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Credibility in the Age of Social Proof

March 2018

Do we still need the Better Business Bureau?

Back in the 1980s, if a company carried certain seals in their advertising, they were instantly perceived as credible. There were a few organizations that, by their very presence, brought instant credibility to a brand. Among them were:

  • An A rating from the Better Business Bureau
  • The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval
  • A JD Power Award

Better Business Bureau

Occasionally we get a client that requests their BBB seal appear on their website, usually at the bottom, in the area marketers call the footer. This is not simply a linked image file that is pasted down there. We are given a few lines of proprietary code from the BBB that takes the visitor directly to their rating page.

Does it help? For $450 a year, we certainly hope so. There have been complaints that the BBB is a racket; even that one of its branches extorted its members. At least one complainant compared it to paying protection money to the mob. Here’s an interesting tidbit we found in a post defending the BBB:
“ rate the BBB exceptionally low; seemingly a 0 out of 5; whilst is an A+ rated company with the BBB.”

Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval

While it’s rare to see the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval these days, their lab is still as busy as Consumer Reports is, debunking claims, and pointing out dangerous and fraudulent products. Several Millennials I asked had never heard of the Seal, but it’s still a thing as scammers are trying to fake the seal for their own purposes.

J.D. Power and Associates

This is an organization that I had many dealings with back when Chevrolet was my client. I never dealt with them regarding an automobile model. Rather, they got into the business of rating automotive websites. What made them experts in this, I’ll never know, but their methodology defied logic.

Here’s my J.D. Power story. One year, we were told by the J.D. Power rep, that the Chevy website was going to be very low in the rankings. Ford was to come in first. Why? We asked the rep, and told him all about how we were first to follow Web Standards and had even made the site accessible to those with disabilities.

He responded that our navigation was horizontal across the top and that the new best practice was to go vertically along the side. That alone was the reason. We objected, but the following year, showed him a redesigned with the navigation along the side. “No one does that! You need to have a top navigation! Look at Mini’s site. Top navigation. They are coming in first this year.” But you said…

We reminded Dennis (his real name) that it was his advice that we change the navigation. It gets worse.

The following year, GM had a mandate that all of their brand sites would follow a common template. This time, Dennis told us that GMC got first place (yay!) and Buick came in 19th (what the—?). Even weirder, Mini’s site hadn’t changed at all but dropped to 20th place. What.

How, we countered, would that be possible. GMC and Buick had identical layouts. He could not answer. He turned red-faced and stammered louder until the meeting ended.

Now, that is only one anecdote from several years ago, and we know the plural of anecdote is not data. Again, J.D. Power is a research firm that specializes in consumer complaints about vehicles—not website best practices.

Social Proof Through Reviews

So where should a consumer turn to find out if a website is credible? Raw traffic numbers show that Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Yelp are where we go. We prefer the reviews of peers to experts. Is that wise? Probably not, but “experts” appear somewhat suspect when they are accepting money for their accreditations.

The BBB and J.D. Power and Associates charge their members. Google and Facebook do not. While Amazon charges for Prime, that has nothing to do with reviews.

Yelp is another story. 

We all use Yelp for its reviews, but they too were the center of controversy around a similar situation to the BBB. Numerous class-action lawsuits continue to be brought against Yelp. Many claim Yelp demanded they purchase ads in order to keep their reviews favorable. One lawsuit was as recent as this year.

Who’s the real expert in web credibility?

One vote would be for Stanford University, whose Website Credibility Project was the gold standard in heuristics. But the work is from 2007, and only deals with how consumers view websites.

As stated earlier, social media has greatly affected reviews and expert opinions, and not always for the better. If social media is the preferred platform for credibility in 2018, who then, is the real expert? Why, you.

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