Is Your Website Credible?

I saw a link-bait article at the top of TechMeme this past weekend entitled ""Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet".

The article outlines how internet advertising will fail because it (apparently) holds people captive and forces them to watch ads (huh?). I'm paraphrasing, but that's the jist of the conclusion reached by the author, Eric Clemons, of the University of Pennsylvania.

I certainly hope a lot of would-be advertisers listen to his view on search advertising, because it will reduce the bid competition for the rest of us:

Misdirection, or sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching. This is Google’s business model....Misdirection most frequently takes the form of diverting customers to companies that they do not wish to find, simply because the customer’s preferred company underbid"


For starters, what is the searchers "preferred" company? That statement assumes the searcher already knows what company they are looking for. Perhaps, as is often the case, they are looking to solve a problem, not locate a specific company.

Secondly, anyone who has paid for ads would know that the last thing you want to do as a search advertiser is to "misdirect" visitors to your site i.e. visitors who aren't interested in what you're selling. It costs a fortune, makes no money, and Google will likely demote such ads due to a poor quality score.

Sergey Brin is of the opinion that advertising can add value, so long as it is relevant:

" fits with the notion of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page that ads can and should be at least as useful to people as search results and other online content. "We believe there is real value to seeing ads about the things that interest you,"

Of course, he would say that, but I think it is true. Ad content need not be intrusive. Relevant advertising, delivered when the customer wants it, can and does solve problems, and thus adds value. Advertising also facilitates a lot of web content that simply couldn't be offered for free if the advertising didn't support it. Google itself could not exist without advertising.

Anyway, Danny Sullivan does a good fisk of the article. We'll worth a read.

Website Credibility

Danny brought up an interesting aside about credibility, which I thought I'd riff on and hopefully we can share some ideas in the comments.

Here is how Danny decides if a travel website is credible:

I have this “travel guide” test to use to help determine if an expert source knows what they’re talking about. Ever struggle to decide which travel book for some vacation destination might be the best one? Me, if it’s a travel series, I pull the guide for a destination I know well, like my hometown. I know my local area in an expert way — and if the travel guide suggests good stuff for my area, then I feel better about trusting it in other areas.

In this case, because Danny has established the credibility of the source, he is more likely to go to places the guide recommends. He is certainly more likely to keep reading the site, which means more opportunity for advertisers to be seen.

What Makes A Website Credible?

Credibility means the quality of being believable or trustworthy.

The markers we use to determine credibility online have a lot in common with the way we determine credibility offline: are we familiar with this person or business? Have we had previous, beneficial dealings with them? Do they come recommended by someone we trust? Does it look and feel right? This last point might be more important than we've been led to believe. More on this shortly.

Various articles have pointed to prescriptive credibility markers, such as displaying your address, having a privacy policy, showing a photo of the site owner etc, but I'd argue these are pretty much useless unless more fundamental credibility markers have been established first.

One of the problems on the internet in terms of establishing credibility, is that the internet is largely unregulated and anonymous:

the Internet has no government or ethical regulations controlling the majority of its available content. This unregulated flow of information presents a new problem to those seeking information, as more credible sources become harder to distinguish from less credible sources (Andie, 1997). Moreover, without knowing the exact URL of a given site, the amount of information offered through keyword searches can make finding a predetermined site difficult as well as increase the likelihood of encountering sites containing false information

The task of deciding the level of credibility lies mostly with the individual, rather than an external agency. A research report by Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab found:

The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.This reliance on a site's overall visual appeal to gauge its credibility occurred more often with some categories of sites then others. Consumer credibility-related comments about visual design issues occurred with more frequency with finance (54.6%), search engines (52.6%), travel (50.5%), and e-commerce sites (46.2%), and with less frequency when assessing health (41.8%), news (39.6%), and nonprofit (39.4%) sites. In comparison, the parallel Sliced Bread Design study revealed that health and finance experts were far less concerned about the surface aspects of these industry-specific types of sites and more concerned about the breadth, depth, and quality of a site's information.

