Research Presentation: Kayla Vanderlyn

Reliability on the Web: What makes users trust a website?

Keywords: Trust, reliability, website, users

Trust is one of many aspects of humanity that routinely defies definition, yet without it, society begins to crumble. Defining the basis of all interpersonal relationships, it is integral to our world. On a day-to-day basis it can be gained from any number of sources, simple authority, a history of successful encounters or a shared understanding or worldview. Society exists because of mutual trust and understanding.

It has long been accepted that trust requires time to grow, but this is simply not possible on the Internet. Online interactions are fast, transactions practically instantaneous. Users are given very little time to decide on the veracity of the choices with which they are presented. All decisions are made in real time, with no ability to unmake them. My research suggests that as a web designer, there is a great deal you can do to make your website more relatable and trustworthy to the average user.

What is it about the Internet that makes trust difficult?

Computers do not have faces to tell users when they are lying. They do not have the capacity to care about what the user does or thinks. As soon as the user goes online, the user loses their ability to relate with others on a very basic, human level. There is no definitive way to differentiate truth from fabrication, and the user is forced to rely on whatever information he or she can find.

Within the virtual world there is nothing that cannot be replicated. The Internet is full of frauds and clever replicas. There are countless emails floating around of Nigerian Princes wishing to donate money and banks that need the users’ login information. With the abundance of false, though credible looking, information out there, it becomes difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. The comic on the right depicts two users talking about an urban legend, mentioning that it should be fact checked. The irony is that they then begin to doubt the veracity of the site they’d been using for verification.


The Internet strips away individual humanity. An online representation of any individual is a persona. It reflects only the aspects the creator wishes it to, while hiding the rest away behind a computer screen. Websites are even worse. While a user might choose to hide certain aspects of his personality or who he is, the user is still a human. They don’t provide human feedback and are incapable of relating to the user. The authors are often not as present or as real.

Online content is temporary. While a printed book can be harmed, what it says stays the same. After it has been printed, the contents can no longer be modified. Web pages do not suffer from this limitation. A page’s content can be altered between seconds of viewing. The price of a nice shirt could change between when the user decided to buy it and when the transaction took place. This transient nature of information makes it less concrete, and thus harder to trust.

There is also the added complexity of function. Websites that merely state information and require nothing of value from the user are far easier to trust. Users are far more forgiving of advertisements and misspelled words. Then there are websites that ask for more personal information, such as an email address or phone number. These are held to higher standards. The most difficult to trust though, are e-commerce sites. When a website asks for money, users are almost always more cautious. With many tales of con artists using the Internet to trick the unwary, most users are very cautious when determining whether or not to trust a new Internet based store. The user is forced to purchase items days before they can expect to receive it, if they ever do.

What do users look for when determining if a website is reliable?

A number of factors play into a user’s decision to trust a website or not. While varying in importance and scope, each one plays an important role in determining the likelihood of a given user trusting and using a website.

A group of 100 people between the ages of 18 and 25 were asked what factors they took into consideration when determining the credibility of noncommercial websites, that is, sites with not attempting to sell merchandise. A number of factors where found to be repeated among nearly every respondent. These included:

  1. The domain name of the website and whether the website was a “.com”, “.org”, “.gov” or “.edu” site
  2. The placement of advertisements
  3. Design of the page
  4. The quality of the copy
  5. Whether it was backed by a known entity
  6. Whether there was a clear author and record of when the site was last updated
  7. The presence of citations within the text.

When asked to rank these factors from most important to least important, the presence of citations was found to be the biggest factor in determining credibility followed by the copy of the text. One respondent stated, “If there are spelling errors or obvious bias in the text that’s it. I’ll go somewhere else for my research.” Many respondents also commented on the number of and placement of advertisements, believing that fewer advertisements indicated an external revenue stream, and thus a more reliable website.

Another factor many people found important, though didn’t rank, was outside information. Before trusting new sites, many of the respondents said they would compare the information on the site to that they already knew. In this manner they could ensure the validity of the information. They also mentioned the importance of doing background research on the author, if available, and the site in general. While there were a variety of methods respondents had for this, the most common was identifying how many, if any, already trusted sites linked to the new one. Several respondents noted that trustworthy websites often link between each other.

