Heidi L. Everett
Purpose: Much has been written about the importance of Web site usability. However, a Web site that is usable in terms of navigation can still have credibility issues that reflect negatively on an organization. As a result, Website credibility assessments have gained popularity, but little research in that area has examined one of the most common forms of Web site communication—that is, small business Web sites that do not pose risk and do not offer e-commerce. This paper begins to address that gap by exploring the relationship between Web visitor expectations and their credibility judgments about a small business based on its Web site.
Method: I conducted research based on principles of Prominence Interpretation Theory of Web credibility. This research included focus groups of likely consumers to explore the relationship between Web visitor expectations and judgments about the small business Web site and credibility judgments about the small business. Data from the focus groups was used to: (1) determine the factors that women use when setting expectations and making credibility judgments about a small business based on their Web experiences, and (2) identify if those factors vary generationally.
Results: The results of the research revealed that likely consumers of the small business did not believe the Web experience projected a credible brand with which they would want to engage. In other words, a Web site that was intended to promote the products and the store was ironically hurting the business by turning away potential customers.
Conclusion: I show how a six-step credibility test (based on Prominence-Interpretation Theory principles) can be used by communications consultants, Web site developers, and small-business owners. Such a test is an effective yet simple approach to gauging Web credibility judgments and making sustainable Web site changes in organizations with limited resources. The ease of this test combined with the time- and cost-effectiveness make it especially useful for small business Web sites, where expertise and resources may be limited.
Keywords: Web site credibility, usability, Prominence-Interpretation Theory, WordPress, Drupal, Wix, open source Web content management systems
- A Web site that is usable in terms of navigation can still have credibility issues that reflect negatively on an organization.
- A six-step credibility test process (based on Prominence-Interpretation Theory principles) can help determine Web visitor credibility judgments because it doesn’t require sophisticated software, a tremendous investment of time, or expensive research methods.
- Small businesses with limited staffing and resources can use this tool in a cost-effective, efficient manner and successfully yield information for improving a Web site and Web visitor credibility judgments about a small business.
Cost-effective, efficient Web site management is essential to most organizations. Much has been written about the importance of Web site usability. However, a Web site that is usable in terms of navigation can still have credibility issues that reflect negatively on an organization.
As a result, Web site credibility has gained popularity over the last decade, but research in this area has been limited to identifying credible authorities of information and Web sites containing inherent risk. Web sites with inherent risk include those that provide medical, legal, or financial information; those that ask for personal information (like www.irs.gov); and those that allow financial transactions (e.g., banking, travel, and e-commerce sites). Little research has examined one of the most common forms of Web site communication—that is, small business Web sites that do not pose risk and do not offer e-commerce. After all, as of 2010, the United States was home to 27.9 million small businesses. A large number of those small businesses may not deal in sensitive data or risk-related subjects, but visitors to their Web sites will still make judgments about credibility when determining if they are willing to donate time or money to a nonprofit organization or to engage with a small business at its bricks and mortar location. The opposite can also be true. Much like poor usability, negative credibility judgments may negatively impact a customer’s engagement with a business—and ultimately the businesses’ bottom line—especially when you factor in the recent trends in the development of small business Web sites.
Trends Influencing Small Business Web Sites
The credibility of small business Web sites becomes even more of an issue when you consider two developing trends in Web communication. First, many small organizations—such as small businesses or nonprofits—do not have large staffs with dedicated Web site experts. For example, as of 2010, the United States was home to 27.9 million small businesses; of those, 78.5% did not have employees (Small Business Administration, 2012). As a result, small organizations often rely on volunteers or multi-tasking owners and their family members and friends to make up for not having an IT department or Web communications team. In those situations, the organization’s presence on the Web (and their overall credibility) can be stunted by the creation of patchwork systems built to fulfill one person’s perspective (rather than an organizational strategy), built on the expertise of one individual who is only with the organization for a limited time, or built by someone with initiative but little knowledge of effective web communications (Merkel, et. al., 2007; Turnbow, et. al., 2005).
