When heads of state go head to head

Buckingham Palace and The White House have relaunched their websites recently, but who has got greater command of the medium, Queen or President? David Bowen adjudicates.

Featured sites

It is not often that a CEO launches a company website in person or that it gets widespread coverage in the national media. But that is what happened on 11 February when Queen Elizabeth the Second invited many people (including even me) to Buckingham Palace for the relaunch of the British Monarchy website. The master of ceremonies, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is the chap who invented the worldwide web, bless him.
So, how does the site stack up, particularly against another that has received much publicity recently? The new White House site was switched on at 12.01 on 20 January – a minute after Barack Obama took up office. The President’s use of social media was seen as an important weapon in his election armoury and there is a feeling that this is the first really digital presidency. I would expect his site to be at the heart of it.
I have run a very quick benchmark, using roughly some metrics from the annual FT Bowen Craggs Index (next one out in April, if you’re interested), and have turned it into a points-scoring match up.

Bound by conventions


First round, construction. Are the sites easy to use, which usually means, are they conventional? Neither does fabulously here. The White House has a standing set of links across the top, which is good, and secondary links that change within the section. So far, so conventional. But the links run down the middle of the page, which is not, and sometimes they are not there at all. Within The Briefing Room, you can move around between most pages unless you get to the blog or Nominations & Appointments, where navigation has been ditched in favour of more words. This might be justifiable except that a huge amount of space on the right in taken up by the same four promotional panels – on every page of the site. What’s that about?
The royal site starts off very oddly. It does not have main sections – or rather it does, 12 of them, but these are listed only on the home page. So, if you are investigating the History of the Monarchy and you want to look at the Royal Residences, you have to click back to the home page, scroll down to find them, and click again. Within each section, though, navigation is admirably conventional, with left-hand navigation leading us where we will, and the right-hand column used to point to useful pages in and out of the site.
First round is a draw, with neither side covering itself in glory.

Addressing the nations


Next, message. Who gives the better impression of its owner? We were told there was a ‘surprise feature’ on the royal site, and it turned out to be virtual tours of rooms in Windsor Castle. Virtual tours have been around for ages but, like video, they are due for a broadband-driven revival. The ones here are indeed sumptuous, with fabulously high resolution, though I could do with a nice modern mash-up to tell me what I’m looking at. I’m also worried that people used to walking around in World of Warcraft (or even Second Life) will be a little disappointed that they are pinned, swivelling, to one spot.
The rest of site is pretty, too, in a lush way. Lots of pictures, slide shows, videos; it helps that the Queen has all those pictures and jewels, but she uses them well. In terms of transmitting a message of majesty, spot on.
I suppose the big message for The White House is to do with communication. The star feature here is the blog. This is a nice way of keeping a running commentary on White House activities and is written in an easy style: it is what I call a ‘dress down’ blog, where the idea is not to create conversation (it lacks a comments facility), but to provide an informal annexe to the main site.
Two problems: first, you can’t navigate between blogs posts and there is no index of them; second, that personal voice belongs to someone, but who? Not the president – I presume its his new media man, but we are not told, which I find disconcerting.
The White House struggles a little on visuals. At the moment it is as full of pictures of President Obama as a family album would be of a newly-arrived baby. It is difficult not to look at the ‘The story of the economic recovery package’ as a photo slideshow without wondering if we might tire of pictures of President Obama meeting people.
The Queen’s ahead on points on this round.

Talking the talk


Third round, use of language. No real contest. I give you a quote from the biography of First Lady Michelle Obama: “Marian [her mother] stayed home to raise Michelle and her brother, Craig, skillfully managing a busy household filled with love, laughter, and important life lessons”. Call me a cynical old hack but… I like the straightforward style of the Queen’s English, but I am British, so perhaps we should discount that.
On the other hand, the Spanish version of the White House site is quite outclassed by a version of the royal site not only in Welsh but in Gaelic, or rather Gaidhlig. Not even Wikipedia has a Gaelic version. Close to a knockout for Her Majesty here.

No royal Wii


Innovation, next round. On technology, it is a close run thing. Both sites have plenty of videos – President Obama’s are bang up to date, in the blog, while the best royal ones are from decades ago. Both like slide shows, where the Queen wins on content, and both offer almost standard devices such as RSS feeds. But the royal virtual tours must pull the Palace ahead.

Meeting the people


In terms of engagement, or social media, the White House blog is not designed to be interactive and there is surprisingly little encouragement for the people to speak to the President. All I found was a form to send comments and a page from the Office of Public Liaison. The White House is busy out there where the people are – with Facebook, blogs and the like – but I am surprised not to see a little more here. The Queen has little, unsurprisingly, so we have to declare a draw on engagement.

Their place in history


Both sites are very strong on ‘About us’. You can find almost anything about any members of the royal family, and chortle a little at the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth’s radio broadcast to the children of Britain. The History of the Monarchy, splitting into Scots and English as you go back past 1603, is both educational and engaging. But so is the history of US presidents on the White House site, which makes excellent use of paintings. This is part of White House 101, a section that is aimed largely at children and also features a history of presidential pets (in other words, it’s the fun bit). The royal site wins this round, I think.

Split over issues


Where The White House really scores is where it is being serious. Its service for journalists and others in The Briefing Room and The Agenda is comprehensive, in a conventional but useful way. The Queen doesn’t really do issues, though Latest News and Diary, and also Images and Broadcasts, are comprehensive. The strange navigation caused me problems here, because it is not easy to move between the two. On serving journalists, the White House wins.

And the winner is…


So, where does that leave the two houses? House of Windsor three, The White House one, two rounds drawn, I reckon. Of course, you might say that the serious bit is so much more important than all the rest put together, so The White House has the more impressive site. I don’t know, though: I was expecting a good deal more imagination than I got from Washington and rather less from London SW1. So I think that on any decent judgement, the Queen wins on points.

First published 18 February, 2009
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