Internet-based financial services companies offer faster and easier-to-use credit card application forms than the Web sites of traditional banks, according to WebCriteria Inc., a Portland, Ore., consulting firm that created a gauge to measure response times and the quality of customers’ experience.

WebCriteria sampled 10 sites using an automated browsing tool it developed. NextCard Inc. of San Francisco won the beauty contest: It took less than three minutes for the automated browser to find the credit card application link, fill out the form, and submit it.

E-Trade Bank, the online bank operated by E-Trade Group Inc., came in second, at four minutes, and Umbrella Bank, the virtual bank operated by a Summit, Ill., thrift called Argo Federal Savings Bank, took third place, at just over four minutes.

Finishing in ninth and 10th places were the Web sites of First Union Corp. and Bank of America Corp., at whose sites the automated browser took nearly six minutes — and nine mouse clicks — for the same chore.

Not all the brick-and-mortar banks finished at the bottom. FleetBoston Financial Corp.’s credit card application form came in fourth, and Bank One Corp.’s fifth — ahead of three online-onlys: Juniper Financial, First Internet Bank of Indiana, and

Alistair Williamson, chief executive officer of WebCriteria, said that in the world of online financial services, time is of the essence.

“If you go out and ask people what is important, they say things like ‘how long it will take me?’,” he said. “If they have to wait a long time for pages, they will go elsewhere.”

WebCriteria’s test, which it developed and typically applies to retailers’ Web sites, measures two attributes: the time it takes a Web page to load on a viewer’s screen and the amount of effort it takes to complete one page and move on to the next. Web pages get low marks if they have large graphic images that take a long time to download or require a great deal of reading.

The test’s developer said that some simple time-saving features helped boost the scores of some Internet-oriented financial sites.

“Some sites will allow you to tick a box that says your home address and billing address are the same,” said Jonathan D. Moore, the WebCriteria data syndication analyst who developed the test. “Others require you to enter it twice.”

Juniper Financial, for example, the Web bank established by the former leaders of Bank One’s First USA division, finished sixth (just below Bank One) largely because its site makes credit card applicants set up a user name and password before submitting an application, Mr. Moore said. None of the other sites tested required that step, he said.

The number of clicks it takes to finish also affects the score. WebCriteria’s analysis assumes that the more arduous the task, the more likely a customer is to give up and abandon a half-finished credit card application, much as an online shopper may ditch a full shopping cart at a retail Web site, he said. “If there are too many steps, people stop.”

Traditional banks offer more services than most Internet-only sites, so the online-oriented banks have an advantage in the scoring, Mr. Moore said. “The NextCard Web site has only one function: applying for a NextCard,” which accounted for its extremely high ranking, he said. “The other sites analyzed offer dozens of different services, and must attempt to make all of them equally accessible.”

Yinzi Cai, NextCard’s chief operating officer, said her company deliberately made its site quick and easy to navigate. “Creditworthy customers have little patience, especially given that you have so many mail solicitations,” she said.

NextCard experiments with many so-called splash pages, customized pages that surfers can click to when they respond to banner ads, Ms. Cai said.

“When you click through on a banner, you don’t come” to NextCard’s home page, she said. “You go to a splash page that explains reward programs, online shopping, or rates, to get people to apply. That is one thing we have tested.”

James L. Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting Inc., of Fairfield, Conn., said that E-Trade probably ranked so high because the company has “learned from the discount brokerage to make it fast and easy.”

On the other hand, “traditional banks back into these emerging technologies,” he said. Historically, they put somebody in charge of that internally who doesn’t even have a background in it.”

WebCriteria says it cannot measure how many more credit card applications the high-scoring sites pick up, and most companies do not disclose such information.

Mr. Moore said: “If you want a credit, and you go to E-Trade to get a card, the odds of you completing the application are better than if you go to Bank of America. People get frustrated and stop. They may give up on applying for a credit card online altogether if it is not easier to do online.”

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