Seven Things You Can Do to Improve Your Credibility on the Web

By Steve Guengerich, Ross Speir

When it comes to believing what one reads online, credibility matters. Read the top tactics and persuasion strategies you can employ to improve your own website's credibility.

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When it comes to believing what one reads online, credibility matters. Credible sources have the ability to change opinions, attitudes, and behaviors, to motivate and persuade. In contrast, when credibility is low, the potential to influence is also low.

On the web, credibility has two sides. On one side are the web users trying to determine what information is credible. On the other side are the web designers trying to create highly-credible websites.

So, what can you do to increase the credibility of your company and its products or services on the web? Fortunately, the answer is not a matter of gut instinct or luck—the answer lies in science.

The science and study of credibility

In 1999, graduate students at Stanford University studied web credibility on a large scale for the first time, and published the results in a Web Credibility Study. The study was re-run in 2002, during which the results from the earlier study were compared. Each time, a snapshot was taken of the perceptions of approximately 1,500 participants.

The result of the study shows strong scientific evidence of specific design elements that web users impart with greater credibility.

Here are seven of the top tactics you can employ to improve your own website’s credibility. And for each tactic, we have provided an associated persuasion strategy to which it is linked.

The science of credibility, especially in regards to the use of computers, has advanced a great deal over the past five years. Its advance is a branch of the larger field of persuasive technology, popularized by academic thought leaders, such as BJ Fogg.

“Persuasive technology is any interactive computing system designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviors,” said Fogg, in his seminal book Persuasive Technology (Morgan Kaufmann, December 2002).

Credibility can be defined as believability; it is a perceived quality, like beauty. Much like evaluating beauty, people often agree when evaluating a source’s credibility.

Most researchers and psychologists confirm that there are two main dimensions of credibility: trustworthiness and expertise. People evaluate these two elements and combine them to develop an overall assessment of credibility.

Trustworthiness is the quality of being perceived as truthful, fair, and unbiased.

Expertise is the quality of being perceived as knowledgeable, experienced, and competent. The most credible sources are those perceived to have high levels of trustworthiness and expertise.

Think how much we entrust every moment to the credible operations of computers. We do so only when we know they are trustworthy and we have a high degree of satisfaction that they operate with a great deal of expertise. When they don’t, we lose faith.

1. Associate your website with respected organizations.

Websites that are associated with organizations that people respect, receive the highest ratings of credibility. If you are a resort or golf club, you want to be associated with Jack Nicklaus; if you are a car company, J.D. Power and Associates ® . On a local level, respected organizations might include the Chamber of Commerce.

Along these lines, having your website linked to by other websites that users think are believable is another sign of credibility. For example, if your site is linked to by a news organization that is well-respected outside of the Internet, like Consumer Reports, the implication is your website is perceived as credible as Consumer Reports.

Persuasion strategy: Social Proof.

If everyone else is doing it, it must be good or right. This strategy relies on the use of customer lists, testimonials, and other similar examples of social proof to provide a persuasive case for a website’s products or services.

2. Respond to inquiries received through the web.

Nothing kills credibility faster than prospective customers try to reach you at your “sales@…” email address only to have their inquiries go unanswered. Conversely, users consider a website credible if you provide quick responses to their customer service questions. Even better, your site sends emails confirming the transactions that users make.

Persuasion strategy: Permission.

The simple act of an email inquiry to your website is the first step in a permission-based strategy. By responding to the inquiry with a question and choice of next steps, you ease customers into action, ideally showing them value before asking for commitment.

Another way this strategy can be applied is at checkout, by having customers incrementally commit to a purchase, as opposed to “Do you want this? Yes or no!” Some incremental steps ask them to “verify products you want,” or ask where to ship, how to ship, and request preferred payment information.

Permission doesn’t work when requirements are sought too early in the dialogue, for example, premature website registration requirements.

3. Anyone home? Make them feel that you’re real.

Users like to see websites that list an organization’s physical address. They also like to see a contact name, phone number, and email address.

For all of us who suffer spam, there are ways to provide an email address and thwart the email address bots. Among them is simply writing out the email address such as “You can email me at ‘steve at perceptivesciences dot com’ if you wish to reach me online.”

Persuasion strategy: Visualize.

Users want to visualize their interactions. This means being able to associate a concrete address with perhaps a picture of a building, or to see pictures of a product in its context of selection and purchase. For example, Lands’ End employs visualization effectively with its My Virtual Model ™.

4. Content you’re willing to sign your name to—literally.

Users consider websites that have articles containing citations and references as more credible. They also like to see authors’ credentials listed for each article.

Persuasion strategy: Authority.

People respect authority. Having an authority associated with a service or endorsing a product simplifies the decision-making process. That’s why product reviews are so powerful—see Amazon.com ®!

5. Content you’re willing to vouch for.

Closely aligned to the previous item, users consider sites more credible when you include a policy about your content. Along the lines of a privacy policy, a content policy addresses issues of who your authors are, how you check the content veracity, etc. Also considered more credible are sites that let you search for past content, like archives.

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About the Authors

  • Steve Guengerich is an award-winning writer on information technology. You can reach him at sguengerich@aol.com

  • Ross Speir is a user experience architect at Perceptive Sciences, Corporation who specializes in designing and conducting user research studies. He can be reached at ross.speir@PerceptiveSciences.com


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