When consumers assess a Web site’s credibility, looks tend to sway their
judgment more than information quality, according to research by Stanford
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
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
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
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
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
* Employ a review board of known experts to review content from lesser-known
* 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