The second trend is the availability of free or low-cost open access Web site programs. Resources such as Drupal, blu domain, Wix and WordPress are attractive to small businesses and non-profits because they provide software that’s easy to use for people inexperienced in html or coding, numerous template options with usable navigation and design, and the ability to go live with a Web site in a matter of hours if an organization chooses to do so. In fact, of the top 10,000 small business Web sites in 2012, 60% were created in WordPress, 20% in Drupal (Wanner, 2012). That means, approximately 8,000 small business Web sites were developed using either WordPress or Drupal. Despite their ease of use, such programs can have negative implications on an organization’s Web presence, since speed and ease of development can overshadow the importance of determining the effectiveness of the end product.
In this paper, I explore the relationship between Web visitor expectations and their credibility judgments about a small business based on the business’s Web site. Further, I show how a six-step credibility test (based on Prominence-Interpretation Theory principles) is a useful tool for gauging Web credibility with web visitors, particularly in small businesses that have limited staff and financial resources. I begin by describing how Web site credibility research is different than Web site usability, but just as important.
Usability Versus Credibility
Before discussing how to conduct Web site credibility research, it’s important to understand how it differs from usability research. According to The International Standards Organization (1998, 9241-11), usability is the “extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” A central tenet of usability testing, then, is having likely users complete task-based scenarios to gather data about effectiveness, efficiency, and user satisfaction (Barnum, 2011, p. 18). This perspective has made usability important and widely researched in the field of technical communication. In fact, a Google Scholar search of the phrase Web site usability yields more than 70,400 results alone.
Although usability research can lead to important discoveries, technical communication researchers and practitioners can benefit from understanding and employing additional methods of Web site evaluation. One area of research that can be beneficial is Web site credibility. As David Robins and Jason Holmes (2008) explained:
[F]irst impressions are crucial for web page content. Regardless of the quality or credibility of content, a poorly designed or aesthetically unappealing web page will likely produce a negative impression of credibility. In an environment such as the World Wide Web, where there are billions of documents and thousands of pages on a given topic, it is critical to present information in such a way that it does not produce a negative visceral judgment before the viewer even has a chance to engage the content at the cognitive level. People are quick to abandon a site and move on to one of any number of competing options. Lack of perceived credibility is surely one of the reasons for this behavior. (p. 398)
Web site credibility can be defined in a number of specific ways. For example, it can be viewed as: (1) the credibility of the information available on the web and (2) the credibility of an organization presenting the information. Credibility assessments may be impacted by factors such as design features of a Web site, certifications of the information presented, or certifications of the organization presenting the information (Fogg, Soohoo, et. al., 2003; Lazar, Meiselwitz & Feng, 2007). Search engine rankings may also impact credibility assessment (Kammerer & Gerjets, 2012). Moreover, factors like product information, the online shopping experience, and customer support may impact credibility (Fogg, Soohoo, et. al., 2003; Elliot & Surgi Speck, 2005). Perceived amateurism is another factor considered when making credibility judgments (Fogg, et. al., 2001, p. 63). Amateurism has been connected to the size of the Web site, the site domain name, typographical errors, whether the site was hosted by a third party and whether or not the site had been updated. Finally, Miriam Metzger (2008) synthesized an extensive list of factors from existing research that included such details as date stamping, presence of contact information and privacy and security policies, broken links, a user’s prior experience on the Web, and URL (p. 2082). Metzger’s own research notes that user credibility assessments also depend on the user’s motivation and ability to assess.
Although some of these many factors relate to design elements—and design is often the first element Web users interpret—it’s important to note that simply having a visually appealing Web site does not automatically equate to credibility. A Web site can be visually appealing; that is to say its aesthetics as they relate to color choice, font usage, harmony of design, and use of white space can be pleasing to Web site visitors. Visually appealing Web sites can still foster negative credibility judgments about a Web site.
The bottom line is that credibility differs from usability in that it moves beyond the efficiency and satisfaction of a Web site to explore perceptions of credibility by web visitors. In short, it shifts the question from “Is a Web site usable?” to “Is a Web site credible?” In addition, research on Web site credibility extends beyond the Web site to ask the question “Is the organization that is responsible for this Web site credible?” Usability testing alone only answers the first question, which may leave fatal flaws in the Web site execution.
