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Enhancing Web Site Credibility

Web users are becoming increasingly skeptical of the information and services offered online. As a result, those who offer Web sites — from large companies to single-person operations — now face increasing pressure to enhance the credibility of their sites. But what is credibility and how can it be enhanced online? Can good spelling lend trustworthiness to your site?

Investigating What Makes Web Sites Credible Today

What is “credibility”? Simply put, credibility can be defined as believability. Credible people are believable people; credible information is believable information. The vast majority of researchers identify two key components of credibility:

  • Trustworthiness (As in well intentioned, truthful, unbiased, and so on. The trustworthiness dimension of credibility captures the perceived goodness or morality of the source.) and
  • Expertise (As in knowledgeable, experienced, competent, and so on. The expertise dimension of credibility captures the perceived knowledge and skill of the source.)

What this means is that in evaluating credibility, a person makes an assessment of both trustworthiness and expertise to arrive at an overall credibility assessment. Taken together, these ideas suggest that highly credible web sites will be perceived to have high levels of both trustworthiness and expertise.

Why Does Web Credibility Matter?

The success of most Web sites hinges on credibility. When a site lacks credibility, users are unlikely to remain on the site for long. They won’t buy things, they won’t register, and they won’t return. They certainly won’t think favorably of the organization that sponsors the site.

Factors that Affect Credibility

Sites were rated as more credible when they had standards for their content—such as when they attributed content to specific sources, listed the credentials of authors, and provided references.

Our data show that sites which failed to meet standards would receive negative ratings on credibility. For example, sites that did not attribute their content to any source were reported to lose credibility. Technical problems such as broken links, site downtime, or typographical errors were rated the most negative on this scale.

One notable finding is the significant impact of a site having been useful to someone before. This high value shows that previous positive experience with a Web site will cause a dramatic change in a process we call earned credibility.

Design Implication: Appearances Matter

Beautiful graphic design will not salvage a poorly functioning Web site. Yet, the study shows a clear link between solid design and site credibility. Participants said they were more likely to believe Web sites that looked professionally designed and appeared visually appropriate to the subject matter. It’s clear from the data that Web users do not overlook simple cosmetic mistakes, such as spelling or grammatical errors. In fact, the findings suggested that typographical errors have roughly the same negative impact on a Web site's credibility as a company's legal or financial troubles.

Source: Stanford-Makovsky Web Credibility Study 2002

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