Websites must be updated

DAVID CANTON - For the London Free Press - April 9, 2005 Read this on Canoe

Having a website is a critical marketing strategy for any business, whether big or small.

Creating a website is not, however, a one-time exercise that can then be forgotten, as shown by a recent New Zealand court decision in which a restaurant operator was fined for misleading advertising due to neglecting to keep the website up to date.

In this case, the restaurant's website posted out-of-date menus and prices. Many of the dishes listed on the menu were not actually available for order and for other dishes the prices had increased substantially from those posted on the Internet.

Even though a complaining customer had notified both the restaurant and the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, the operator of Tony's Vineyard Restaurant did nothing to correct the mistakes or update its posted menu.

The old prices and dishes posted on the restaurant's website were misleading advertising, making representations about the availability and cost of certain food dishes that were no longer true.

These misrepresentations eventually attracted the attention of the New Zealand Commerce Commission. In court, the restaurant operator pleaded guilty to breaching the New Zealand Fair Trading Act and received a fine of $3,000 plus $260 in court costs.

The chairperson of the New Zealand Commerce Commission stated: "It is not enough to allow the restaurant owner to say that the website is outdated for reasons of lack of time or lack of technical knowledge, especially given the growth of this form of advertising and the potential reach of the misleading information."

The chairperson also said businesses that advertise their products and services over the Internet need to maintain the accuracy and truth of the representations made on their websites.

Although this case happened in New Zealand, it could have easily happened anywhere. Misleading advertising laws in Canada, such as provisions under the Competition Act, Criminal Code, and Consumer Protection Act, cover all means of making representations to consumers, including those made over the Internet in the form of online advertising.

The federal Competition Bureau may share similar views as the New Zealand Commerce Commission and could find a neglected Canadian website to breach misleading advertising laws.

The Statistics Canada website indicates that more than half of Canadian households had Internet access in 2003 and about 72 per cent of households in London had at least one regular Internet user in 2003. These percentages will only grow.

Consumers expect businesses, regardless of their size, to have websites. A business may be at a disadvantage if it does not.

For a small business, however, the site does not have to be extensive. It should list some basic information about the business, such as location and hours, and any other information the business wishes to advertise. It should look professional and consistent with the firm's image.

But a business should not just create a website for the sake of having one and then ignore it. The information posted on the website should be kept updated, not only to avoid issues of misleading advertising but also to be effective for its customers.