Website Credibility Determined by the Search Route


4.27.10 | New research on how young adults evaluate web content concludes that how students get to a website is a key factor in determining how much credibility they assign to the site.

Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content” appears in the current issue of the International Journal of Communication. The paper’s lead author is Eszter Hargittai, associate professor in the communication studies department at Northwestern Unversity. Co-authors include graduate students Lindsay Fullerton, Ericka Menchen-Trevino and Kristin Yates Thomas.

The authors found that “the process by which users arrive at a site is an important component of how they judge the final destination. In particular, search context, branding and routines, and a reliance on those in one’s networks play important roles in online information-seeking and evaluation. We also discuss that users differ considerably in their skills when it comes to judging online content credibility.”

The research is based on a 2007 evaluation of 1,060 first-year students at University of Chicago. Instead of asking study participants to evaluate a hypothetical website in an experimental setting, the researchers looked at navigation. “This approach,” they write, “allows us to observe and analyze users’ actions from initial steps of the information-seeking process through the entire search process of obtaining a response to a question and evaluating the found content.”

Among the findings:

A clear theme that emerged from our observational and interview sessions is that the process of information-seeking is often as important as verifying the results when it comes to assessing the credibility of online content. Previous research has shown that users display considerable trust in certain search engines such as Google (Pan et al., 2007) although such work has largely been based on experimental methods and does not go so far as to consider users’ credibility assessment of results explicitly.

We find evidence of users’ trust in search engines with respect to the credibility of information they find when using these services. To complete many of the assigned tasks, students often turned to a particular search engine as their first step. When using a search engine, many students clicked on the first search result. Over a quarter of respondents mentioned that they chose a Web site because the search engine had returned that site as the first result suggesting considerable trust in these services. In some cases, the respondent regarded the search engine as the relevant entity for which to evaluate trustworthiness, rather than the Web site that contained the information. The following exchange between the researcher and a female social science major illustrates this point well:

Researcher: What is this Web site?
Respondent: Oh, I don’t know. The first thing that came up.

As for reliance on known brands, there was much love shown for Google, which was mentioned by 85 percent of the participants. Other search engines and websites mentioned include: Yahoo! (51 percent), SparkNotes (38 percent), MapQuest (36 percent), Microsoft (24 percent), Wikipedia (19 percent), AOL (11 percent) and Facebook (6 percent).

The study also looked at attitudes toward .com, .org and .edu sites, and at online skill differences:

As our findings show, students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content. Accordingly, initiatives that help educate people in this domain – whether in formal or informal settings – could play an important role in achieving an informed Internet citizenry.

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