Building Web Site Credibility

The most important thing in acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made.
—George Burns

If George Burns had been a Web developer, he might have quipped something similar about Websites and credibility. After all, with so many sites out there and so many of them bad, your site can really stand out if it just SEEMS a little credible. It's probably easiest to seem credible when you actually ARE, but at the very least you can try hard to fake it.

Faking credibility is not what this is about, though—this is really about first impressions and knowing enough about how people form them so that your visitor's first impressions will be positive. Just as we judge people on first impressions so strongly that they sometimes can never overcome them, visitors judge our Web sites within moments of landing on them, and one of the most important judgments they make is about our credibility. They swiftly decide on the basis of surface characteristics whether the content of your site will be sufficiently reliable for then to stick around. If they decide it's not, they're gone.

As you can imagine, commercial interests (that may include you) are very interested in getting people to stick around on their Web sites, and so in understanding how people form their first impressions of a Web site—what clues and cues (what the poker players call "tells") we use to judge credibility—so they can survive that initial judgment. In other words so they can fake it, but let's be generous and say so they can avoid blunders that would cause a visitor to dismiss the site before they understood the message.

Consumers Union, the people behind Consumer Reports magazine, was interested enough in how we judge Web site credibility that in 1999 they commissioned the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University to undertake a large-scale study of how people judge the credibility of a Website [1]. Three years later, Stanford published the data, and a set of recommendations for better presenting a Website.

These Ten tips [2] for building Web site credibility were distilled from their large-scale study (the tips are theirs, the comments mine):

  1. Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site.

    Provide citations when you can and back up information you present with links to original documents and off-site sources. If you're worried about people not coming back to your site, open the links in a new window—but warn people first. Few people will actually follow those links, your payoff comes from simply providing them.

  2. Show that there's a real organization behind your site.

    Photos of your office or your staff will help convince visitors that real folks stand behind the Web site, as will providing a physical address, phone numbers, trade-group and Chamber of Commerce memberships. If you're concerned about privacy, instead of pictures of your staff, show their bicycles or their shoes—any evidence to tie you to the bricks-and-mortar world.

  3. Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you provide.

    Provide credentials for the experts on your team and lists of accomplishments and experience for your organization. A list (with links) of credible clients does wonders, as do testimonials.

  4. Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site.

    The first part of this, showing that actual people stand behind the site, was covered in #2, above. This part is a little harder, but resumes and biographies that emphasize families, community involvement and hobbies will show visitors that your staff is engaged and active. Perhaps more importantly, the absence of that information could make visitors wonder what you're hiding.

  5. Make it easy to contact you.

    Put an email link on every page of your site, and include a "Contact Page" with every sort of contact information you have: physical address, email, phone and instant messaging, if you have it. A contact form and a good privacy notice can assuage people reluctant to use their email client to contact you.

  6. Design your site so it looks professional (or is appropriate for your purpose).

    Certain characteristics of Web sites shout amateurism—inconsistent colors and navigation, different designs from page to page and a general sloppiness. Keeping things simple, avoiding flashing headings, scrolling banners and weird cursor effects will take you a long ways toward achieving this even if you don't, for whatever reason, want to hire a professional designer.

  7. Make your site easy to use -- and useful.

    Think about your customers not about your company, when you design your site. Many Web sites seem to exist to gratify egos and make no attempt to quickly and efficiently deliver relevant information to potential customers. Put yourself in your visitor's shoes when you design your site—and especially when you write your copy—and provide what THEY want.

  8. Update your site's content often (at least show it's been reviewed recently).

    Stale content makes people wonder if you still exist, or if you have moved on to something else. In general, fresh content monthly with a major addition quarterly seems to do the trick, but you should time your updates according to what your customers expect—monthly updates might be silly in a slowly changing context, but could be way too long in a faster moving business.

  9. Use restraint with any promotional content (e.g., ads, offers).

    Avoid ads on your site if you can. If you can't, at least avoid ads for products or services that are utterly irrelevant to your main proposition. If you look to be scamming for a buck any way you can, people will treat your business as a scam. Also, keep your copy friendly and informative. Although you should avoid being so subtle that no one can decipher your proposition, you should also remember that people visit Web sites seeking information, not sales pitches.

  10. Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.

    Like a line on a resume reading "Pays attention to detales", a misspelled word or a broken link reveal the site owner as a person who doesn't put out the effort to do things right. Why would we expect that person to put out the effort to meet our needs?

[1] B.J. Fogg, Jonathan Marshall, Othman Laraki, Alex Osipovich, Chris Varma, Nicholas Fang, Jyoti Paul, Akshay Rangnekar, John Shon, Preeti Swani, & Marissa Treinen. "What Makes A Web Site Credible? A Report on a Large Quantitative Study"
Proceedings of ACM CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, v. 1, 61-68. New York: ACM Press.
A summary of the results has been published at:

[2] Fogg, B.J. (May 2002). "Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility." A Research Summary from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Stanford University.


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