Users mentioned the importance of having a credible author, one respondent even stating that the lack of a credited author implied a corporation’s attempt to cover up an author’s lack of qualification. Several other respondents added that if a single person ran the page, unless that person was a subject area expert, everything on the page should be questioned to some extent. They believed credibility increased when more authors worked together, and pooled knowledge.

It is interesting to note that nearly all respondents believed the overall visual design to be one of the least important factors when determining the credibility of the page. This is in direct opposition to a study done by Chang Liu and Kirk Arnett, suggesting that users are unaware of the impact a strong design can have on how reliable they perceive any given website. Bellow you can see a lecture by Chris Heathcote on just how much design can impact authenticity on the web.

What can web designers do to enhance a website’s apparent reliability?

The companion website can be found here

Numerous studies have been done on the nature of trust as it pertains to the web. From analyzing the color schemes to graphical interfaces, researchers have tried to quantify what makes some websites succeed while others fail. Ultimately, everything is subjective, as trust is an emotion internally generated by the user. There are, however, a number of trends that seem to follow country and cultural divides. I have created this website for a fictional charity to help demonstrate the importance of design in the likelihood of users trusting a site. A screen capture of the website can be found to the left.


Information structure and architecture should be the very first part of the website to be developed. Users are far more likely to trust a website they can easily navigate and find the information they are looking for. Studies found that even a slight increase in the average amount of time it can take a user to find the content he or she is looking for can cause a decrease in the websites overall success. In the example page I created, the most important links, those for donation and encouraging volunteer activity, are present in several locations. This increases the chances of users finding the information they need. The most important aspects of the website are also emphasized, either by color, size, or location. Users are far more likely to believe a website is reliable when they understand what point it is trying to convey.

Users are more likely to trust websites laid out in familiar patterns. Within the United States this means utilizing horizontal and vertical navigation bars or drop-down menus, having home buttons on the upper left-hand side of the screen and having a search bar in the upper left. Since this example site is relatively small, I forewent the search bar, but did place the home button on the far right of the navigation bar. This familiar pattern aides users ability to navigate the website, while also making it appear more familiar.

More conservative websites with muted color schemes, large amounts of open space as well as sans-serif font faces are able to convey a more “corporate” look. This “professional” aesthetic often adds credibility to the website through association. Because the site appears similar to many sites the user has already seen and used, they are able to transfer some of that trust to the new site. In this example, I combined serf and sans-serif fonts in order to add visual variety. The rest of the website would have been done in a sans-serif font, such as Ariel, to increase readability and encourage user familiarity.


Designers should attempt to add personality into the pages as well, this can be achieved through a logo, color scheme or the actual text of the page. When webpages are able to convey the personality of the designer and the reinforce the humanity of the author, web pages come across as more sincere and relatable. Users are more likely to trust and return to websites that successfully employ emotional appeal. In my website, I used images to help convey the urgent need of these people. I specifically chose pictures with children and water to further emphasize the dire need they had of help, and included images above the text calling for action (depicted in the screen capture on the left) If a website succeeds in appealing on an emotional level, users are far more likely to trust it.

The final part of the webpage, and the one the web designer often has least control over, is the actual content. Since this is the area the users are most focused on, it needs to be well laid out. All copy should be free of spelling errors and great effort should be placed on removing personal bias. Consumers are far more likely to trust a source that tells the negative as well as the positive.

What does this mean?

While the web designer doesn’t have full control over how a user reacts to his or her page, there are a number of ways to improve chances of success. Understanding what causes users to hesitate and what they look for when deciding which sites to visit are invaluable tools in creating better, more trust worthier, sites.

Many designers may be tempted to create bright, innovative websites, but users are less likely to respond well and trust new sites that vary greatly from their expectations. This can alleviated by creating a well laid out site that meets or exceeds expectations in other ways, if the user remains on the site.

Since each website is different and every audience is different, there is no single answer for every site. The best strategy is to keep redesigning until something works.

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