Trust Is in the Details

Web site designers take heed: Internet users are paying attention to the details. A study of 1,649 online users, primarily from the United States and Finland, conducted by Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab and sponsored by Makovsky & Company, revealed that little things, such as misspellings, could be detrimental to a site’s credibility.

The study analyzed key factors — expertise, trustworthiness, sponsorship, and miscellaneous criteria — to determine the credibility of Web sites, finding some of the highest rated elements to be: quick response to customer service queries; comprehensive and attributable information; author’s credentials are listed; search capabilities; site has proven useful in the past; full contact information is listed; privacy policy clearly stated; site has been prominently advertised; ads on site are relevant; and professional design.

Others factors that impacted positive credibility were confirmation e-mails; live chat; printer-friendly pages; frequent content updates; and search engine result ranking.

Further analysis resulted in these overall findings:

  • The respondents reacted unfavorably to sites that use pop-up advertisements, fail to update copy, or have ads that are undistinguishable from content. Broken links, poor site navigation, and links to sites perceived to be non-credible were also among the highest negative influences.
  • Americans appear to place greater trust in sites that provide valid content and respect privacy than their Europeans counterparts. Americans gave much higher credibility rankings to Web sites that offered privacy statements, sent e-mails to confirm transactions, indicated the source of site content or provided credentials for its authors.
  • Women attached greater credibility to Web sites with privacy policies, e-mail confirmations of transactions and contact phone numbers than men.

“If Web sites were cars, it would be the trusty Toyota not the flashy Ferrari that would win the Web credibility race,” says Stanford consulting faculty member BJ Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab. “This study confirms previous research weve done, but in many ways it expands our understanding about what leads people to believe — or not believe — what they find online.”

Additionally, the Web sites of non-profit organizations enjoyed greater credibility than commercial operations, but in general, how an organization made a profit or accomplished its mission seemed less important than how they presented and managed the information contained within their Internet properties.

While the Stanford study did not focus on any specific types of Web sites, Consumer WebWatch took a look at the credibility of news and information and e-commerce sites. Based on 1,500 telephone interviews conducted in late 2001 to early 2002 with U.S. Internet users, age 18 and older, the study revealed that only 29 percent say they trust Web sites that sell products and services, a far lower figure than for traditional, offline institutions.

Other findings include:

  • 80 percent say it is very important to be able to trust the information on a Web site.
  • 59 percent indicate that it is very important that advertising be clearly labeled and distinguished from news and information.
  • Almost all (95 percent) say it is very important that sites disclose all fees.
  • 93 percent state that it is very important that sites disclose how they will protect credit card information.
  • 60 percent do not know that some commonly used search engines are paid to list some sites more prominently than others. 80 percent demand that the search engines reveal such financial deals.

“As consumers settle into the realities of a world where the Internet has changed many aspects of how they live their lives, they are starting to question more and more how much they should trust Web content,” said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch.

Consumer WebWatch recommends that Web sites adopt a set of guidelines, designed to enhance credibility:

  1. Identity: Web sites should clearly disclose the physical location where they are produced, including an address, a telephone number or e-mail address, as well as ownership, purpose and mission.
  2. Advertising and Sponsorships: Sites should clearly distinguish advertising from news and information, using labels or other visual means.
  3. Customer Service: Disclosure of relevant financial relationships with other sites, all fees, and return policies should be prominent.
  4. Corrections: Sites should diligently seek to correct false, misleading or incorrect information.
  5. Privacy: Policies should be easy to find and clearly, simply stated.

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