One of the best ways to assess credibility is through Prominence-Interpretation Theory (Fogg, 2002). This theory considers two important factors: (1) a Web site element’s likelihood of being noticed—that is, its prominence—as well as (2) what value or meaning people assign to that element—that is, their interpretation of it. The prominence and interpretation of an element may be influenced by many factors, including a Web visitor’s motivation for visiting a Web site and the visitor’s prior experience with the Web (Fogg, 2002).
Both Fogg and Metzger have called for research to further understand how user motivation specifically impacts credibility judgments. For example, if a Web visitor is looking for answers to a medical question (for “a loved one who is in dire need”), the Web visitor will have a high level of motivation and spend a considerable more amount of time with a Web site before making a judgment that it is time to move on to another site (Fogg, p. 12, 2003). In contrast, a person searching for a local gift shop or for a local nonprofit organization to donate money to typically will not have a high level of motivation to engage with a Web site. In that sense, credibility may become increasingly important for small businesses if they do not require a high level of Web visitor motivation to visit their Web sites. The bottom line is that first impressions by Web visitors may be quick and detrimental to an organization if prominent elements do not yield an interpretation of credibility.
The good news is that credibility research can be conducted by organizations with little time or money. Prominence-Interpretation Theory is ideal for small businesses in particular because it doesn’t require sophisticated software, a tremendous investment of time, or expensive research methods. Small businesses with limited staffing and resources can implement this tool in a cost-effective, efficient manner and successfully yield useful information for improving a Web site and Web visitor credibility judgments. In fact, Fogg, Soohoo, Danielson, and colleagues (2003), acknowledged that although their sample size of 2,684 participants was quite large, their pilot study results (which consisted of 200 participants) yielded valuable insights into the credibility of Web sites (p. 14); the most valuable data from their research came from the qualitative comments that people made about the Web sites they evaluated as opposed to the quantitative rankings (p. 3).
Six Steps to Assessing Credibility
Store managers, business owners, volunteers or staff tasked with building and maintaining a Web site might have clear intentions for their selection of images and text; however, credibility testing can help identify if their Web sites yield a credible brand experience for consumers or a negative credibility judgment that harms the business.
To that end, I have developed a simple six-step process for conducting cost-effective credibility testing, which is guided by the principles of Prominence-Interpretation Theory:
Step 1. Identify and recruit focus group participants. Much like usability studies, it is important to recruit current or likely consumers of a business. Interviews may be used in place of focus groups; however, focus groups provide the opportunity to connect with many users in a timely manner (MacNealy, 1999; Morgan, 1988; Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990).
Step 2. Determine online experiences and expectations of participants, particularly as they might relate to a specific business or organization with questions like:
- What is your experience with the Web?
- What activities do you participate in on the Web and how often?
- What would motivate you to visit our Web site?
- What are your expectations when you visit our Web site or a Web site for a business similar to ours?
Step 3. Walk focus group participants through the Web site and note their responses to the following questions:
- When you view this page, which elements are prominent to you?
- What is your interpretation of this element and why?
- How important is this particular element to your Web site visit and why?
It is important to remember that this point of the research is not the same as usability testing. The goal is not to see whether the participants can successfully navigate, but to identify what they notice on the Web site and how they interpret the different elements.
Step 4. Document responses. Focus group responses can be documented with the assistance of note takers and can be audio or video recorded and fully transcribed. To help ensure the credibility of the findings, member checking (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, & Allen, 1993; Lincoln & Guba, 1985) can be employed to summarize, restate, and verify participant expectations, interpretations, credibility judgments, and experiences with the Web or organization.
Step 5. Analyze participant comments to identify elements of the Web site that both positively and negatively influence the credibility judgments that visitors make. Statements should be analyzed using open coding to form categories based on similarities of the language used. Statements can be compared, contrasted, and combined in main categories or subcategories and sometimes renamed until they are reduced to a point where further reduction of the list is no longer possible (Glaser & Horton, 2004).
Step 6. Determine key improvements that can be made to the Web site. The improvements must focus on the most troublesome areas, must address credibility concerns identified by visitors, and must factor in the time and resources of the organization that will need to implement the improvements.
The following case illustrates the simplicity, power, and effectiveness of this process.
Credibility Testing in Action
In the following paragraphs, I demonstrate how the six-step credibility testing process was put to use for small business Web sites and led to significant improvements. The small business Web site examined in this section was chosen because it shares commonalities with many small business Web sites—including the two influences described above: it was created with a low-cost open source program and is maintained by a few part-time employees with no prior experience in Web site maintenance or marketing.
