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The Web's Credibility Problem

  |  June 7, 2001   |  Comments

The Web's credibility problem is widespread and growing. At the heart of the problem is the myth that industry can police itself. But remember the buzz years? Many of us took turns inflating the Internet bubble...

The Web faces a growing credibility problem. It needs to be addressed urgently. Otherwise, consumer confidence will deteriorate.

At the heart of the problem is the myth that the industry can police itself. Most people correctly believe that government is more likely to protect a citizen's privacy than commercial organizations that will profit by the exploitation of that very privacy.

This is not a pro-government/anti-business rant. It is merely an expression of basic logic. It's the same as looking at a mountain and saying, "That's a mountain," and looking at a lake and saying, "That's a lake."

Pretending that the lake is the mountain -- that industry can do the job of government -- is, quite simply, illogical. The longer this illogical thinking is accepted as some new precept of the so-called new economy, the more damage it will do to consumers' confidence in the Web. That's not good for business.

Consider the following:

  • A 2000 Forrester Research study found that 75 percent of respondents believe that content on the Web is of "poor quality."

  • A recent study carried out for the California HealthCare Foundation found that on English-language Web sites, content is between 75 and 91 percent accurate, while on Spanish Web sites, it is between 53 and 96 percent accurate.

  • After a string of investigations in the United States, the FBI recently alleged that more than 90 companies and individuals had illegally taken almost $120 million from over 55,000 consumers on the Web.

  • The U.S. Federal Trade Commission receives more deceptive-advertising complaints for the technology industry than for any other industry.

  • The inspector general of the U.S. Social Security Administration has claimed that Social Security theft -- fueled by the Internet -- has developed into a "national crisis."
An entire range of issues is at play here. For one, there's a view that the technology industry plays fast and loose with the law, believing that because it is a "new economy," all the old rules can be torn up. During the buzz years, many of us took turns inflating the Internet bubble, with the "change is good" mantra ringing in our ears. Perhaps we had some excuse for chanting the "don't worry, be crappy" chorus by some Silicon Valley guru. But now, not just the stock market has changed.

The Internet and the technology industry have now entered the mass-consumer arena. Consumers expect that when it says "plug 'n' play," it means just that, not "plug 'n' pray." What was acceptable to a generation of technology buyers brought up to expect buggy technology is simply not acceptable to average consumers used to their ovens and TVs working every time they turn them on.

At a more micro level is an extraordinary lack of understanding -- by a great many organizations -- of the value of content. Organizations fail to realize that what they write on their Web sites is read. Real people come to these Web sites and believe or don't believe what they read. The health study mentioned earlier, for example, found that a particular Web site had two pieces of content that directly contradicted each other.

The problem with content credibility on the Web is widespread and growing. In March of this year, two full months after George W. Bush was sworn in as the president of the United States, the White House Web site was making this statement, "John Quincy Adams: the only son of a president to serve as president himself."

It's not funny anymore.

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Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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