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Source: Consumer WebWatch

Posted on April 18, 2002

Executive Summary - Full Report Available Here

      The Internet is now an integral part of the everyday lives of a majority of Americans, whether at home, at work or in both locales. In less than a decade, it has been transformed from a technological curiosity to the place millions of Americans shop every day, to a place they go for news, information and communication and to a place for both entertainment and serious business.

      With this transformation from marvel to mainstream, Internet users now have strong, strict expectations when they go online. They are demanding Web sites that offer credible information -- just as much as they want sites that are easy to navigate. And users want to be able to identify the sources of online information -- just as much as they want Web sites to be updated frequently.

      But the online reality today is that few Internet users say they can trust the Web sites that have products for sale or the sites that offer advice about which products and services to buy. Only 29 percent of users say they trust Web sites that sell products or services. And just 33 percent say they trust Web sites giving advice about such purchases. That compares to 58 percent who trust newspapers and television news and 47 percent who trust the federal government in Washington.

      This gap between consumers' expectations and their judgments of how Web sites are doing is one striking finding of a new survey of Internet users, conducted for Consumer WebWatch, a project of Consumers Union, by Princeton Survey Research Associates with 1,500 adult online users.

      Online users' low ratings of Web site credibility do not stand in the way of people going online and using the variety of sites that are the World Wide Web. But credibility stands tall among the nine key reasons that users go to one Web site and not to another.

      From the old hands to the newbies online, users want the Web sites they visit to provide clear information to allow them to judge the site's credibility. Users want to know who runs the site; how to reach those people; the site's privacy policy; and how the site deals with mistakes, whether editorial or transactional. For example, 80 percent say it is very important to be able to trust the information on a Web site -- the same percentage who say it is very important that a site be easy to navigate.

      In the eyes of consumers, all sites are not equal. Consumers have different credibility standards for different types of sites.

      For sites where consumers can spend money -- whether to buy something like a book or to make a travel reservation -- consumer expectations and demands are just about as high as they can be. Internet users were asked about six specific Web site policies and information for e-commerce sites. For each of the six policies examined, more than three-quarters of users say that it is very important that e-commerce sites provide specific, accurate information about the site's policies and practices. For example, a total of 95 percent of users say it is very important that sites disclose all fees, while 93 percent attach the same emphasis to statements of the site's policy on using personal information.

      For news and information sites, users are also demanding. They want sites to have and to display a privacy policy. Users want advertising clearly labeled as advertising. They want a prominent page where corrections of past mistakes are available. And users want the site to provide a list of the editors responsible for the site's content, including the editors' email addresses. For example, 65 percent say it is very important that a site display its privacy policy and 59 percent say that it is very important that advertising be clearly labeled and distinguished from news and information.

      Search engines provide a special case of Web sites, for they are often the switching stations that users take to move from one site to another. Potential danger lurks in these switching stations and the average user does not know of the problem. Users are largely unaware that search engines may not be neutral guides to the online world: Three in five users (60%) do not know that search engines are often paid to list some sites more prominently than others in their results. Users overwhelmingly (80%) want search engines to reveal these practices.

      Consumers have strong opinions about what information Web sites should provide on practices and policies, but that doesn't mean that users are always aggressive in seeking out this information. For example, about three in five (57%) have read at least most of the policies about credit card use on the sites they visit. Just 35 percent report reading the privacy policies on most sites and only 22 percent report reading the "About Us" pages that provide key information about the site, such as its personnel, goals and purpose. Although users may not always be diligent in reading this type of key information, they are consistent in their demands that the Web sites make the information easily available when they do want to read through the policies and practices.

      Despite concerns about the credibility of sites and an overall lack of trust, users continue to exercise their power of choice on the Internet to figure which sites to use and which to avoid. Three-quarters (75%) have gone to Web sites selling products in the past few months, while just about as many have gone to news sites (73%). When their concerns are satisfied, consumers are willing to extend trust to selected sites: nearly three out of four users (73%) have provided personal information such as their name or email address to at least one Web site. About two in three (65%) have used their credit cards online. Those who have been online more than three years are much more likely to have used their card online (79%), compared to those online six months or less (36%).

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