About the Webreep Project
The Webreep project is an academic study being conducted by Dr Brent Coker at the University of Melbourne. The aim of the study is to map the quality of the internet using the Webreep model, and the Webreep algorithm. The Webreep algorithm (aka WIA) is a mathematical function programmed in C#. The algorithm evaluates a score on each dimension in the Webreep model, including the dependent variables satisfaction, loyalty, and likelihood of referral, across 16 industry categories, with 119 subcategories across the internet. Each score is calculated to between 0 and 5, rounded to one decimal place. The following analysis was performed on a subset of Webreep data to include 1100 websites across 119 industry categories. The data is dichotomous (2007 / 2011), not continuous in the analysis (t-tests). Only websites with data in both years were used.
Why we’re more trusting on the internet than five years ago
We recently analyzed 1100 websites from our WIA dataset, and uncovered some interesting trends in the five year period from May 2007 to May 2011. One of these trends is the significant (20%) rise in trustworthiness towards websites on the internet. In this article, I speculate on why this trend is occurring, drawing on evidence from other Webreep data, and mainstream social science theory.
The Webreep score is calculated to one decimal place, with 5.0 being a perfect score. Consumer feelings of trust towards websites in 2007 was 2.9. In 2001, this score rose to 3.7. This significant increase in trusting intentions towards websites is in contrast to recent reports showing dramatic increases in malicious websites (Websense, 2010 Threat Report). So why are we becoming more trusting towards websites, despite more danger? Have we simply let our guard down?
To understand why this trend occurred, we looked at trends in other website reactions during the same period for clues. Visual Appeal towards websites during the same showed a similar 20% increase from 2.9 to 3.7. It seems the two trends might be somehow related. To understand how, we referenced a mainstream sociology theory on attributions.
In social science, visual attractiveness and feelings of trust are related. Subconsciously, human beings may form trusting intentions towards others based on their looks. This is not the only factor, but with the absence of behavioral cues it is often the main factor. Our tendencies to form trusting tendencies towards others traces back to primeval survival instinct. Humans have developed rather sophisticated thought attribution mechanisms to guard against our fellow men stealing our food, and potentially putting our families at risk from starvation. To give a modern day example, if a salesman tells us he likes our shoes, before we have made a purchase, we automatically think the salesman is lying just to make the sale. Even if the comment is genuine! Our protection mechanisms kick in to protect our ‘food’ (money). However, the paradox is that humans need to lower their suspicion attributions in order to form a relationship close enough to lead to procreation. We need to trust others to form a relationship intimate enough to result in partnership, or in the case of families, childrearing. And this trusting intention needs to form on initial contact for a bond to develop. This is where attractiveness comes into it. Attractiveness towards others evokes attributions of procreation, because attractiveness is linked to healthiness – a good chance of producing strong healthy children who will survive and carry on our bloodlines. In short, we tend to trust those people who are attractive more quickly than those who are unattractive.
This relationship between attractiveness and trusting intentions towards others explains the relationship we see between attractive websites and trust. We tend to trust websites that are attractive because the same systems that regulate our trusting intentions towards people also affect our formations of trust towards objects, and even situations, if they have a human element. Websites are an extension of a person, organization, or brand. Some person or organization is signaling to the world an extension of their self – much like we signal attractiveness to others through our clothes, cosmetics, jewelry, and car. Because of this, websites have enough human element to lower trusting intentions when we believe the design is balanced and attractive.
This explanation from a social science perspective still does not fully explain the rise is trusting intentions towards websites over the past five years. There is one more piece of information missing –and that is the rise in the maturity of web design. A large part of ‘attractiveness’ has to do with symmetry, not being too different from what is expected, and tending towards flawlessness. Modern web design has evolved. As it has evolved websites have become more similar as conventions have taken root. It is now ‘normal’ to center the website on the page, use a horizontal main menu, locate the logo top left, search box top right, two-column design, etc. Websites are collectively following conventions, and even trends (it seems fashionable now for example to use matt flat and not gloss). Modern browsers and deeper screen resolutions have facilitated attractiveness through enhanced rendering. Templates for CMS systems are free or almost free, and feature fantastic designs that can be installed effortlessly. Gone are the days of quirky experimentational designs, and fast disappearing are websites that in the past may have been considered ugly.
Trusting intentions of website visitors has traditionally been the biggest barrier website owners have battled to overcome, especially where brand recognition and recall is weak. It seems a strong mitigator of this distrust is attractive design. My advice for web surfers is don’t let your guard down – website scams are on the rise – but we’re becoming more trusting. And for webmasters: don’t skimp on your design, and don’t try to do anything that could be considered quirky. Not many of us are attracted to quirkiness; it’s well balanced, nice taste, and flawlessness that turns us on and makes us think about forming a trusting relationship.
About the author
Dr Brent Coker is Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with a background and education in Information Systems. Dr Coker regularly presents his research at international marketing and information systems conferences, and is a member of the North American Association for Consumer Research, and American Marketing Association. Dr Coker’s current research is focused on psychometric measurements of mobile learning, the effects of Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) on worker performance, and predictive models of purchase behavior.