Large global corporations are commonly assumed to be at the forefront of using the Internet, and their Web sites are expected to be globally oriented, culturally sensitive and highly professional. An empirical test of this assumption, however, reveals that the capabilities are not as high as is believed, and that there is much room for improvements and for competitors.

Corporate announcements create the impression that multinational firms are highly advanced in their online capabilities. They are thought to already have made the transition from marketplace to market space.Due to their superior resources, these large companies are said to be well on their way to leading Web site business into the future.

Such statements are heartening to those who believe that e-commerce will take over the world within a short time, and somewhat discouraging to the ranks of those many companies that are only now beginning to get involved in the wild and wonderful world of the Internet.

At Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, we decided to test the reality of this Internet involvement by looking at the international orientation of large corporations' Web sites.

We analyzed the sites of the Fortune Global 250, which are the largest global companies in the world.

We first looked at all their Web sites, and then conducted an experiment by sending, from different servers, the same message in English, Russian and Spanish to the companies. The message asked them about their ability and willingness to deal with global customers via the Internet. It also requested an acknowledgment that the message had been received.

The research surprises started right at the beginning: Of the 250 largest companies in the world, 15 did not have a Web site at all. Of the rest, 57 did not offer visitors any opportunity to interact or communicate with their Web site.

That means that more than 28 percent of these global corporations are either still nonparticipants or are very passive participants in the Internet revolution.

On a regional basis, one-fifth of American and European companies did not provide for any interaction, while one-third of the Asian firms did not allow for any contact.

Next we evaluated the global orientation of the Web sites, by checking whether a site offered its content in multiple languages to accommodate visitors from abroad.

Overall, 47 percent of the companies offered two or more languages. However, of 90 American companies, only 14 percent offered non-English language content.

By comparison, 70 percent of the non-American companies offered more than their local language on their sites. Leading here were the 39 German companies, of which 89 percent offered languages other than German.

They were followed closely by the 59 Japanese companies, of which 72 percent offered non-Japanese content. The 31 French companies came in third, with 55 percent of them offering content in languages other than French. English was the primary additional language provided by virtually all of the firms with multilingual sites.

We also measured the extent and speed of the replies to the messages sent in English, Spanish and Russian.

Forty-seven percent of the English-language messages received a reply. Spanish-language messages received a reply only 19 percent of the time, and only 16 percent of the Russian-language messages received a response.

English-language inquiries also received the quickest responses. English-language responses came from U.S. corporations within one to two days; the answers in both Spanish and Russian took two to five days.

From European companies, English-language inquiries took two to four days, while Spanish responses took between three and five days, and Russian ones four to six days. From Asian companies, all responses uniformly took four to six days.

What do all these results mean?

First off, the world is not as interconnected as we might believe. Even many large corporations are still in the very early stages of participating in the Internet. There are still many opportunities to outperform the competition in the e-commerce field.

Second, it becomes quite clear that the language of the Internet is English - at least as far as large corporations are concerned. Yet most companies outside of the United States offer to accommodate visitors in more than one language.

By welcoming customers on their own terms, these companies are likely to benefit from better customer relations, closer interaction with their Internet visitors, and more valuable customer input when it comes to the evaluation and improvement of their products and business strategy.

In contrast, U.S. corporations, while global in their pronouncements, seem to be reluctant to implement such an orientation in their communication efforts.

Such lethargy in adapting a multicultural outreach effort may be rationalized by the prevalence of English on the Internet. However, it inhibits the interaction with customers abroad.

In an era in which many U.S. companies earn more than half their profit from abroad, such a reluctance to become truly global is surprising - and will make it harder to reduce the growing trade deficit.