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The official Web sites for most consumer brands aren't very exciting. You can pretty much bet on what you'll see: A huge photo of the product, a button you click to see a list of ingredients or retail locations, perhaps some company history -- and of course the ubiquitous "Contact Us" form. With the exception of some fancy Flash graphics (meant to impress viewers, but more often something that gets in their way), it seems like many home pages are trapped in time -- circa 1996.

Frito-Lay's home page, however, is a notable exception.

Amid a background of simple graphics (an ordinary wall lined with picture frames) is an easy-to-navigate array of option bars based not so much on touting the brand, but on consumer-lifestyle issues. There's dietary information and recommendations for "sensible snacking." An "Our Planet" feature discusses the company's stance on a roster of ecological issues including water conservation and waste reduction. A new "Snack Chat" blog tackles topics like sustainability and health/wellness, while also featuring a Twitter link and a slide show tour of the company's recently opened "green" distribution center.

Frito-Lay is one of a growing number of major brands that have taken a hard look at their home pages lately, rebuilding them into platforms that shatter the old cyber-billboard model in order to give consumers not just a page to visit, but a portal for learning and interacting. These new-generation home pages are becoming less isolated and more fully integrated into the Web. They feature more social cross-pollination. They also offer a lighter user experience (a refreshingly sparing use of Flash gimmickry) and are more search-friendly. Overall, the pages strive to achieve a greater depth of brand experience, be that selling actual products or simply cementing existing customer relationships. And, according to author and Web-marketing expert Gerry McGovern, it's a move that's long overdue.

"I'm amazed that some of the biggest brands are still using their home pages as if they were advertising billboards," says McGovern, who's consulted for  brands including HSBC and Microsoft. "That approach simply doesn't work [anymore] and it's one reason people are avoiding home pages. A home page should be useful -- if you want it to be used."

Used for what, you might ask. At the moment, the idea seems to be to make the corporate Web page the hub of discussions relating -- sometimes loosely -- to the brand and establish it as a meeting place (along with a Facebook page) for fans. It's an evolution from a more static model, though the payoff is far from clear. Will creating a lively Web site move more of a brand's goods?

Perhaps that's beside the point. Benjamin Palmer, CEO of The Barbarian Group, whose recent work included overhauling the home page for natural foods brand Kashi, says a home page can "have a loftier goal beyond selling product."

These home page revamps come at a critical period. Statistically, consumers are spending less and less time on company home pages. Of course, that's understandable from a technological point of view: Not only have external links and improved search tools allowed consumers to zip right to the specific page they need, it's also faster and easier to find information and interact with brands through search and social media like Facebook and Twitter than it is to navigate through Flash-fused corporate billboards. McGovern's proprietary research into the traffic figures for the home pages of major brands (which he declines to name specifically) show a steady decline in visitors across the board. One major company that had 25 percent of its visitors come via the home page in 2005 has seen that number drop to 10 percent for 2010. According to a recent body of comScore data -- which measured Web traffic to 50 leading sites from May 2009 to May of this year -- some of the biggest brands have suffered dips in their home-page visitors, including Verizon, Target and AT&T, whose traffic had slipped by 3 percent, 3.3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Cause for alarm? Maybe not. As Web marketing has evolved, so has the conventional wisdom that success is measured by sheer number of home-page hits. Michael Lebowitz, CEO of digital creative agency Big Spaceship, argues that page-view numbers are a metric for advertising, but not necessarily branding. Successful home pages, he says, can be just as much about strengthening and deepening relationships with existing consumers.

"Your biggest fans are your brand evangelists," Lebowitz explains. "So you're not going for reach, you're going for depth. You want to create experience and content for your core audience. In doing that you may lower page views -- and it's not to say page views aren't important -- but you want to lower bounce rates and increase the time spent on the site."

McGovern agrees. "The larger point is that offline marketing and branding is about getting attention -- but online marketing and branding is about giving attention. Great home pages are active; you can do something on them."

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