Article - Credibility on the Web (December 2002)
- Research findings
- Recommendations for consumers
- Recommendations for business
- Recommendations for governments
Consumers International recently launched their new research paper - ‘Credibility on the Web: An international study of the credibility of consumer information on the Internet’. This article extracts the main findings and recommendations of this important research.
The study was completed in November 2002, and it concludes that consumers are at risk from misleading and inaccurate information when searching the web. The study involved researchers from 13 consumer organisations around the world, and concluded that it is difficult for consumers to evaluate the integrity, reliability and credibility of information sources on the web.
Consumers International were concerned that much of the information available on the Internet is not impartial. Some websites present only one view of an issue, or promote the products of certain companies. Consumers are more used to dealing with commercial influence elsewhere, and deciding how far they trust information and advice. These judgments are more difficult in the online world - there are few of the familiar cues and clues of the bricks-and-mortar world, the printed page or a face-to-face interaction to help judge the credibility of information.
Their research team assessed 460 websites, covering information on health conditions, financial products, and prices for travel and consumer goods.
This assessment revealed that consumers need to exercise caution when using the Internet as a source of information. To make informed judgments about the value of information, consumers need to know about:
- the ownership of a website, its identity, partners and sponsors;
- the quality of information they are given, such as how up to date and comprehensive it is, the identity of underlying sources, and the authority of people providing advice;
- whether site content is independent of any commercial interests, or if there is a link, what that relationship is; and
- whether they will be asked to give personal information, what the site will do with that information and what steps it will take to protect it.
This study showed that many sites are failing to provide adequate details in these areas, leaving consumers potentially at risk from inaccurate, incomplete or even deliberately misleading information. Exaggerated or vague claims by sites about their service add to the confusion. The result can be wasted time or money. With some types of information, such as health information, the consequences of following wrong or inappropriate advice could be much more serious.
Although many of the 460 websites assessed did an adequate job of disclosing key information, the study found a number of problems.
More than a quarter of sites provided no address, and a third did not provide a phone number. A quarter of the sites gave no clear information about who owned them.
In the majority of cases there was no information provided which would allow consumers to form a judgment about whether the site’s content is influenced by its commercial interests (for example, partners, sponsors or advertisers), or whether it is independent. Only 40% of the sites in the study made any statement about the relationship between their commercial interests and their content.
In 17.5% cases where sites search for and present price comparisons or best buys, the basis for the prioritisation of their listings of recommendations was unclear (that is, the products or retailers were not sorted by price or alphabetical order). This could indicate that there is a commercial bias in the listings. If commercial influence on the content is not transparent, consumers could be misled.
More than half the sites said nothing about how up to date their information was, and only about a quarter of sites gave specific information about how up to date their content was. In the case of sites giving advice on health matters, this means that users cannot judge whether the advice is based on the latest research; in the case of sites that find good deals, the prices might be out of date.
Many sites giving advice on health and financial matters failed to provide information about the authority and credentials of the people behind that advice. Two-thirds of health sites and a quarter of financial sites gave information about credentials some or all of the time. Even when this information was provided, it was not always thorough enough to help the consumer to make an informed decision. Of those sites that did provide information, this was only judged to be ‘full’ information (that is, both the identity and the credentials of the individual) with half of the health and finance sites. For the remainder of the sites, information was either partial (that is, the identity was given but not credentials), or it was vague and general.
Only a little over half of general advice sites gave sources for that advice, and 41% of sites that recommended products gave sources for their prices. Even when sites did provide source information, it was not always comprehensive or specific. In 17% of cases, sources were incomplete, not covering all relevant material on the site. In a further 17% of cases, the source material was vague, and not helpful to consumers wanting to know more.
Around half the sites which recommended products made a statement about their market coverage (that is, how much of the market or how many companies they search in their quest for good deals) but only a quarter made a specific statement. This means that in at least half of cases where researchers were using sites to find good prices it was not clear how extensive the search was.
Almost half the sites failed to give a warning about the appropriate use of their information. For example, they did not warn consumers searching for health or financial advice that they should consult a professional before taking a decision; or they did not warn that their advice was limited to one geographical area. The majority of sites (62%) contained claims, most of which were vague and non-specific.
Judging whether information is completely independent, unbiased or free of commercial influence can be difficult. The following examples were raised in the research project:
This site states: ‘our purpose is to help our customers live longer in good health. We do this by providing the most advanced and reliable information, products and therapies in the world.’ This site provided a lot of information about health and seemed to sell a wide range of products, yet on closer inspection, the research found that it was promoting and selling the products of just one company.
This site mixes news, advocacy, advertising and sales pitches freely, with no clear boundaries between editorial content and commercial interests. The research found that advertising was not clearly identified, and under a ‘News and features’ heading, staff discussed the merits of products as if it were impartial editorial content.
This site has a page for travel insurance. The research found that at the top of the list of policies was one of the site’s sponsors, and it appeared in the middle of the page, rather than being listed alphabetically along with the other companies mentioned.
This site is owned by a pharmaceutical laboratory, and the research found that much of their supposedly general advice and information was linked to their own tests.