Overview of Web Site
On A Lark (OAL) is a gift boutique that employs one full-time manager, two part-time sales associates, and student workers throughout the academic year who qualify for work-study awards. When the shop opened in fall 2009, the manager invested in a $50 open-access, flash-based Web site template from blu domain. The staff took pictures in the storage room with a personal camera and went live with a Web site in one day. The store’s Web site, www.giftsonalark.com, is not an e-commerce site for two reasons. First, as a boutique, the product line is ever changing and products are purchased in small quantity. Second, since OAL only has a small staff, the manager was concerned about the maintenance and sustainability of the site, in particular product availability and accuracy. Their intent was to have a Web presence that showcased the store’s ambiance, location, and unique gifts and that drove consumer traffic to the store and Facebook site.
Step 1: Identify and Recruit Participants
People who were considered likely consumers of OAL were recruited for four focus group sessions. Two focus groups consisted of 18- to 22-year-old female college students. The other two focus groups consisted of professional women ages 30 to 49. Of the four focus groups, the participants for three of the focus groups were recruited from the population of College of Saint Benedict, which is the college that owns and operates OAL and which is located across the street from the store. The fourth focus group included professional women recruited from within one hour of the store.
Of the 34 focus group participants, 17 had been to the retail site OAL; all 17 enjoyed the breadth and uniqueness of product as well as ambiance of the store —and 13 of those participants had made purchases from OAL in the past. The remaining 17 participants had not heard of OAL before the credibility test. None of the participants had visited the Web site www.giftsonalark.com.
Step 2: Determine Online Experiences and Expectations
Based on Fogg’s factors that influence Web credibility judgments, questions were asked to determine Web visitor intent, expectations, motivation, and prior experiences on the Web. The questions also addressed what Web visitors viewed as prominent elements of the Web site as well as their interpretation of these elements. Questions included:
- “Tell me what activities you do on the web and how often you do them?”
- “What might motivate you to visit the Web site www.giftsonalark.com?”
Data from this stage of the process was used to: (1) determine the factors that women use when setting expectations and making credibility judgments about a small business based on their Web experiences, and (2) identify if those factors vary generationally.
Step 3: Walk Participants through the Web Site
During the focus group, participants were asked to look at all Web pages of www.giftsonalark.com to provide initial reactions and respond to discussion questions. Questions included:
- “When you first look at this page of www.giftsonalark.com which elements grab your attention and why?”
- “How important is this particular element to your Web site visit and why?”
Step 4: Document Responses
Discussions were transcribed. I served as moderator and a note taker for all focus groups. The two focus groups of 18- to 22-year-olds included three additional note takers because these two groups had more than ten participants in each group. One focus group included one additional note taker besides me, and I served as the moderator and sole note taker for one focus group that had three participants.
Step 5: Analyze Comments
All statements for each focus group were organized into a unit for generational segmentation. Then, all statements were mixed with group identification removed. Statements were analyzed using open coding to form categories based on similarities of the language used. Statements were compared, contrasted, and combined in main categories or subcategories and sometimes renamed until they were reduced to a point where further reduction of the list was no longer possible. The resulting list highlighted factors that influence expectations and credibility judgments about Web experiences for visitors to www.giftsonalark.com. Final analysis revealed that focus group participants who were motivated to browse the OAL Web site expected the retail Web site to:
1) Clearly, quickly identify what the retail establishment offers
2) Make it easy to engage with the business
3) Be current, accurate, and purposeful
The credibility test revealed that those expectations were not met for likely consumers of OAL. Therefore, the participants did not believe the Web site projected the level of credibility that would inspire them to engage with the company by visiting OAL’s store in the future. Specifically, five key findings were identified. Those findings are described in detail below.
Finding 1. When the home page (Figure 1) was created, the intent was to raise awareness about various elements of the new brand, including the store name, logo, and tagline. Therefore, these were positioned as the most prominent elements on the OAL home page. Other elements included five navigational links and a note that said the product is ever changing, so consumer should stop by the store often.
