Websites of financial services companies offering retirement information are often more frustrating than helpful to consumers, according to a study by a group of website researchers.

The analysis, by Change Sciences Group of New York, looked at the top banking and brokerage sites offering retirement services on the web. The researchers found that more than half the sites don't allow people to start saving for retirement online.

Of the websites that do allow people to save for their retirement online, 48% are missing "persuasive" content, have navigational challenges and are missing key features that are known to increase new accounts.

In addition, over half of the sites fail to help prospects choose the most beneficial retirement account for their circumstances. Of the sites that do offer help, 42% make it hard to navigate the process, fail to answer questions about the prospect's options and don't make it easy to get started.

About a third of the sites don't help prospects determine if they are on the right track with their retirement savings. Of the sites that do try to help consumers discover if they're on the correct path with savings, 45% suffer from clunky navigation, inflexible results or content that is less than informative.

What's more, the sites appear to be slow to improve, according to Change Sciences Partner Steve Ellis. "There really hasn't been a very rapid pace of change," he said. "We did this same study about a year ago, and essentially things haven't gotten that much better. That's a significant finding from the research."

That's not because website operators aren't making changes in their offerings, he added. "They are making changes," he continued, "but they're not always making the right changes."

For example, Vanguard of Malvern, Pa., topped Change Science's rankings for retirement websites last year, but after changes made to its site since that time, it has now dropped to eighth place.

Ellis noted that some sites continue to omit information that is needed to persuade visitors to use retirement services at their sites. "It's just basic stuff, like how long does it take to process an application," he said. "Things people need to know, that people want to know, that people find persuasive."

Navigation continues to be a sore point at many sites, he added. "Most of the websites that we study could definitely improve helping people move around the site and get to where they need to go," he observed.

For example, a site may guide a visitor through a questionnaire to evaluate what retirement vehicle may be best for them. At the end of the process, it's determined that a Roth IRA is what the person needs. But after the recommendation is made, the person is frequently left stranded with neither a link nor a button available to allow them to open that kind of account with the financial services company.

"There's a whole range of things they can do to improve," he continued, "but in the end, it boils down to putting things where people expect them to be and labeling those things in the right way. All navigational flaws follow the same pattern," leaving visitors with the unanswered question of, where do I go next?

The top three retirement websites this year with best overall experience performance ratings in the study were operated by Wells Fargo, TD Ameritrade and Wachovia.

"Whatever the stage of a customer's life, we believe it's important to help people find information about establishing retirement goals and developing a plan to help customers achieve those goals," said Renee Covi, Wells Fargo senior vice president for online banking and investments. "Providing it on allows customers to have 24/7 access to this important information."

One of the keystones at the TD Ameritrtade site is ease of use, according to spokesman Jim Frawley.

"What we like to tell people," he said, "is that planning for retirement isn't as difficult as they think. People spend more time planning their vacations than they do planning for retirement," he continued. "We think that's because they don't realize how easy planning for retirement can be."

He explained that a consumer can walk through every step in the planning process online at the TD Ameritrade site. "We keep the process as simple and as intuitive as possible," Frawley said.

(c) 2007 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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