Mutual fund websites as a whole are well designed with solid content, according to the "Internet Standards Assessment Report" released by the Web Marketing Association of Boston. The report was based on an assessment by 200 judges of more than 2,300 websites of companies across 85 industries.

"Many asset management companies have been very effective in using their websites to meet the needs of investors and their financial advisers," said William Rice, president of the Web Marketing Association. "However, they tend to be slow to adapt to innovation and new technology, usually due to the conservative nature of fund companies and the strict regulatory environment in which they operate. The best mutual fund websites have up-to-date commentary and tools to help investors understand their investments and the investment manager's outlook on macro issues as well as the portfolio."

The best mutual fund website, according to the Web Marketing Association's 2005 rankings, is that of Cohen & Steers of New York. "The evolution of our website reflects the tremendous growth and development of our firm over the past five years," remarked John McCombe, executive vice president and director of marketing for Cohen & Steers. "As we've diversified our product offerings and introduced new areas of specialization, we've greatly expanded our online presence."

McCombe noted that the firm's expanded website contains educational resources about global real estate securities, utilities and preferred stocks, as well as large-cap value equities. He added that these new resources demonstrate the firm's commitment to investment strategies that offer the potential for dividends, diversification and attractive total returns.

Web Marketing Association appointed three or more judges to evaluate the websites of companies based on seven criteria: design, innovation, content, technology, interactivity, copywriting and ease of use. The judges gave each criteria a score of between one and 10 and then added up the scores, for a total potential score of 70. Mutual fund websites averaged a total score of 52.6, slightly better than the 52.2 score awarded for all companies covered in the report.

Forty percent of the judges said design was the most important criteria affecting a website's overall score since how a home page looks determines whether or not an investor will continue exploring a site further. Mutual fund websites scored 6.9 on average for their design in 2005, up from 6.8 in 2004. Game sites scored significantly higher in design criteria than any other industry, earning a score of 8.5 in this year's survey.

Another 30% of the judges pointed to ease of use as the most important criteria. Mutual funds scored an average 7.1 in 2005 for their websites' ease of use, down slightly from 7.2 in 2004. Meanwhile, shopping websites earned the highest scores this year for ease of use, rating 7.8.

Another 10% of the judges pointed to innovation as the most essential criteria. Certainly, innovation is the most challenging criteria for mutual funds to achieve, according to the association. "Innovation occurs when a site dares to take a risk and deliver a wow' factor to the user experience," the Web Marketing Association wrote in its report. "It can occur in the design, content or use of technology. It can result from the blending of each of the criteria that allows the website to stand out from the rest on the crowded Internet."

In this category, mutual fund sites scored 6.4 in 2005, up from 5.8 in 2004. In both years, this category is where mutual fund websites have ranked lowest. By comparison, game websites scored highest for innovation in 2005, earning a rating of 8.5.

Content is also very important, as it is the main reason why people go to a website to begin with. Good content can be based on a number of things, such as a good news story, a statistic or educational information. Ten percent of judges said good content was the most significant factor affecting a site's score. Mutual fund sites scored 7.6 for content in 2005, up from 7.3 in 2004. Once again, game websites topped the list here this year, earning a score of 8.5.

When assessing websites' interactivity, 5% of the judges said that this was the most vital factor and that they look for chat rooms, message boards, online games, calculators or other tools. In 2005, mutual fund sites scored 7.1 for interactivity, up from 6.6 in 2004, compared to the best-performing score of 7.8 in 2005 for auction websites.

Robust technology is another vital component of a first-rate website, according to the Web Marketing Association, with 3% of the judges citing this as having the greatest impact on their scores. However, a complicated website can overwhelm the user, while too little technology makes the user experience a boring one. Mutual funds scored 6.9 in 2005 for the technology on their websites, up from 6.5 in 2004. Music websites demonstrated the best use of technology in this year's competition, earning an average score of 8.1.

Finally, 2% of the judges cited good copywriting as the most important criteria in their assessment of websites, noting that a badly edited website could cause a company to lose its credibility. Mutual fund sites scored 7.7 in 2005 for copywriting, up from 7.3 in 2004. This compares to the top 8.1 score that leisure websites earned this year.

Companies interested in submitting entries to this year's survey can do so at:

(c) 2006 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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