Focus group participants did not interpret the home page favorably. The prominent elements of this page did not clarify the store’s product offering. Some focus group participants made credibility judgments about the store neglecting or ignoring its Web site. For example, two focus group participants who were not familiar with the store asked if it was a bookstore or a pet store after viewing the home page. Among the 18- to 22-year olds, nearly all said they would not be inclined to search deeper into the site based on this page. One woman noted, “Yeah. If you make me work for it, I’ll leave.” Participants in the 30- to 49-year old group said they might be willing to look at one additional page titled Extraordinary Things, which they assumed to be a product page.
Finding 2. While focus group participants were initially pleased to finally see prominently displayed products on the Extraordinary Things page (Figure 2), the absence of product descriptions, general product categories, and pricing limited the Web site visitors’ ability to grasp what OAL offers.
Moreover, the prominence of the white space—and limited product—was again interpreted as the site being neglected. Responses included: “Why does the Extraordinary Things page take me to another page called Extraordinary Things?” and “Are we waiting for more to load?”
Participants who had expressed a willingness to click on the Extraordinary Things page after being disappointed with the home page noted they would end their Web visit.
Finding 3. Across all focus groups, the About Lark page (Figure 3) caused an instant, audible, and positive reaction. Focus group participants who were familiar with OAL felt the prominent interior store photo on this page represented the experience of OAL.
Those not familiar with the store were immediately intrigued by it and made comments such as:
- “It looks cute.”
- “It looks fun.”
- “This picture makes me want to go there.”
- “It looks cool.”
- “Eclectic. I like it.”
- “Like searching for a good hotel, you want to see where you are going.”
- “I want to get to know the place.”
- “It’s cuter to see the store than the items.”
The About Lark page was also the first page that offered body copy instead of just headings and subheadings
A visit to On A Lark will engage all your senses whether you are a first time customer or loyal Lark fan. Our extraordinary things are ever changing, so stop in often. On A Lark is proudly owned and operated by College of Saint Benedict.
Most focus group members liked the first two lines of the body copy to set expectations about what OAL has to offer consumers, namely an ever-changing product line that one has to experience in store.
Overall, the prominent image and introduction of body copy yielded positive interpretations about the small business and its credibility as a retailer.
The third line, “owned and operated by College of Saint Benedict,” generated conversation about why College of Saint Benedict owns the store and how profits are used, namely to support student scholarships. Of the 34 focus group participants, all believed further explanation about the OAL and CSB relationship was essential. More importantly, they felt the relationship—as well as the financial support of student scholarships—should be celebrated; this, in turn, would lead to repeat business as well as positive feelings about purchases because the profit was put to good use. Participants offered the following comments:
- “Knowing that profits support student scholarships makes me feel better about my purchase. This aligns with my giving priorities.”
- “That makes me want to shop more. I’d bring my sisters.”
- “I’m so taking my mom there when she picks me up for break.”
All focus group participants recommended the prominent elements of this page be placed on the home page where they would be well received and would set expectations about the shopping experience in store and on the Web site.
Finding 4. Overall, focus group participants believed the Store page lent credibility to OAL by providing helpful information to the consumer (Figure 4).
First, the information on this page was useful and prominent, particularly for consumers who have to make OAL a destination site rather than an impulse shopping experience. Because the store is located in a small college town, consumers who do not live or work in St. Joseph, MN must make a conscious, intentional effort to go there. Knowing the days and hours that the store is in operation would allow consumers to plan their shopping trips to OAL, participants noted. Many participants commented that showing the exterior image of the storefront helped consumers not familiar with Saint Joseph, MN easily recognize and locate the store when visiting the town.
The one negative interpretation expressed by a few focus group members was the use of a seasonal exterior storefront that made the site appear dated and neglected. Focus groups took place in spring; however, the photo was believed to be from autumn, since it featured pumpkins.
Finding 5. More than half of all focus group participants commented negatively about the Contact Us page (Figure 5). They noted the store manager’s contact information was easily located on the pages About Lark and Store Hours/Location but incomplete and not at all prominent on the actual Contact Us page. Nearly all focus participants believe the contact information should only be on the Contact Us page.
Not one focus group participant liked the prominent photo on this page. In one woman’s words, “That does nothing.” All recommended another store interior shot that would showcase the ambiance of the store.
