Consumers Union (http://www.consumersunion.org), the venerable defender of consumer interests and publisher of Consumer Reports, has launched Consumer WebWatch, a new service designed to rate Web sites. (Users can reach the service using http://www.consumerwebwatch.org or http://www.consumerwebwatch.com, though the site remains a not-for-profit effort.) The site has established a set of guidelines and a point system for rating compliance. In time, Consumer WebWatch plans to develop specific guidelines to suit the different online sectors that it will cover. It will also offer useful information to help consumers protect themselves and help Web site developers improve their consumer protections.
Beau Brendler is director of Consumer WebWatch. Formerly editorial director at ABCNews.com, Brendler came on board at Consumers Union in May 2001 to direct its Web Credibility Project. According to him, the Web Credibility Project sounded "too thinktank-y" and has "morphed" into Consumer WebWatch.
In February, Consumer WebWatch established a board of over 25 advisors who were selected as "experienced professionals in consumer advocacy, electronic commerce, academia, and journalism." Among the Consumer Issues advisors is Eugenie Prime, library director at Hewlett-Packard.
Supported by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Open Society Institute, the mission of the new service is "to investigate, inform, and improve the credibility of information published on the World Wide Web." A study commissioned by the site shows that less than one-third of consumers surveyed trust e-commerce Web sites—a rating well below the trust in TV news.
The planned rating system will use ConsumerReports.org's e-Ratings methodology but will, according to Brendler, "focus on credibility and disclosure" and offer more in-depth coverage of Web sites. The system will rate such qualities as disclosure of transaction fees and business partnerships (such as sponsorship links); publication of privacy policies and the use of any data collected from consumers; and clarity and consistency in labeling advertising (especially the separation of editorial content). New guidelines developed on the site will focus on specific sectors, including travel, health, financial, and children's sites; search engines; portals; etc. The first set of specific guidelines will appear in June and cover airline-ticket-booking services. "The research has already been completed and has some very interesting aspects," said Brendler. As with the e-Ratings, Consumer WebWatch plans to update guidelines and ratings every 6 months.
Consumer WebWatch is not the only rating system on the Web. Others include ePublicEye.com, the Better Business Bureau's BBB Online, and WebTrust. Commercial services such as BizRate also survey online consumers on behalf of Web site developers. I asked Brendler how Consumer WebWatch plans to differentiate itself. He said that its ratings would have "no influence from businesses, no commercial support" and that it would operate as a 100-percent not-for-profit organization acting entirely in the consumer's interest. Nor will it offer any "seals of approval" for two reasons: the Consumers Union has never used seals and its studies have shown that consumers don't think much of them.
Consumer WebWatch will also advocate procedures that Web developers can use to strengthen consumer trust. For example, an About Us page describes the site's mission, purpose, ownership, and funding; gives full location and contact information; and discusses ways to alert the sites to inaccurate information. Although disclaiming any endorsement, Consumer WebWatch did offer a list of some Web sites that exemplified some of the "Best Practices" that it recommended. Among the current winners were Medscape.com for its privacy and ethics disclosure, modernhumorist.com for a useful masthead, overture.com (formerly GoTo.com) for its clear disclosure of how much advertisers pay for placement, latimes.com for clear labeling of Advertisements, nytimes.com for a daily updated corrections page, and rhinos-irf.org for an effective mission statement.
Consumer WebWatch will update daily and offer consumer-oriented news from other publications as well as details on its own research, guidelines, and e-Ratings. All information is free. No sponsored links will appear, following the long-standing policy of the parent organization. However, it does plan on occasion to link to content on ConsumerReports.org, a paid subscription site with some free content. When such links occur, Consumer WebWatch promises to clearly indicate the need for subscription access. The e-Ratings, according to Brendler, are as free on ConsumerReports.org as they will always be on Consumer WebWatch. For important news, Consumer WebWatch will link to other Web sites using a Weblog approach and a second browser window.
The site also links to organizations that have worked or are working on consumer-protection issues on the Web. The list includes not-for-profit organizations, government agencies, academic programs, professional groups, etc. It covers such areas as Web credibility, consumer groups, e-commerce, financial, health, families and children, privacy, journalism, nonprofits, and advertising.
Founded in 1936, Consumers Union provides consumers with information and advice on goods, services, health, and personal finance. It has over 100 testing experts working in 50 labs. Consumer Reports has 4 million subscribers and an estimated readership of over 16 million. It boasts the largest paid magazine subscription site on the Web with over 560,000 subscribers.