Forest Software

Web, SEO and IT & Business Advice for the Smaller Business

How Visitors Rate Web Sites

Ask any average Internet user what makes a site seem credible and trustworthy and you'll get answers such as a good privacy policy, accurate information, awards, and business affiliations. That's what visitors say they want, but recently researchers have found otherwise. Actually, a site's design is more important than any other feature when initially looking at a site.

Visitor Preferences Studied

Studies have been published that showed a surprising gap between how people say they judge Web sites and the criteria they actually use. The studies asked Internet users to evaluate the credibility and quality of information they got from various Web sites.

Even though visitors told researchers they looked at many different aspects of a Web site when deciding whether to trust its information, researchers were surprised to discover that visitors were more swayed by a site's design than anything else. Visitors were asked what characteristics would make them trust the information on a Web site. Few people told researchers that they would trust a site more if it "looked good." However, that's exactly what researchers discovered after asking participants to evaluate a number of different Web sites!

What Visitors Really Look At

Visitors first evaluate a site's overall design, including its use of multimedia.
Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Web Watch (an organisation involved in both studies) is quoted as saying "While consumers say they judge on substance, these studies demonstrate that consumers judge on aesthetics, and get distracted by bells and whistles."

One study noted specifically that while a site's design is the first indicator of quality, it isn't the only one:

"… once a site is above a user's personal threshold to qualifying as having a "professional look", then other aspects of the Web site come into the credibility equation. In other words, the visual design may be the first test of a site's credibility. If it fails on this criterion, Web users are likely to abandon the site and seek other sources of information and services."

The second study focused on specific health and financial sites and compared the reactions of consumers and experts who looked at the sites. The experts behaved as researchers expected :

"The experts assigned more credibility to sites that provide unbiased information from reputable sources, disclose names and credentials of authors, and include citations for published articles."

Not so for consumers: nearly 42% of consumers mentioned design, compared to less than 8% of health experts.

Implications For Your Site

The similar results for both studies indicate that a site's design really matters! You certainly don't want your visitors to think "The design is sloppy and looks like some adolescent boys in a garage threw this together."
So take a close look at some of the particular design aspects that study participants noted:

  • Good colour choices. Coordinate your colours to draw attention to important elements. Wild, pulsating colours may attract youngsters but they annoy many older users. Choose a colour scheme that reflects your audience's preferences - not your own.
  • Typography. Use fonts that are easy to read and common enough that visitors will have them installed. Save the wild and crazy fonts for your personal correspondence.
  • Layout. Create a clear navigation structure and place page elements so they are easy to read. Use colour, bullet lists and section headers to highlight important points.

Remember that browser support for some HTML code and CSS design and layout techniques is inconsistent. Test your pages with different browsers (not only Internet Explorer) and different versions to make sure that your layout displays consistently!

Images and Multimedia. Images and multimedia files can contribute significantly to a page's download time. Optimize image files with your favourite graphics tool. Be careful with multimedia, if the animation does not add to the information why is it there?

Information Is Important Too!

However, even visitors who looked at the design first also had negative comments about sites that seemed to be "over designed" and geared towards sales. And this is the main point: a Web site should be designed to deliver information to visitors. The method used should include a pleasing, easy to use layout with colour and font choices geared towards online reading. Having a good design may convince visitors to take a closer look, but they won't look twice if the content isn't useful and well-organised.

Design is very, very important, but don't get so carried away that you forget that information is what visitors are really after!

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