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Transcript of General Assembly and Welcome Session at “Building Trust on the Web” Consumer Reports WebWatch’s First National Summit on Web Credibility

Speaker: Jim Guest, President and CEO, Consumers Union


Good morning and thanks very much for joining us for Consumer Reports WebWatch’s first national summit on Web credibility, “Building Trust on the Web.”I’m Jim Guest, President and Chief Executive Officer of Consumers Union, publisher ofConsumer Reports andConsumerReports.org. As the head of this organization, I am very proud to have Consumer Reports WebWatch as a grant-funded project of Consumers Union. I’m pleased to see so many of you who’ve joined us today to learn about, and further the mission of, Consumer Reports WebWatch, which is to improve the quality and the credibility of information on the Internet and promote the adoption of best practices industry-wide. Consumer Reports WebWatch has developed guidelines for Web sitesto follow based on critical, consumer-driven criteria — to name a few: full disclosure, truth and transparency, accuracy, and privacy. The guidelines, by the way, are on the Consumer Reports WebWatch site,www.consumerwebwatch.org, and you have copies in your agenda packets. The work of Consumer Reports WebWatch is a natural extension of Consumers Union’s mission. For nearly seven decades, we’ve evaluated products and services through objective, expert, and unbiased testing and research; informed the public of our findings through our flagship publication Consumer Reports magazine, our Web site ConsumerReports.org, our special publications, and our TV and radio services. And we’ve protected consumers by championing their interests. Just like Consumer Reports and ConsumerReports.org, Consumer Reports WebWatch is independent and non-profit, accepts no advertising, and empowers consumers to make the most informed choices in the marketplace. And as you here today know better than anyone, one of the newest and most complicated marketplaces is the World Wide Web — or, as it’s sometimes called, “The Wild, Wild Web.” Now it’s easy for consumers to know and understand the difference between being in a library and being in a retail store. But it’s much more difficult to navigate the online marketplace, where the traditional rules do not always apply, and the distinction between news and advertising is not always clear. Launched almost exactly one year ago, Consumer Reports WebWatch was created to help consumers make their way through the maze of this complex, online world. The actual concept for starting a Web credibility project based at Consumers Union came about five years ago after the Project for Excellence in Journalism conference, sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts. At that time, print and new media journalists agreed there was a need to create effective standards to ensure appropriate separation of editorial content, advertising, and e-commerce on the Web. From there, Consumers Union secured grant funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Open Society Institute — and it’s their ongoing support that has made Consumer Reports WebWatch’s vital research and this conference possible. Since that time the Consumer Reports WebWatch team has done a lot of work towards developing standards that can help build trust on the Web. And today we’re looking to all of you — leading business executives, Web publishers and decision-makers — to make the goals of this important endeavor a reality, and establish greater confidence in consumers’ online experiences. The truth is, we still have a long way to go. Today Consumer Reports WebWatch is unveiling key findings from three new research reports in the areas of health, travel, and search engine use that all have significant implications for Web credibility. While you will hear about these reports in further detail later today, I wanted to highlight several of the key findings. Through an evaluation of dozens of health Web sites, the Health Improvement Institute, in conjunction with Consumer Reports WebWatch, found more than 20 different guidelines governing these sites and a lack of consistency among them. Even more troubling was that some sites that claimed to be following particular guidelines were not actually adhering to them. In fact, of the Web sites that displayed the logo of the Health on the Net code — signifying that they subscribed to that set of principles — only 38 percent actually complied. With so many consumers relying on the Web for critical health advice, this is highly disturbing. Last year, Consumer Reports WebWatch found in its first quantitative study of 1,500 Internet savvy Americans that 60 percent did not know that many of these search engines take fees to list some sites more prominently than others in their search results. Consumer Reports WebWatch’s new report studied the effect on consumers’ behavior after discovering that companies do in fact “pay for placement.” Not only were virtually all the respondents surprised to learn about “pay for placement” — and some actually became visibly upset — but once they were aware of it, they tended not to trust the first result or even the entire first page. Consumers ought to be able to have confidence in their search results, particularly as these engines are often a first stop for those seeking information online. Finally, a note on hotel reservation and booking sites. Travel continues to be among the fastest-growing sectors of e-commerce, and indeed travel-related Web sites are a subject that Consumer Reports WebWatch has explored in depth in the last year. The ultimate conclusion from a joint Consumer Reports WebWatch/Consumer Reports investigation of travel sites, released in June of last year, was that consumers had to shop around for the best deals since no one site proved able to do it all. The same overall conclusion can be drawn of the new report by Consumer Reports WebWatch on hotel reservation and booking sites. While the Web has revolutionized the hotel industry, offering travelers unprecedented convenience and options, there was no single site that consistently provided the least-expensive hotel information. Once again, the responsibility falls to consumers to be vigilant about doing their homework. These findings from all three reports — and other research Consumer Reports WebWatch has undertaken — reinforce for us the importance of this project’s mission to improve the quality of online content through uniform, meaningful, and consistent guidelines; guidelines that will truly enable consumers to believe in the information they read and the sites they visit. Companies’ commitment to establishing this type of credibility — and accountability — would go a long way in building consumer loyalty and trust on the Web. I hope we all leave here today closer to that commitment. I’d just like to take a moment to extend my great thanks to some of the key players who have helped make Consumer Reports WebWatch and today’s summit a reality. First, I’d like to thank all of you for having the interest and taking the time to join in this critical conference today. I’d like to thank our distinguished keynote speakers, Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, and Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a widely known and respected expert in the field of Web usability, as well as all the panelists that agreed to be here today. I’d like to thank the Online News Association for their great contributions to this conference, and I look forward to their two panels this afternoon. I would also like to thank Consumer Reports WebWatch’s director,Beau Brendler, and his entire staff for their incredible work this past year and for organizing this momentous occasion. Finally, I would like to give a very special thanks to our visionary funders — The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. Thank you very much.