The reputation of online banking has taken a battering in the past fortnight with a number of high-profile banks suffering Web site downtime - of up to three days in some cases - and other technical glitches.
Last week, Intelligent Finance, a division of Halifax bank, said it was continuing to suffer problems with its site. Customers had been hit by three days of downtime the preceding week. NatWest's online banking service, natwest.com, was also down for three days in early October, while Internet bank Egg was unavailable for an hour during the first week of the month.
New research, exclusive to Computer Weekly, has revealed that these may not be isolated problems and that the sector as a whole needs to improve its Web site performance.
During September, network management firm Parallel monitored the Web site performance of 22 UK retail banks. Using its Nexus Watch service it tried to connect to each Web site from two locations simultaneously and at regular intervals. If it could elicit no response within 45 seconds from both locations, the site was deemed unavailable. Consumers are known to regard Web sites that take more than eight seconds to download as slow.
The research revealed that only 14% of the sites remained up for the whole of September. The average amount of time the sites were unavailable during the months was 108 minutes, the research found. This equates to more than 21 hours per year.
Tim Moore, director at Parallel, said while this level of availability is "not bad" for most industries, retail banks should be aiming higher.
"There is a responsibility for banks to be offering a better than average service," he said. "Lots of customers rely on the Internet for their banking, so performance levels need to be higher."
The research showed that retail banks also need to address the average page size. "The most important aspect to come out of the research is that file [page] size is too big for the majority of the population [who connect via a modem]," Moore said. "The message is that banks need to address this."
Earlier this year Parallel criticised the size of corporate Web sites in a study of FTSE 100 companies. Although the Computer Weekly research shows that the average page size of Web sites in the retail banking sector has been reduced from 84Kbytes to 59Kbytes since then, the level recommended by Web designers to give home users - most of whom use a modem connection, according to Oftel - good performance is 40Kbytes.
Three-quarters of the bank sites studied had pages bigger than this, the research found, with NatWest topping the list at 106Kbytes.
As a result, Parallel said, only 15% of the banks' Web sites will download in less than eight seconds - the generally accepted maximum required for customer satisfaction in home users connecting via a modem.
"There is no reason for the home page to be so large," Moore said. "Most of the services are not going to be there so users should not have to wait this long for it to download."
The high street banks have the most to do to get their Web sites up to scratch. They had the worst availability, slowest download time and largest page size when compared to building societies and Internet banks, according to the research. NatWest fared particularly badly, proving to be the worst performer in two of the three categories.
"While the Internet banks in particular appear to be bearing issues such as page size in mind, the high street banks have not addressed it yet," Moore said.
"Banks have spent a lot of money getting their internal systems right but it is taking time for them to realise that customer-facing systems are equally important."
A natwest.com spokeswoman refuted the findings of Parallel's research, saying that the bank has won the Which? Best Buy for Online Banking award. Neither Intelligent Finance nor Egg were available for comment as Computer Weekly went to press.
The verdict: Net banks should do better
Parallel monitored the Web site performance of 22 UK retail banks during September. The key findings were:
- Only 14% of the sites remained up for the entire month
- The average amount of time that sites were unavailable was 108 minutes - equivalent to 21 hours per year
- About 41% of sites achieved less than 99.9% availability - the acknowledged industry target
- High street banks had the worst availability, download time and page size when compared with building societies and Internet banks
- The Web sites of high street banks were unavailable for more than twice as long as those of building societies
- Only 15% of retail banks' Web sites would download in less than eight seconds for the 89% of home users who connect with a modem
- Three quarters of sites had a page size over the generally recommended 40Kbytes.