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Getting the Information You Need on a Company's Web Site

Getting the Information You Need on a Company's Web Site

You've been approached for a job, and you need to do your homework on the company. Where do you start? At its Web site. The information you get depends where -- and how -- you look. The Web is an ocean of information. You can bring up pearls -- or old boots.

How much can you really learn about a company from its Web site? Plenty. In fact, most sites will tell you more than the companies might even want them to. You can learn a great deal about a company's product and marketing strategies, its organizational structure, its position in the industry, even its personality -- the culture, atmosphere and kind of place it might be to work.

Not all of this is right on the surface of every page, of course. You'll have to read the Web site's body language; make some deductions; apply some inductive reasoning; and reverse-engineer the thinking that went into it. Basically, you have to do three things:

  • Understand the conventional structure of a corporate Web site
  • Think critically about the information you're being presented with
  • Use the resources of the Web to expand the limited picture the Web site gives you

This last one is especially important. The best tool for analyzing the World Wide Web is the Web itself. Start with your target company's Web site, but don't stop there. When you find a fact, put it into a search engine to see what it will turn up. They don't call it the Web for nothing, and in this case, you are the spider and the target site is the fly.

The Structure of a Web Site

Corporate Web sites come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to be built out of more or less standard parts. Look at the site's top-level navigation. Chances are you'll see something like:

  • Product information
  • Marketing channel information
  • Public relations
  • Customer interaction and/or customer service
  • Company information
  • Jobs
  • Communication

Sometimes the view from the home page may be distorted. If the Web site is the product -- if the company is focused on e-commerce like Amazon.com, for example, then the navigation is likely to be all about customer interaction (things to buy, how to find more things to buy), and company information may be hard to find. But keep digging.

Large companies that operate in several markets tend to subdivide their site by market segment to channel customers and prospects toward product information. The Merrill Lynch home page, for instance, has 10 navigation buttons, divided into several segments including products, customer interaction, company information feedback, and the all-important search button.

These categories don't cover all the types of content you'll find on a Web site, but they should be present somewhere. If one is missing it should raise a small red flag. If a company doesn't have any jobs posted, is it not hiring? Why not? If it hasn't issued a press release for six months, what does that say about its PR and marketing? If there's no phone number listed under customer service and no customer success stories in the product information, does this company have any customers?

Thinking Critically about the Site

This kind of critical thinking is the core methodology for reading a Web site: Read the site and question its conclusions and implications. You're playing a game: The goal of most Web sites is to leave you with a little information about the company and a lot of very good opinion. Your goal is to come up with as much information as possible and form your own opinion.

The quality of the answers you get will depend to some extent on your own knowledge of the industry the company is in. If you know the products and technologies, the company's major competitors and the major media and tradeshows that serve the industry, you can read the site much more closely. But even if you don't know the industry at all, you'll learn a great deal in a very short time if you can relate those factors by expanding on what you know.

You can learn a great deal about your target company by asking key questions about its Web site; listening closely; and translating what it tells you out of marketingspeak:

  • What are the company's business strategy, its product and marketing plans?
  • What is its organizational structure? Who is its upper-level management?
  • How well regarded is the company and its management in its industry -- how high is its profile?
  • What is the company saying about itself?
  • What are other sources -- marketing partners, customers, suppliers, the media -- saying about your target company?

Using Web Resources

Your target Web site doesn't exist in a vacuum any more than the company itself operates without employees or competition. The Web is an interlinked universe of information, and once you find a thread of information you can pull on it to reveal more. We've already touched on using search engines to expand the connections between your target company and other companies, industry groups, and the media in an outbound fashion. You can also use search engines to do some inbound link-surfing.

Several of the major search engines will search the hyperlinks on the Web pages they index, and return a list of pages that contain links to your target site. Try entering the word "link" followed by a URL, like this: "link:www.yoursite.com". (You should try this in several search engines, because results will vary wildly from engine to engine.)

Pay close attention to what those links are. You may be able to get information this way that you couldn't get from the target site. The site may not tell you anything about its investors, for example, but an inbound search could turn up a venture capital firm that lists your target company among its investments.

You can expand inbound results, too. These links are all part of the environment your target company lives in, and analyzing them can give you a clearer picture of the industry, the market, the technology, and the trends.

And because Web links never die and search engines never forget, you may find yourself engaged in a sort of virtual archeology of your target site. It's not unusual to turn up a link to a page on your target that is part of a previous version of the site, something that is no longer available via the current site navigation. From that page, you can explore a lower layer, often a whole site that hasn't seen the light of day for months or years -- with its own story to tell about product and marketing strategies and company information and employees lost in history, and changes over time.

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