The emphasis people place on a sites visual design when trying to determine credibility is interesting. This is not to say having a blinged-up site will make you appear more credible, as it very much depends what market you're in. A slick site is likely be credible if you're selling lipstick to teenagers, but not if you're providing weather data to climatologists. Wikipedia and Google appear credible as information resources partly because they look staid and academic.

So the first step to making your site credible is to know your audience, and meet their expectations in terms of look and feel.

Accuracy Of Information

The studies also point to the accuracy of information as a credibility marker.

It stands to reason that a site that contains obvious lies or inaccuracies, as perceived by the reader, isn't going to be credible. Having said that, there are plenty of scam artists on the internet, and people pedaling incorrect information, but the difference is that their readers aren't aware they are being lied to or being given incorrect information.

This is why it can often pay to cite known authorities to add credibility to your content. Besides the value of citation in terms of establishing accuracy, naming a credible resource can make you appear more credible by association. Go to Yahoo Answers are notice how most answers lack credibility. Those answer that are credible tend to cite external known authorities.

A Way With Words

Closely related to visual presentation is format and the way you use words.

In a study by Indianna University, Matthew Eastin looked at the credibility markers for online health information:

More recently, Rieh & Belkin (1998) identified criteria used when evaluating online information......they found that: (1) institutional sites were seen as more credible than individual sites, and (2) accuracy of content was used to assess online information. Respondents used knowledge of citations within the content and the functionality of hyperlinks as cues to evaluate the information. addition to source and link accuracy, they also recommend that users consider peer evaluation, navigability, and feedback options (i.e., email, chat room, etc.)

Academic essays sound authoritative, even if what they say is nonsense, because they are long winded and use big words. Even the length of an essay can lend credibility. For example, long Wikipedia pages appear more credible that short pages, simply by virtue of their length. Various studies in the direct marketing field appear to back this up, which is why you'll often see those long, single page sales letters. Short letters don't sell so well. "Thoroughness" either reduces anxiety in the buyer, or ehances the credibility of the seller, or most likely both.

Again, the way you use words depends on your audience. An academic approach isn't much use if people can't comprehend what you're saying. Likewise, if a an article is lightweight and flippant, it isn't going to appear to an academic community.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book that looks at communication within markets in the internet age, the authors assert that markets are conversations. And that conversation is conducted in the human voice, not the cliche ridden hype language of the marketing brochure. The use of colloquial "voice" often carries a lot of credibility on the web, presumably because it signifies a human presence.

The Reef Fish Effect

People like to go where other people are.

There is perceived to be less risk in crowds. This is why Amazon's customer reviews are so powerful. People's choices are affirmed by the wisdom of the crowd. It just feels safer.

Include as many human touches as you can. Reviews from known authorities, signs of activity, signs that other people have visited your site before, and their experience has been positive. Being a known quantity makes you appear more credible.

What do you look for when trying to determine credibility?

Published: March 25, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


March 25, 2009 - 3:11pm

Welcome back Peter. You articles are awesome!

March 25, 2009 - 3:22pm

Good stuff, Peter.

Credibility can be measured in a lot of ways, but typically, it is tied back to something that Aaron often trumpets:
Solving a specific need

Here's an example:
I visit sites like and if I want to engage in hardcore conversations and insight regarding the Miami Dolphins (instead of the official NFL site or the official team site or ESPN, etc).


Because those two forums have updated information on a daily basis and there's an inner circle of "insiders" (reporters, scouts, and generally smart football folks) that hang out there and share rumors, insights, etc. There's also a lot of nonsense banter, but it's easy to weed that out and get to the good stuff.

I can't really get from,, etc...

You could argue that sites like offer the same thing, which is why folks like me stop in here before going to some of the more "established" old school marketing portals.

March 25, 2009 - 6:07pm

I have a nice offline example for that:


Until a few years ago or so I associated doctors with wanting to do nothing but help people and not doing wrong, I guess (subconsciously).

