Credibility Cues on Skeptic Web Sites

Simon Singh at TAM London

Simon Singh lecturing at TAM London 2009, by Gaius Cornelius and courtesy Wikipedia.

One of the core topics of this blog is misinformation on the web. Bad science, false statements and other forms of misinformation is what unifies all the diverse topics that skeptics cover. How do you know whether to believe something you read online?

A consulting firm here in Atlanta recently surveyed several hundred people and found that 65% of Americans believe content they find on the web is “hit or miss” or unreliable. That doesn’t surprise me. It is certainly explains why so many anti-misinformation tools are being developed.

The flip side of this, of course, is why should anyone believe what skeptics are telling them about misinformation? If two sites tell you opposite things, how do you decide which one is correct?

Skeptics need to be aware of some subtle (and not so subtle) cues that readers use when judging the credibility of web content. Many of these have been identified in usability studies. By ensuring we get these things right on our sites, we improve the chances of getting our message across.

Stanford University published a set of guidelines for credibility based on these studies. The list is as follows:

  • Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site.
  • Show that there’s a real organization behind your site.
  • Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you provide.
  • Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site.
  • Make it easy to contact you.
  • Design your site so it looks professional (or is appropriate for your purpose).
  • Make your site easy to use — and useful.
  • Update your site’s content often (at least show it’s been reviewed recently).
  • Use restraint with any promotional content (e.g., ads, offers).
  • Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.

You can read more detail about these cues (and find the supporting studies) at the Stanford Web Credibility Research website. I recommend it, and explore around to find other resources on that site.

Does your website, blog or podcast include each of these cues?  Can you make adjustments to improve them? Any skeptic with a website or blog should take note.

Another way to approach this is to look at the guides used in critical thinking classes to help students evaluate web information, such as this one from George Mason University. How would your skeptic website fare when evaluated this way? What changes could you make to improve?

Another good resource is Jakob Neilsen’s website useit.com. Don’t let the super-spare look of the site fool you, he is a usability researcher who has also done studies addressing credibility.

For some reason many of the most-cited studies in this area are a decade or more old at this point. This means they all predate social media and many of the more recent changes on the web. That is unfortunate, but does not mean they are completely without value.

That firm I mentioned here in Atlanta is doing a new study on credibility, that may also be something to look for when it is finished.  Skeptics should watch out for those results and other results about how people feel about the credibility of web content. It is core to what we do.

5 thoughts on “Credibility Cues on Skeptic Web Sites

  1. Mick West

    typo there, “site” should be “cite” in “For some reason many of the most-sited studies”

    Great article. Unfortunately many people seem to think that the “real organization” behind my site is the CIA.

  2. Jason Brown (@drunkenmadman)

    Luckily, we’re often up against frootloops who think that blink tags make you more credible, but there are plenty of organisations in the irrational world that have large budgets and know the value of good design – so they can certainly look more “professional” in the eyes of credulous readers.

    There’s plenty that can be done, as always though there’s a cost/benefit equation that needs to be satisfied. With so much woo out there, are we better spending our limited resources on getting information out full-stop, or getting a smaller amount of information out in a higher-value, well presented, richly cited and authoritative manner? There’s definitely a balance to be struck. Great article Tim.

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