This sight claims to be ‘an independent and consistent source of prices on virtually any product sold in the EU’, yet displayed a ‘Category Top Five’ listing for all types of product. The research found that the top five were almost always Sony products, and there was no explanation of the basis for this selection.
Nextag.com and Bizrate.com (USA)
Both these sites provide information on deals on computers. The research found that both stated (but only in a section aimed at merchants, not at consumers) that merchants pay to be placed higher up in their rankings of deals chosen for consumers. In the project’s searches, the cheapest computer for their researcher came some way down the listings.
This site has partners whose products appeared as ‘recommendations’ before a proper search was conducted. The research found that there was no clear statement about who the partners were or how they influenced content or product listings.
Insweb.com and Lowermybills.com (USA)
Both these sites provide life insurance quotes. The research found that their rankings were not listed according to price, and it was not made clear how their rankings worked. Insweb.com placed the most expensive quote second on its list, despite the fact that it was 150% more expensive than the cheapest quote.
This site provides information about flight deals. The research found that the site always placed KLM flights first in their listings, although KLM was not the cheapest.
Consumers International’s research reveals significant issues and problems in relation to the credibility of information and advice provided by websites. The project made a number of recommendations for consumers, business and Government.
Recommendations for consumers
Don’t believe everything you read
Many websites promise great savings in terms of time and money, and give the impression that they will do extensive research on your behalf. These promises may be exaggerated. There are some websites that are comprehensive and impartial in their coverage. These may well find you useful information or a good deal, and save you considerable time. With other sites, you may end up wasting time and get information that is incomplete, out of date or influenced by commercial interests. Consumers need to approach sites with caution, and check out how they operate before spending valuable time on the site, or making decisions based on the site’s information.
Don’t rely on just one site
If you are looking for information or a good deal, you should always use a number of sites and compare the results, rather than relying on one site. But beware of different shopping sites that use the same search engine to find their prices, and therefore end up with similar results. It’s always a good idea to compare the best price you can find online with offline prices as a double-check.
Check the site’s background
Make sure you have an idea of who you are dealing with by doing the following.
- Look for a business name, a geographical (‘real-world’) address, and other contact details for the business and for consumer contact.
- If it’s a site that appears to give general information and advice, find out who is behind it. Check who owns the site and whether there are any partners and sponsors who might have a vested interest in the information provided.
- If it’s a site that recommends products, see whether there are any claims about whether its recommendations are impartial, or whether it is clear about commercial influences on its recommendations. If it lists deals for you, look at how those deals are ordered - if they are not in price or alphabetical order, a retailer or manufacturer may have paid to have their product placed in a more prominent position.
On a good site, most of this information should be easy to get to from the home page, so it won’t take long to establish whether the site is likely to be worth using.
Check how reliable the information is
If the site gives advice, look for the authority and credentials of the people behind that advice. Look for sources for its advice, so that you can find out for yourself whether it is authoritative or something you would be prepared to rely on. Check whether you are told how up to date the information is. If the site recommends products and prices, check whether it explains how much of the market is covered in its searches, and how up to date its deals are.
Check what risks you might be taking by using the site
Recommendations for business
Providing clear information
In order to improve the credibility of the information provided on their websites, businesses must ensure they provide clear information that is easy for consumers to find (that is, clearly signposted from the home page). Businesses should do the following.
- Provide information about the identity of the site, who owns it, a geographical address, phone number and e-mail for the business and also for consumer contact.
- Provide information aimed at consumers about any relationship between the commercial interests of the site (such as partners or advertisers) and the content. If content is kept completely separate from commercial interests, make a clear statement about this. If there’s a link, explain what it is.
- Any sponsored material or advertisements on the site should be clearly identified as such, and differentiated from content.
- Sites that give information and advice should provide verifiable information about the authority and credentials of the people behind that information, and sources.
- Sites that find products and prices should give information about how extensive their searching of the market is and how they rank products in their listings.
- All sites should give specific information about how up to date their content (including price information) is.
Comply with consumer protection laws
The OECD has published guidelines on electronic commerce. These have been in the public arena for three years now, but the study indicates that the majority of businesses are still not meeting these standards.
Recommendations for governments
National governments should ensure that businesses operating in the online world comply with existing laws, for example, on data protection and fair advertising. Some form of surveillance is necessary to ensure that websites are operating within the law. Where appropriate, governments or their agencies should monitor practices online and take action, where necessary.
National governments should work with consumer organisations to encourage further research and to educate consumers about their rights and responsibilities.
The OECD Guidelines call for member governments to ‘work towards building consensus, both at national and international levels, on core consumer protections to further the goals of enhancing consumer confidence, ensuring predictability for businesses, and protecting consumers’. Our findings in this study clearly demonstrate that governments need to focus more attention on this area.
The research showed that the OECD Guidelines as they stand are narrow, and fail to address important credibility issues. Given how much the Internet is used by consumers as a source of information and advice (as well as for purchasing goods and services), it is vital that the Guidelines cover:
- the extent of the market coverage (how much of a market is surveyed by those sites that find or choose products and prices);
- how up to date the information and advice provided on a website is;
- the authority and credentials of people behind the advice;
- sources for advice; and
- the relationship (if any) between the commercial interests of the site and its content.
The full report is available at: http://www.consumersinternational.org/document_store/Doc509.pdf