Delivering the "best brand experience" and engaging customers, building relationships and encouraging return visits are the hallmarks of outstanding websites, according to an evaluation by Accenture's Marketing Sciences group that published its first-ever list of the top business-to-consumer websites. Of more than 260 B2C sites that the team of 30 researchers evaluated, Adidas.com, Ford.com, Google.com, Microsoft.com and Nike.com were standouts.According to the results, these sites were "successful at engaging consumers using a variety of techniques, such as providing detailed, high-quality information in interesting formats; building relationships through interactive exchanges; and encouraging return visits by current and potential customers through the use of promotions, premium services, clubs and other online innovations."The Accenture team examined three broad areas, says Jeffrey Merrihue, CEO of Accenture Marketing Sciences. First, did the website offer basic information and services that should be easily found on all corporate websites? Second, did the website help create relationship- and brand-building with consumers? And third, did it have e-commerce functions and provide the ability to sell more product?Specifically, the evaluation team relied on nine factors composed of 33 criteria Accenture says are necessary to deliver a high-performing branded customer experience. The nine areas covered: search and navigation, information, service, engagement, relationship building, branding, e-commerce, globalization and number of visitors.\u00a0 What was surprising to Merrihue was the "dysfunction" and wide range of problems that his team discovered in all areas of evaluated companies' websites. For example, on one company's site, "there was really superior brand-building, but if you wanted to find the basics, you couldn't do it," says Merrihue. Overall, he says, there was not one specific factor that everyone had trouble with. "What that told me was that the sector was still very chaotic," Merrihue says. "People would focus on one aspect and get it right, but it took all of their energy to get that right," and other areas, such as building a great e-commerce engine, would be neglected.This is all very important for 21st-century businesses because a corporate website is "the place where businesses are expressing their entire value proposition," he says. In the past, it was a 30-second TV commercial, and now it's a website.So what did the top five do so well? According to Accenture... The Nike site scored particularly high in the areas of engagement, relationship building and branding, as it delivered instant impact with tight integration with its offline marketing activity and other elements to engage targeted customers and make it relevant to their daily lives. For instance, Accenture noted that Nike, by using its site to market Nike+ and NikeID, incorporated innovative mechanisms that enable consumers to measure and manage their running regime and even design their own sports shoe.\u00a0 Google.com was rated as particularly strong in the area of relationship building, as the simplicity of the site's design enables a consumer to set up a Google account and return to a homepage that is tailored to deliver the information that he wants to access on a regular basis. Repeat Google users can readily register to gain access to a variety of services ranging from maps and video to blogs, images and news.Ford's U.S. site received high marks because of its depth of product information, which the Accenture Web Evaluator rated as detailed, helpful and well-presented. For instance, people who use the Ford site can enter its Virtual Showroom, where they can access detailed product information that is interactive and easy to use and can also locate dealers, search dealer inventory and learn about financing options. Microsoft.com provides online services that create "stickiness" and deliver value to the customer. The site encourages visitors to return to download software, access user guides and tutorials, and obtain other product information. Accenture gave the Adidas site high marks for branding, noting that from the moment a user arrives at the Adidas landing page, the site delivers a high-impact positive brand experience with a "wow" factor. That impression is sustained throughout the site, as its design, function and layout support the company's "Impossible is Nothing" messaging with animation, images of star athletes and other design elements that support the slogan and the brand while providing visitors with information about the company and its products.\u00a0 One vexing question that remains to be answered, of course, is just how much a robust online "brand experience" translates to companies' bottom lines. Or, consequently, how little. For example, while the Accenture rankings hail the successes of Ford's website, the automaker has been struggling during the last several years. "Right now, there's too little information to be able to track how improvements in Web performance and transactions lead to increased productivity of the sites" and the company's bottom line, Merrihue says. "But we will get there." He won't comment on Ford's financial situation, but he does laud its website-its virtual showroom and how a customer can build an automobile online. "I would challenge you to find [something as good as that site from a comparable company] on the Web," Merrihue says.While his team culls more data on the sites, Merrihue estimates that in about 18 months he'll have a better understanding of just how much effect the overarching correlation can have on companies. He adds, "We are committed to proving or disproving that hypothesis."