Although the Stanford Web Credibility Guidelines are a few years old now, they are still a great starting point for anyone trying to boost their web results – ecommerce orders, business inquiries, and so on. While some of their ten guidelines seem obvious – “Make it easy to contact you,” “Highlight the expertise behind your organization,” “Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site,” to name a few – we have all seen many, many sites that fail to take these simple but important steps. I think there is another credibility indicator that the Stanford researchers overlooked: #11. Rank at the top of search results.
While I don’t have the same kind of formal research behind my proposed eleventh guideline, I base it on years of observing visitor behavior to communities and blogs. What’s special about community sites like these? Because it’s easy for visitors to interact, these sites offer a window into what the visitor is thinking when they arrive for the first time. (Static sites with obvious contact mechanisms also provide this kind of insight, though perhaps to a lesser degree.)
What I have observed, time after time, is that some people assign massive credibility to the first viable search result. If they search for a company, a product, or a brand, they BELIEVE that the first result is that company, even when web-savvy individuals would instantly identify the page as a forum thread or blog post about the company. On a wine blog I frequent, I’m constantly surprised by the number of comments in the form of, “I really liked your wine. Where can I buy it in South Dakota?” Those comments typically appear on a blog post offering the author’s tasting notes for the wine in question.
Forum threads produce similar results. A thread titled, “Are Acme Widgets any good?” will draw posts from new arrivals like, “Dear Acme, I tried to call you but couldn’t find the phone number. My widget broke and I need a replacement.” While this may lead to merriment among the community regulars, it’s clear that the visitor clicked on a top-ranked result for “Acme Widgets” and ignored all evidence that the page they reached was not the Acme corporate site.
Contact forms on all types of sites show how confused visitors can be about whose site they think they visited. When I’ve examined these cases of mistaken identity, it almost always traces back to a top search result for a term related to the visitor’s real target.
Before we dismiss such errors as purely the bumblings of hapless newbies, I think we should ask ourselves whether even more experienced users find a top result more credible than a lower-ranked one. While most users won’t mistake a blog post for the actual company, I DO think that a high ranking for a very relevant brand or product name is a credibility booster – perhaps as much as, say, Stanford’s #4 – showing the people behind your website. Unfortunately, my #11 guideline may require a lot more effort than adding a few bios to the “about us” page.