The In Credible Web

The In Credible Web

People are conditioned to​ trust written words, not to​ mention images. "I read it​ in​ the​ paper" or​ "As seen on TV" are worn out but still effective clichés. the​ Internet combines both the​ written and​ the​ seen. it​ is​ both a​ textual and​ a​ visual (and audio) medium. Do people trust Internet content? is​ the​ incredible Internet - credible?

In the​ "brick and​ mortar" world, credibility is​ associated with brands. a​ brand, in​ effect, guarantees the​ quality and​ specifications of​ a​ product (think McDonald's hamburgers), its performance (think Palm), level of​ service and​ commitment to​ customer care (Amazon), variety, or​ price (Wal-Mart). Brands are sustained and​ enhanced by advertising campaigns. the​ content or​ sales pitch of​ specific ads are often less important than the​ message conveyed by the​ very existence of​ a​ campaign: "This company is​ rich enough (read: stable, reliable, trustworthy, here to​ stay) to​ spend millions on advertising."

The Internet has very few brands (Yahoo!, Amazon) - and​ some of​ them are tarnished. Some "old media" brands have entered the​ fray (Barnes and​ Noble, the​ Wall Street Journal, the​ Britannica) - hitherto without much success. the​ overwhelming bulk of​ Web content is​ created or​ disseminated by small time entrepreneurs and​ monomaniacs.

So, how does one establish or​ acquire credibility in​ such a​ diffuse and​ anarchic medium?

Enter Stanford University's "Web Credibility Project".

They define themselves thus:

"Our goal is​ to​ understand what leads people to​ believe what they find on the​ Web. We hope this knowledge will enhance Web site design and​ promote future research on Web credibility. as​ part of​ this ongoing project we are:

Performing quantitative research on Web credibility.
Collecting all public information on Web credibility.
Acting as​ a​ clearinghouse for​ this information.
Facilitating research and​ discussion about Web credibility.
Helping designers create credible Web sites."
Examples of​ current projects:

Timeliness: How does having out-of-date content affect the​ credibility of​ a​ Web site?
Interaction: How does having a​ personalized interaction with a​ Web site affect its credibility?
Negative Content: How does displaying negative content associated with a​ branded web site affect the​ credibility of​ the​ brand?

It is​ useful to​ confine ourselves to​ this definition of​ trust:

"The subjective belief, perception, or​ conviction that information provided is​ true, factual, and​ objective, and​ that commitments undertaken, explicitly, or​ implicitly, will be honored fully and​ in​ a​ timely manner."

Such perception, belief, or​ conviction are based on:

Past experience in​ general (with spam, with merchants, or​ providers, with a​ similar product category, with the​ same type of​ content, etc.) and​ personal proclivity to​ trust or​ to​ distrust.
Experience with the​ specific merchant or​ provider (whether personal or​ gleaned from other people's feedback - reviews, complaints, and​ opinions).
There is​ little that a​ merchant can do about the​ former. the​ latter is, expectedly, influenced by:

Professionalism (as evident in​ Web site design, e-commerce facilities, user-friendliness, navigability, links to​ other relevant Web pages, links from other Web sites, ease and​ speed of​ download, updated content, proofreading, domain name which matches the​ company's name, availability, multilingualism, etc.);
Trustworthiness (lack of​ bias, good intentions, truthfulness, thoroughness, objectivity, expertise and​ author credentials, knowledgeable sources and​ treatment, citations and​ bibliography), and​ what the​ authors of​ the​ research call "Real World Feel" (physical address, phone/fax numbers, non-Web e-mail address, photos of​ facilities and​ staff, audio recording, ownership by a​ not for​ profit organization, URL ending with ORG);
Commercial Web sites are less trusted. Cluttered ads, paid subscriptions, e-commerce enabled forms - all reduce the​ site's credibility! This is​ especially true if​ the​ entire site is​ a​ one, big ad and​ when it​ is​ hard to​ distinguish ads from content;
Track record (how veteran is​ the​ merchant, past financial performance, credit history, brand name recognition, lists of​ customers, etc.);
Selection (how many products are carried, how often is​ inventory refreshed, etc.);
Advertising (is the​ company's business sufficiently lucrative to​ support a​ campaign?);
Service (good service indicates a​ reassuring readiness to​ sacrifice the​ bottom line to​ cater to​ the​ customer's legitimate concerns, feedback forms, live support, etc.);
Full disclosure of​ rates, prices, privacy policy, security issues, etc.;
Feedback from other users (opinions, reviews, comments, FAQs, support groups, etc.);
Site rating and​ certification by trustworthy agencies (like the​ Better Business Bureau - BBB, VeriSign, TRUSTe) - or​ awards won (from credible and​ reputable organizations). Links from other, well-known and​ believable Web sites.
The Credibility Web discovered that trust in​ e-commerce is​ also influenced by idiosyncratic factors. Certain domain names (org) are more trusted than others (com). Too many ads, broken links, typos, outdated or​ old content - all diminish trust. in​ the​ absence of​ proven markers and​ behavioral guidelines, people seem to​ resort to​ extrapolation ("if they can't maintain their own Web site...") and​ stereotypes (e.g., NGO's are more trustworthy than corporations).

As Web sites proliferate (Google indexes well over 3 billion now) and​ Web authoring becomes a​ routine task - the​ noise to​ signal ratio of​ garbage to​ useful information is​ bound to​ deteriorate. Search engines already incorporate crude measures of​ credibility in​ their rankings (e.g., the​ number of​ links from external Web sites). But, to​ remain useful, search engines (and Web directories) would do well to​ rate Web content more comprehensively and​ thoroughly. They should rank Web sites by authoritativeness, reliability, and​ objectivity, for​ instance.

Research shows that 75% of​ all respondents resort to​ the​ Internet as​ a​ primary information provider. the​ inundation of​ irrelevant material caused most surfers to​ confine their surfing to​ 10 Web sites (the equivalent of​ "anchors" in​ shopping malls) which they deem reliable, timely, accurate, objective, authoritative, and​ credible. the​ rest of​ the​ Internet gets the​ leftovers. This worrying trend can be reversed only through the​ emergence of​ independent and​ commercially-viable rating agencies. Web sites (at least the​ business ones) should be willing to​ pay for​ credible rating to​ enhance their stickiness and​ attract monetizable "eyeballs". in​ the​ absence of​ such third party accreditation, the​ Internet risks both irrelevance and​ disrepute.

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