership club websites, so we've pretty much disregarded each of these factors. We're just interested in the interesting stuff, so let's delve a bit further into the findings...

News
As mentioned before, the Premium TV mob want you to register with their sites before you see any club news, so they score badly on this category. All the other teams seemed quite happy to provide news stories that were informative, some even giving details of potential injury worries and team line-ups for imminent games.

History
This was one category where even the Premium TV sites scored highly - in fact it's about the only useful feature on their sites that you can access without having to register first. All teams showed a commitment to giving a detailed history of their team, but those scoring highest were Charlton, Everton, Tottenham, West Ham and Sheffield United.

The Future - Club Academies
Any club serious about nurturing young talent has their own 'academy' - a place where players can develop and hone their skills before being let loose with the big boys. It's where the stars of tomorrow lean on the experience of their mentors before reaching the first team, but if your club has the words 'Premium TV' in its URL, you'll never know who they are. You need to register...

Of the other teams, Chelsea, Charlton, Everton and Tottenham scored high marks for their coverage of Academy matters on their sites. On Charlton's site, it's even possible to apply for a trial with their academy, which we think is outstanding.

At the other end of the scale, West Ham who claim to be the 'Academy of Football' barely even mention their own Academy and consequently score very poorly. At least it gets a mention in the occasional news story, which is more than can be said for Wigan's site which considers their Academy non-existent. Poor scores for both, then.

Tickets
This should be an important part of every club's website and, if done well, should be dealt with in a transparent yet competent way so that any old Tom, Dick or Harry can buy a ticket for the match.

Unfortunately, most teams seem to insist on registering for this privilege if not for any other that they offer, so this means lower scores for them in our survey.

If you're looking for examples of how it should be done, look no further than Charlton, Chelsea and Fulham. If you want to buy any of their tickets that are on general sale, all you need to do is enter your credit card details and that's that. No fuss or bother, which is exactly what you'd expect. Many other clubs provide plenty of general ticket information such as seat plans, membership details and so on, but if you have to register first before buying a ticket, you may never need it.

Range of Information
Most clubs made a pretty good fist of this in spite of the fact that, if you think about it, there's not really all that much that you can provide information about. After the stuff we've already mentioned, you're likely to run into waffle about business partnerships, results and fixtures, kids' clubs and so on but that's about all. The thing is, those nice people at Premium TV block off most of their info anyway, so you're really restricted with what you can see if you follow one of their teams.

Of the better performing clubs, though, Chelsea came out best, a shade ahead of Charlton (again), Everton, Fulham and Arsenal with many others not far behind.

Navigation
Or to put it another way, 'How easy is it to get at the info you want?' This is about the only other area where the Premium TV gang score well. They may all look very similar, but at least their menu system, consisting of a list of sections and subsections down the left of the screen, is easy to follow.

Scoring highly in this category were Charlton, Everton, Liverpool and Sheffield United, while at the other end of the spectrum were West Ham who, frankly, confuse everyone with their horizontal, vertical, fly-out and randomly positioned menus. Yes, other teams do have links dotted all over the place too, but somehow they at least follow some logic. At whufc.com, it's bordering on the bewildering...

Advert intrusion
In this commercial day and age, it's perhaps not surprising that websites like those we've been looking at have adverts littered here there and everywhere, but yet again, it can be done in a non-intrusive way if the designers are worth their salt.

To that end, Chelsea and Charlton have kept images for company's and special offers down to a minimum and have spared us too many that are animated in that annoyingly eye-catching way too.

The Premium TV sites by their very nature tend to have a liberal dash of adverts all through them (or at least the bits you don't have to register for) and among the worst offenders were Blackburn, Bolton and Aston Villa. If you don't know who their sponsors are now, you soon will after a quick visit to their sites.

Look and feel
Finally, the cosmetic view - how easy the website is on the eye. All the sites looked pretty reasonable, but some were definitely more polished than others.

Man United's came out on top with an outstanding design combining excellent use of layout, graphics and typefaces to make your visit a pleasant one.

Chelsea and Spurs a very close second. Chelsea's site relied on Flash to make all the menus animated and slick-looking which, although not to everyone's taste, looked very nice indeed. Tottenham's website was your more typical fare, but used well-designed graphics and fonts to maximise impact there.

One additional note about Charlton's site, before we close. Although it may not look as pretty as some, it's very clear and easy to look at with the added bonus that it meets the minimum accessibility standards for people who are disabled or have sensory impairments. Well done to them for being the only club we could see that made accessibility one of their priorities when designing their site.

The Final Outcome
And so the time has come to tot up the scores and work out who are the champs and who are the chumps. Well let's not beat about the bush: in the end, it was a clear two-horse race between Chelsea and Charlton. The winners by a single point were Chelsea.

Both teams were very thorough in their approach to providing an educational, interactive, open and useful site for their fans and deserve great credit accordingly. While Chelsea's site appears to have had more money thrown at it with a very professional look and feel, Charlton's is just as good while being easier to use and simpler in it's design.

In third place were Everton whose only real let-down was the need to register before buying tickets online, while in fourth were Tottenham who edged Manchester United into fifth spot.

At the other end of the scale were Watford who could only offer a half-decent History section and a reasonable navigation system, and only slightly better than them were their Premium TV stablemates Newcastle, Reading and Wigan. Out of all the twenty Premiership teams, the bottom ten were all from that particular camp.

Summary
All of which goes to prove a number of points. Firstly, if you're designing a site for a football club, don't make them sign their name in blood just to access simple stuff like squad profiles and news. Secondly, fans want to be able to buy tickets online, so don't force them to register there either. Thirdly, fancy graphics and a professional look don't make a decent site on their own. It needs lots of content that's worth reading too. Finally, don't cram as many adverts onto your screen as you can either. Fans aren't interested in them even if you're sponsors are, so if you're going to show ads, do it discretely.

And that's that. Our congratulations go to Chelsea for producing a first-class website. Premium TV - take note.

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