The extent to which the public relations and advertising departments exercise their influence is visible in the number of “reviews” of their online banking services that appear on the web and the way these reviews echo the promotional material of their relative banks.

None of the websites that review online banking ever perform their tasks with the sort of diligence with which even a second-tier electronics or computer site would do it, not to mention music and movie review sites. But whereas a bad decision on a movie could cost about $15, and a bad decision about electronics will probably just get you an item that is marginally less useful than another brand’s competing product, a poor choice in an Online Banking site could cost you several hundred dollars over the course of several years.

How many people read these reviews? Probably few, since the public knowledge of the importance of good software for managing their account is very low. Most people assume (as they do with computers that are pre-installed with Windows) that they are pretty much stuck with the interface and system a bank has provided. And of course, they are.

None of the reviews sites that I’ve visited perform serious evaluations of the services from the perspective of a user. I don’t, for instance, see information on how easily or accurately these sites represent active transactions—holds, pending checks, etc. They all assume that the sites are quite easy to learn for a user without a manual, and don’t evaluate the educational or cautionary materials on the site. They assume a sophisticated user, and obviously one with a substantial amount of income, whose balance never sinks below $150.

I was actually afraid I’d have to do a lot of reading for this part of the report. In fact, the amount of writing is pitifully small. Here are brief evaluations of the reviews I’ve seen online:

Consumer Search—”Online Banking: Reviews”

This site decided that the Bank of America’s Online Banking service was the best. They expend one paragraph on describing why this is so; no other bank appears to have been evaluated (i.e. there is no second place), and no criteria are provided. They sum up their meager arguments with the following bullet points, most of which have nothing to do with the banking center software itself:

• High customer satisfaction
• No fee for over 18,000 ATMs
• Free online checking, no minimum balance
• Free online money-management software

• Phone support not 24/7
• Fees for using other banks’ ATMs
• No interest on checking
• Low interest on savings

How is “high customer satisfaction”“ a feature of a site? That’s like saying someone is a good athlete because of his press. What do ATMS have to do with the online website? The freebees also have nothing to do with functionality (and free online checking sounds like a siren song to pull you into their system of overdraft fees, since it’s only those of modest income who could care for a checking fee.)

With the exception of phone and chat room support—which itself is largely superficial—none of the cons have anything to do with the functionality of the site. This is pabulum.

Forbes Reviews—“Website Reviews: Banking”

Bank of America

With the merger of Bank of America and Fleet, customers have learned the hard way about incompatibility. The two online banking systems cannot communicate with each other. All new customers sign up with what was formerly FleetHomelink, but with some of the added heft of the merged banking powerhouse. Chief among the merged-bank perks: more than 16,000 ATMs within the Bank of America system means you should rarely pay a fee. Other pluses: Checking is free with direct deposit, otherwise $6 per month, and there’s no minimum balance requirement. Online bill paying is free with checking and you can get account balances and information up to the last 18 months activity.

BEST: Large network of free ATMs.

WORST: The account aggregator is for Bank of America accounts only.

This is the entirety of the review from this prestigious magazine, in a section called “Website Reviews.” They attempt to provide the sheen of substance by reviewing an additional 17 banking sites, but none are granted more than a paragraph of attention.

Once again, the number of ATMs is somehow noted as a feature of the banking site. A large part of the paragraph is devoted to the ephemeral problems associated with a merger. And this review only has two bullet points!

Star Reviews—“Online Banking Website Reviews”

This site does note that the Bank of America website is pretty complex, but the review is largely fluff, and actually starts with advertising BoA’s ridiculous “keep the change” feature [endnote 28] which allows you to accrue a few dollars here or there over the course of a few months.

And they do talk a bit about the interactivity on the site:

Our first impression when hitting the Bank of America landing page was, “Where in the world do we start?” There’s just so much there. Yes, the website is broken down into sections, but for some reason that’s not completely apparent at first and you get an initial feeling of being overwhelmed.

Once you have time to brace yourself and actually take in the entire Bank of America home page, it’s not hard to find what you’re looking for. Links for checking accounts, credit cards, savings accounts, CDs, mortgages, home equity loans and more are all available from the landing page.

When you click on the links you’re interested in, you may find a slight delay in being taken to the actual product you want to read about. The pages on the Bank of America website, while easy to navigate, did load rather slowly. This is a considerable problem when looking at numerous products and services (as each one has main categories and then subcategories for each specific product offered).

Speaking of overwhelming—the sheer volume of products and services offered by Bank of America is enough to drive anyone to the edge. Researching checking accounts alone, you’ll find there are five different kinds to choose from. And credit cards? There’s more than 400 of those to look at.

This last paragraph gives it away—it spins the idea that the website is complex into an endorsement of the apparent magninimity of the site. The piece ends with bullet points again—one each for pro and con: “Upside: Wide variety of products and services, reasonable fees, unique programs. Downside: A bit overwhelming.”

This site does review six other banking sites altogether, but with no real purpose—most of the material is clearly lifted from the promotional material. If this type of reviewing were to occur in the book publishing or film industry, it would be scandalous, not to mention cause for legal action.

MSN Money—“The top 10 online banks”

This site doesn’t provide reviews of individual sites but does offer a table at the bottom that compares features among 10 banking sites.

One paragraph in the story—which is otherwise explaining some of the language and practices they used in the review—does put the top three banks up against each other, and gives you a sense of the criteria governing their judgments:

“Wells Fargo is ranked first, in part because of its Quicken-style tools for viewing your spending habits. Then again, second-place Citibank is better than Wells or third-place Bank of America at “money movement”—the ability to funnel funds to another account, user or bank. Fourth-place E*Trade Bank provides excellent alerts (such as letting you know when your balance is low), but it doesn’t allow you to stop payments on checks. Reverse that for fifth-place Huntington: no low-balance alerts, but it will let you stop payments. E*Trade also does an excellent job integrating its online banking and brokerage services.”

This page is titled “The Basics” and is, in its way, the least pretentious and most helpful of the review sites I’ve remarked upon here. Most of the story is geared toward helping you develop some basic analytical skills when looking at sites, though, again, none of this is concerned with the nature of the data presentation. The mention of “Quicken-style tools” is unique, as it does show the relationship of the a piece of commercial software and what is commonly thought of as a website—but is in fact a piece of software—the Bank of America Online Banking center.

None of these review sites do what most other review sites do: imagine a plethora of types of people who are using the service—ranging from the occasional user to the “power user”—nor do they provide any more detail than might be able to be gleaned in a brief visit to the site. It doesn’t appear, for instance, that any of the reviewers actually started an account with the respective banks and used them over a course of a few months, nor did they petition the opinions of users of the sites.

These reviews are largely an extensions of “InfoCenter”-style information, but provided under the aegis of objectivity, and like all reviews that are published under false pretenses, are essentially—think of the abuses of the Hearst era, when one man owned all the major papers—subject to prosecution, if not by the law, then the media.

This post is a section of Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Evaluation. This essay is also available as a book which can be downloaded for free at Lulu (where an inexpensive, not-priced-for-profit print edition can also be purchased) and at Scribd. The table of contents for the blog version of this essay can be seen in its entirety here.