Focus group participants were asked to rate their interest in OAL based on their exposure to the OAL home page (Figure 6a). Their rating was based on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being “I have no interest in OAL” to 10 being “I must visit OAL.” They were also asked to rate their interest in OAL based on their exposure to the About Lark page (Figures 6a and 6b) using the same scale.
Of the 34 participants, 27 expressed little or no interest in the OAL retail site based on the home page (figure 6a). Their responses are reflected in the left-hand columns of the graph (figure 7). Nearly all of the 18- to 22-year-old participants said they would not click to another page to learn more, nor would they visit the store. Simply put, the home page (with its prominent graphic and white space) did not translate to a credible organization with which they would want to engage. A few of the older participants noted they’d be willing to look at one more page before abandoning the site and the organization. After viewing the About Lark page (Figure 6b), however, all 34 participants expressed more than moderate interest in OAL as indicated by the right-hand columns in the graph below (Figure 7).
The key difference that led to such opposing credibility judgments was the one prominent graphic. The single, prominent logo on the home page (which was used to establish the brand identity) was not interpreted favorably because it did not provide consumers clarity about OAL and what it offered. The single, prominent store interior shot, on the other hand, captured attention and inspired Web visitors to want to learn more.
Step 6: Determine Improvements
Based on results of the study, a number of improvements were identified that could be made to OAL’s Web site to improve the site’s prominent elements, yield positive interpretation of those elements, and, as a result, improve the organization’s overall credibility. In determining the improvements, the limited staff and resources of OAL were considered—since those factors would influence whether the organization could implement and sustain the improvements.
The screen captures that follow illustrate the improvements that were identified for (and subsequently made to) www.gifstonalark.com based on the credibility test.
Improvement 1. Set ambiance and expectations. The home page of the site was revised to showcase interior images of the store as well as a few products (Figure 8).
The revised home page was updated to make those elements more prominent. In doing so, the home page establishes the ambiance of the retail site, reinforces the ‘boutique’ brand experience, and suggests the product line is unique and fun. The addition of body copy makes it clear that the store is owned by the college and that profits are used for scholarships. In addition, the copy encourages visitors to visit the store frequently:
On A Lark is owned and operated by College of Saint Benedict. 100% of our profits support extraordinary Saint Ben’s women through scholarships. Our extraordinary items are ever-changing, so stop in often.
Improvement 2. Clearly identify product categories. The majority of focus group participants agreed that several clearly defined product categories—coupled with images of the store’s ambiance—would drive traffic to the store from the Extraordinary Things page (Figure 9). Comments explaining the expectations and interpretations surrounding this change include:
- “I need to know it’s worth my time to go there.”
- “I don’t expect small specialty stores to sell their product online. But, I like to check their Web site to make sure they are still around and get their hours.”
- “If I’m going on vacation, I search the web to see what kinds of boutiques and antique stores are in the town, so I can visit them. Based on their Web site, I decide if I’m going to go to the store.”
Nearly all focus group participants agreed that product categories should be clearly labeled rather than, in their words, clever or cutesy; clear labeling helps the consumer quickly identify types of products available.
Focus group participants, in general, believed it wasn’t necessary to include third-level pages for each product category since consumers couldn’t make purchases on the site and product was always changing.
Improvement 3. Help locate store. The primary change to the Store Hours and Location page (Figure 10) was adding a prominent non-seasonal photograph of the storefront taken from the main intersection in town to give visitors a visible reference for locating the store. The use of a non-seasonal photograph helps ensure the site doesn’t look dated and unkempt.
Improvement 4. Use Webpage real estate wisely. This improvement included replacing the image on the Contact Us page with an interior store shot that made the store’s ambiance more prominent (Figure 11); Using another interior store shot reinforces the ambiance of the in-store experience. The image also provides a visual overview of additional products in the store.
Overview of Improvements. The changes made to the prominent elements of OAL’s Web site elevate the brand experience for web visitors to align with the retail store experience. The limited body copy is prominent on every page and establishes clear expectations about the Web site’s purpose, and the addition of more interior photos and representative product photos add to consumer enjoyment and interest in the OAL experience, hopefully driving traffic to the store by making it easy to engage. In addition, the changes were intended to have a long shelf life, so the small staff at OAL only had to focus on updating store hours when they change.
