Web credibility

Jo Bailey
January 2014

Section summary

  • Credibility on the web is a combination of perceived trustworthiness and expertise.
  • Credibility judgements are based on how a website looks, above all other factors.
  • Websites also need to look appealing (but not too ‘slick’) to prevent a user abandoning the site straight away.
  • Once a user is engaged, other factors such as errors and the ability to verify information come into play.
  • The Stanford WCP guidelines form an important checklist for LAWA.

…participants relied heavily on the surface qualities of a web site to make credibility judgments. … we had hoped to see that people used more rigorous evaluation strategies.

(Fogg et al., 2002, p.25)

What is credibility?

Credibility is a perceived quality that has two dimensions: trustworthiness (equated with dependability (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman (1995, p.712)); and expertise (Fogg, 2003. p.122). Trustworthiness hinges on factors such as being unbiased, fair and honest. Expertise is the perceived knowledge or skill of the source (Fogg, 2003, p.124). A successful website needs to combine high levels of both.

Research on web credibility

The benchmark web credibility research came out of the Stanford University Web Credibility Project (WCP). The WCP research explored the considerations and judgements people make in the process of assessing web credibility. Despite being a decade old, this seminal study still informs best practice today (usability guidelines endure because they depend on human behaviour, which changes very slowly (Nielsen, 2005)).  

The first byte is with the eye: The role of design

One of the most surprising WCP results was that when determining online credibility, the average consumer paid far more attention to superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to content (Fogg et al., 2002, p.6), a result that has been replicated since (Alberts & van der Geest, 2011). Visual design (including layout, typography, and colour palette) featured in the comments of nearly half of all test participants (Fogg et al., 2002, p.6).

However, there was also a backlash against sites that were deemed too “slick-looking” (Fogg et al., 2002, p.25). People perceive ‘slickness’ as marketing or design ‘gloss’; more about selling than useful information. This is a tightrope that LAWA needed to negotiate.

Short attention spans?

Users judge visual appeal quickly – as quickly as 50 milliseconds (Lindgaard, Fernandes, Dudek, & Brown, 2006) – hence capturing attention through design is important.

Lindgaard, Fernandes, Dudek, & Brown (2006) demonstrated that “visual appeal factors” can alter how users feel about a website. If a website looks appealing, subsequent interactions get judged less harshly: “[after a] very positive first impression, a person may disregard or downplay possible negative issues encountered later: potentially negative aspects such as errors may be generously overlooked” (Campbell & Pisterman 1996, quoted in Lindgaard et al., 2006)). This is called cognitive confirmation bias, or the ‘halo effect’.

Half of all new site visits last less than 12 seconds (Weinreich, Obendorf, Herder, & Mayer, 2008, p.16), but if a site makes the first cut and is not abandoned by the user straight away, “there's a fair chance that they'll stay much longer — often two minutes or more, which is an eternity on the Web” (Nielsen, 2011).

Stanford WCP: a framework for LAWA’s credibility

The WCP research has been summarised into a series of guidelines (Fogg, 2002). These have been key considerations for the LAWA design; how they were interpreted is detailed in further essays:

WCP comments
How this was considered in LAWA

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

You can build web site credibility by providing third-party support (citations, references, source material) for information you present, especially if you link to this evidence. Even if people don't follow these links, you've shown confidence in your material.

Use of glossary and factsheets to allow drilldown; linking to external research from factsheets.

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

Showing that your web site is for a legitimate organization will boost the site's credibility. The easiest way to do this is by listing a physical address. Other features can also help, such as posting a photo of your offices or listing a membership with the chamber of commerce.

About section on LAWA is clear about who the partners are.

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

Do you have experts on your team? Are your contributors or service providers authorities? Be sure to give their credentials. Are you affiliated with a respected organization? Make that clear. Conversely, don't link to outside sites that are not credible. Your site becomes less credible by association.

Cawthron as external validators of data, and the Can I Trust this Data’ tick.

Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site.

The first part of this guideline is to show there are real people behind the site and in the organization. Next, find a way to convey their trustworthiness through images or text. For example, some sites post employee bios that tell about family or hobbies.

Use author names on all articles and events.

Make it easy to contact you.

A simple way to boost your site's credibility is by making your contact information clear: phone number, physical address, and email address.

Footer contains contact information and links to all regional councils.

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

We find that people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like IBM.com. The visual design should match the site's purpose.

See typography, colour, and visual style

Make your site easy to use – and useful.

We're squeezing two guidelines into one here. Our research shows that sites win credibility points by being both easy to use and useful. Some site operators forget about users when they cater to their own company's ego or try to show the dazzling things they can do with web technology.

User-centred design principles.

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

People assign more credibility to sites that show they have been recently updated or reviewed.

Published dates on all articles and factsheets.

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

If possible, avoid having ads on your site. If you must have ads, clearly distinguish the sponsored content from your own. Avoid pop-up ads, unless you don't mind annoying users and losing credibility. As for writing style, try to be clear, direct, and sincere.

Establishing a consistent LAWA voice that talks simply, without jargon, but without dumbing down (see Copy and writing style). No advertising (see Visual style).

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

Typographical errors and broken links hurt a site's credibility more than most people imagine. It's also important to keep your site up and running.

Rigorous testing regime, beta launch.


Next: Site structure

Ethical Considerations

Credibility design as a tool for evil!

One of the Masters cohort asked me, “do you think you could make someone bad look good with your research?”. By highlighting techniques to make web design appear more credible, anyone could utilise them, honestly or otherwise. I am a graphic designer, and as Katherine McCoy says, there is a tendency to think of graphic design and advertising as competing cultures using the “oppositional modes” (McCoy, 2000) of information and persuasion. But that is a false dichotomy. Of course what I am doing is utilising persuasion. Even the most innocuous graphic design is persuasive – “the red colour of a stop sign is a persuasive rhetorical tactic” (McCoy, 2000). What I am not doing is stepping beyond persuasion to use coercion or deception, but someone else could.

Fundamentally, though, people aren’t stupid. Even if a site looks appropriate to the task (for instance, the highly plausible Bonk Museum, Australian International University and HuhCorp sites – all delicious spoofs good enough to fool anyone, at least for a few seconds), there still needs to be substance.