Petrified of being left behind, British companies are rushing to get wired. Netties can now access a whole new PR universe. How, er, useful, says Matthew Sweet
IT'S GOING UP ON flipcharts all over Britain. Tony Blair's unblinking vision of digital capitalism: "European business finalising a deal with the Japanese, with simultaneous translation down the phone line." Or something like that. And since the Labour leader made that speech just over a year ago, unwired British companies have been panicking about getting online.

In tune with this anxiety, British Telecom is currently waging a publicity campaign for Business Connections, its Internet advice service for UK companies. The TV ad features a group of business colleagues, clustered around a PC in their chaotic office. They visit the website of another firm, clicking on electronic snapshots of its staff. There are nods of excitement: "Oh, I went on a training course with him," says one, brightly. That's the punchline. Inanity like this highlights the central problem of company responses to the Net. Like Tony says, it's hot, it's sexy, it's the future. But what do businesses actually do with it?

A third of large British firms have a website and another quarter are planning one, according to recent research by the Website Consultancy. But once your company has got its site, there comes the awkward question of what to put on it. It's easy if you're a giant corporation: the World Wide Web is the perfect medium to push your fantasies of global domination. On http://www.unilever.com you'll find assorted third-worlders clutching boxes of Omo. Conversely, if you're a little biscuit shop in Whitby with a nice line in lardy cake by post, the Net can garner extra mail orders. Elizabeth Botham and Sons at http://www.botham.co.uk offers stylish gingerbread photography and a picture of its staff grinning from behind the flour bags.

Firms in between these extremes are plotting a more directionless course down the information superhighway. A trawl through commercial homepages yields a baffling mix of the eccentric and the tedious. Feeding the words "Pedigree Chum" to an Internet search engine leads you to the homepage of the parent company, Waltham. It's a world of green lawns, wet noses and irony-free vision statements. Here, white-coated scientists stare earnestly at test tubes full of Trill, but there's fun to be had with the Select-a-Dog questionnaire, a rare use of the Net's obvious interactive potential. I gleefully entered details about my lifestyle and was paired up with the Boston Terrier, "the American gentleman of dogs ... his expression is alert, kind, and intelligent".

The service has an uncanny similarity to one at http://dateline.uk.com, which offered me a 19-year-old beauty therapist within 30 miles of my home. And if a visit to the Dateline site goes well, you might want to click on the foil-wrapped icons of http://www.durex.com, a pink, perky page featuring Dr Dilemma's advice column. Here, Mr Fletcher, of Oxford, is worried about his wife; "recently she went to one of those evenings where women get all silly over a bottle of wine and buy naughty underwear."

Ben Barlaba, of the award-winning website construction firm Knowledge Plus Solutions (slogan: "realise the vision"), assesses the scramble to get on-line. "Companies are under the illusion that they're under attack if they've not got a website, but they don't really know what they're getting involved in. And there are people out there who are exploiting companies' anxieties." It's a picture of businesspeople terrified by incomprehensible buzz-concepts like the Digital Age, and at the mercy of cowboy website builders. So Barlaba is there to help them. "Multi- dimensionality is where the primary benefit is." Aha. But who is actually accessing these bits of the Internet? The Durex company site has the obvious advantage of smut to pull in visitors, but how many OAPs browse the chairlifts on http://stannah.com? And who visits http://st-ivel.co.uk, with its cottage- cheesy wallpaper and ingredient listings for Utterly Butterly? St Ivel's London PR office doesn't seem to know: "We don't have a clue what goes on with the website..."

Ben Barlaba is more informed. "A website like St Ivel's is addressed to anyone interested in yoghurt at any given moment." That's quite likely to be business rivals, who account for a sizeable amount of traffic through these domains. With its consumer competitions, however, St Ivel's homepage is also attempting to seduce the passing browser.

Even with such incentives, argues academic website manager Andrew MacKinnon, the average Internet user remains unexcited. "People are desperate because they know that however well-designed their websites are, what they're doing is inherently boring." MacKinnon's analysis is blunt: "These companies feel that if they haven't got a Web address, people will think they're behind the times, but it's just a PR plague." With website construction services costing anything up to a quarter of a million, the victims of this plague would seem to be British firms themselves.

A SURFER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY

http://www.tampax.com "A place you'll want to visit more than once a month." Full of smiling, confident women - no one in cyberspace weeps on the sofa under a pile of Kit-Kat wrappers.

http://www.cadbury.co.uk Click till you're sick and take "a light-hearted look at chocolate making with help from Mr Cadbury's Parrot".

http://www.sky.co.uk/sports/manu The official Manchester United Website, and the most informative thing that Sky produces.

http://www.tizer.co.uk A lurid red bubbling experience for the junior Timothy Leary.

http://www.vmg.co.uk The Virgin Megastore website, from which you can download singles and videos. Which is great if you like the Spice Girls.

http://www.bnfl.com British Nuclear Fuels - "where science never sleeps" - which is probably more than can be said for visitors to this Website.

http://www.holland-and-barrett.co.uk Click on the irritable bowel syndrome icon to order a bottle of Colon Clean Plus.

http://www.bp.com Offering pictures of Africans smiling at oil pumps.

http://www.the-body-shop.com Through which you can lodge protest e-mail to economic imperialists.

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