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Study: For Site Cred, Looks Matter

When consumers assess a Web site's credibility, looks tend to sway their judgment more than information quality, according to research by Stanford University.

The Stanford study, entitled "How Do People Evaluate a Web Site's Credibility? Results from a Large Study", found that consumers are more apt to consider design elements as part of their judgments about a site's credibility.

The Stanford results were part of two joint Web-based research projects that looked at how consumers view the information they glean from the Web. Both studies were conducted with the support of Consumer WebWatch.org, the non-profit research site devoted to improving credibility on the Web.

The Stanford study was conducted by inviting 2,684 consumers to evaluate the credibility of two live Web sites randomly assigned from one of 10 content categories. In all, they surveyed 100 sites. The researchers then tracked participants' comments about site features.

Although consumers taking part in the research were aware of important factors such as quality of information when they were judging a site's credibility, the bells and whistles of its design also held sway, the Stanford study showed. "Consumers were frequently distracted by superficial aspects of sites that had little to do with the depth, breadth, or the quality of the content," Consumer WebWatch.org said. Nearly half of the study participants (46.1 percent) rated the site's credibility in part by overall design or look.

"To look good is to be good -- that's the primary test when people assess a Web site's credibility," said B.J. Fogg, Ph.D, who led the Stanford study. "People evaluate TV news and politicians in the same way: presentation matters more than substance. Why should we expect the Web to be any different?"

A second research project looking at specific sites related to health and finance found similar results. While experts in the health and finance industries judging a site went for solid credibility benchmarks such as quality of content and authorship, consumers still stirred bells and whistles into their credibility ranking, too.

The second study, called "Experts vs. Online Consumers: A Comparative Credibility Study of Health and Finance Web Sites," was conducted by California-based consultancy Sliced Bread Design, LLC. It built on the results of Consumer WebWatch.org's national poll from April of this year, in which 1,500 adult Internet users were asked how they weigh the quality of information they get from the Web.

The Sliced Bread study asked 15 experts in the health and financial fields to assess the credibility of sites in their respective specialties. In this case, according to Consumer WebWatch.org, the experts assigned more credibility to sites that provide unbiased information from reputable sources, disclose names and credentials of authors, and include citations for published articles.

The results showed that about 41.8 percent of consumers who assessed health sites in the study noted design when assessing the sites. About 7.6 percent of the health experts did the same.

One of the most surprising results revealed by both studies, the groups said, was the gap between what consumers say about sites and their actual online behavior.

"While consumers say they judge on substance, these studies demonstrate that consumers judge on aesthetics, and get distracted by bells and whistles," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch. "It's disturbing that consumers are being distracted by elements having little to do with a site's real quality, especially when they're using health or finance sites and making decisions that might dramatically affect their lives."

Consumer WebWatch, which is a project of non-profit publisher Consumers Union (and ConsumerReports.org), has released a list of recommendations to Web publishers in the Health and Finance fields designed to help them improve site credibility.

For health sites, the recommendations include:

* Cite author-specific sources for all information.

* Provide the author's name and affiliation for all published information.

* Employ a review board of known experts to review content from lesser-known sources.

* Although site ownership is important, it is even more important to identify the source of each article posted.

* Avoid being overly commercial.

* If the site has a commercial focus, avoid marketing-based articles and explain how for-profit interests may affect the site's content.

* Avoid flashy design that detracts from serious health content.

For finance sites, the recommendations include:

* Explain the site's commercial goals, target audience, and disclose any information that may contribute to bias.

* Provide articles that describe multiple viewpoints on financial issues.

* Clearly explain financial product recommendations.

* Provide education to help investors make informed decisions.

* If the site has a specific agenda, it should be explained. How the agenda might affect product recommendations or services provided should also be explained.