Uses and Implications of Prominence-Interpretation Theory
When a Web visitor goes to a Web site, they notice Web site elements; that is to say that Web site elements will be prominent to them. Subsequently, they will make interpretations about these elements, leading to a credibility judgment about the Web site, the information presented, and the organization sponsoring the site. Much of the Web site credibility research conducted to date analyzes Web visitor feedback on Web sites that likely would be visited with a high level of motivation and some inherent risk, such as Web sites focusing on health information, requiring input of personal information, or offering financial transactions.
Credibility becomes increasingly important for small businesses if they do not require a high level of Web visitor motivation to visit or inherent risk to engage with their Web sites, After all, first impressions by Web visitors may be quick and detrimental to an organization if prominent elements do not yield an interpretation of credibility and subsequent engagement with the business or services. Conducting credibility testing (based on Prominence-Interpretation Theory principles) provides a simple, cost-effective process for identifying credibility issues and improving Web sites. Below, I suggest the implications and uses of this testing for a variety of technical communication scholars, consultants, and practitioners.
Usability testing is a valuable tool to ensure a Web site is functional in its ease of use. A Web site that is usable in terms of navigation can still have credibility issues that reflect negatively on an organization. In fact, free or low-cast Web site software that may be deployed by small businesses (like Drupal, blu domain or WordPress) often have tested, usable navigation as well as aesthetically pleasing design skin. As the case study above suggests, these positive attributes of On A Lark’s blu domain Web development software were not sufficient to yield positive credibility judgments about the organization On A Lark.
For Technical Communication Scholars
Similarly for technical communications scholars, we need additional research to branch out and broaden our understanding of Web visitor credibility judgments about organizations that do not have an inherent risk or high level of motivation essential to their Web visitor experience. Further research could explore if expectations and credibility judgments are more forgiving based on the size, location, or purpose of an organization; that is to say, do Web visitor expectations change based on the scope of the organization with which they are trying to engage? To put it another way, do Web visitor expectations differ when visiting a site for a bed and breakfast versus an international hotel chain? Do Web visitor expectations differ when visiting a site for a small boutique versus a regional or national retailer or big box store? Do Web visitor expectations differ when visiting a site for a local plumber versus a regional or national trade franchise?
Another area worthy of investigation is the concept of amateurism. In past Web credibility research, amateurism was one of the factors participants considered when making credibility judgments (Fogg, et. al., 2001, p. 63). Amateurism has been connected to the size of the Web site, the site domain name, typographical errors, whether the site was hosted by a third party (like WordPress or Drupal) and whether or not the site had been updated, among other things. In the case of On A Lark, the Web site offers only six pages and was designed to have a long shelf life with few updates due to resource constraints. In addition, the Web address includes the store name; however, the use of only the store name was not available because another store of the same name exists in another state. Based on these elements, credibility judgments would be expected to decrease based on past research. As scholars, we must further examine if negative Web visitor credibility judgments are mitigated by a sliding scale of expectations, particularly for small businesses.
As educators, we must help our students understand the importance of credibility judgments in conjunction with usability when analyzing effectiveness of Web sites. This teaching should provide a broader perspective of credibility beyond safety, security, data integrity, and aesthetics. Introducing Prominence-Interpretation Theory principles and credibility testing would serve as a valuable method for evaluating credibility judgments about an organization based on its Web site.
Technology has made it easier for organizations to develop a Web presence, even if they do not have full-time staff members who are trained in coding or Web communication strategies. The end result may be Web sites that are usable and credible in terms of design and navigation, but that lack credibility from a communication standpoint. Credibility research can be conducted by those organizations with little time or money using Prominence-Interpretation Theory principles. That research can uncover specific actionable lessons that dramatically increase the credibility of a Web site and the organization.
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About the Author
Heidi L. Everett is a doctoral student at Texas Tech University in Technical Communication and Rhetoric. She is studying visual rhetoric, new media, and user-centered design. Her work has been published in CUR Quarterly and Intercom. She has more than twenty years experience in marketing communications in business and higher education and currently serves as director of institutional advancement at St. Cloud Technical & Community College; her responsibilities include marketing, communications, fund raising, and community relations. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 22 May 2012; revised 2 March 2013; Accepted 9 April 2013.