Once I was kept in a hospital for 1 whole week, after having undergone "surgery" (it wasnt really surgery, it was a joke) because of a toenail problem.

I kept on questioning why in the world I would have to stay there day and night for a whole week when we lived 15 minutes from there by car (I often drive past that hospital nowadays, and the drive has never been over 30 minutes even at rush hour).

I know other people who had it done on both toe-nails and were never asked to stay at any kind of hospital.

Or the doctor that told me we really needed another appointment. I came back a week later and he basically told me (what I had already been told by the nurse) within 30 seconds: everything was okay. that's it. See you again :-)

I guess doctors can get away with playing the friendly thief, and still have the trust thats associated with their profession ;-)

Chris M
March 25, 2009 - 8:25pm

If a blogger or editorial publisher likes everything they see, that shows me their lack of credibility--or integrity, or standards, take your pick.

Thus, as an SEO commentator, Aaron has a lot of credibility with me. :)

March 26, 2009 - 11:53pm


If you are not a large corporation or established "brand" how do you build brand awareness and credibility online? Are you saying that we all need to be using traditional marketing channels such as PR and offline advertising?

Google seems ignorant of brand awareness. For example if I own the registered trademark to a term, yet my site is relatively small or new, a much larger authority site will probably own the top search results for that term despite being the brand owner.

November 24, 2010 - 1:27am

It's always tough as a smaller business to go out there and make sure you get your site built and branded right the first time, so your question/comment here rings home with me.

Having a properly branded website will be the first impression of credibility any visitor has and it doesn't have to be overkill to get it done right. Do you have a logo yet? That's usually a good start and a well designed logo should be what informs your designer slash web developer to make branding decisions. Logo Works has good affordable logo packages and they offer fixed pricing which is awesome in my book.

Once you have that you could use a larger PR firm or you could hash it out with a local guy who may be a fraction of the cost (and a fraction of the quality) but would get you on the initial right path. There are also companies out there that target this gap that people like you feel of not being a large corporation and thus not having their budget, but still having a need and concern to "look credible". There aren't many of these companies out there though and even they will have a pretty wide price range.

If you hire someone who codes the site right and sets up the information architecture right then Google will at least start to pay attention and then when you're ready you can go out and hire a specialist to work on all that other SEO stuff.

I'm a consultant for a small company in New York that just does the development but with an advanced marketing twist. We work well with companies like Skyhook (whose blog you're on). In any case it's worth putting your feelers out.

March 27, 2009 - 4:45pm

"If a blogger or editorial publisher likes everything they see, that shows me their lack of credibility--or integrity, or standards, take your pick."

I've begun to emphasise the percentage of negative versus positive reviews I publish on some websites, just to distinguish my sites from the ones that praise everything they come across. I call it the "Harriet Klausner effect".

March 27, 2009 - 5:01pm

The problem is that the affiliate business model + the anonymity of the web promote selling and hyping everything even if it is junk.

But it will take a long time for consumers to change their behaviors. about 1/3 of credit card fees that the poor pay are bogus

We analyze a national sample of Americans with respect to their debt literacy, financial experiences, and their judgments about the extent of their indebtedness. Debt literacy is measured by questions testing knowledge of fundamental concepts related to debt and by self-assessed financial knowledge. Financial experiences are the participants’ reported experiences with traditional borrowing, alternative borrowing, and investing activities. Overindebtedness is a self-reported measure. Overall, we find that debt literacy is low: only about one-third of the population seems to comprehend interest compounding or the workings of credit cards. Even after controlling for demographics, we find a strong relationship between debt literacy and both financial experiences and debt loads. Specifically, individuals with lower levels of debt literacy tend to transact in high-cost manners, incurring higher fees and using high-cost borrowing. In applying our results to credit cards, we estimate that as much as one-third of the charges and fees paid by less knowledgeable individuals can be attributed to ignorance. The less knowledgeable also report that their debt loads are excessive or that they are unable to judge their debt position.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.